Ed. Names have been changed for purposes of anonymity except for cases where noted.
36-year-old Gulnara lives in the provinces with her parents and is raising a five-year-old son.
Here, where trying customs remain intact and the neighbors know everything, Gulnara has managed to build her life on a lie in order to deceive those that might otherwise be critical of her: she tells them she was living with a man who had kidnapped her and later gave her up.
However, the reality is that Gulnara gave birth to the child from her boyfriend with whom she had no officially registered marriage.
“At the age of 25, I moved to live in the city, where I stayed with my relatives. After all, there is no work in the provinces, and no prospects for the future. I got a job at a store where I sold music CDs, made friends, joined a youth movement.
“When I was 30, I met a guy. We started to date, and although here in Azerbaijan couples tend not to be intimate until marriage, we felt ourselves ‘modern enough’ and ignored this tradition. When we met, my boyfriend demanded that I leave work. For some reason, he did not like me working. Well, for our men this is a normal phenomenon, and I was not surprised by his demand. And in order not to lose him, I left work. Nevertheless, after a while we parted ways…”
Gulnara took the first signs of pregnancy for illness. Pain in the stomach, nausea…she decided she had cancer. She could not even think that she could get pregnant. But her friend advised her to get a pregnancy test just in case.
And the results were positive.
“I was scared. After all, we had broken up already. Despite this, I felt some joy, some excitement. With such mixed feelings, I called my ex and told him I was pregnant. He made a doctor’s appointment and made us get tested. When the test came back positive, he said he didn’t want a child, and that I should get an abortion. I briefly agreed. After all, we had not been married. I’d become the laughingstock for my relatives, and my brother could literally kill me.
“And I had no work, no home, how could I raise one child? But in the doctor’s office, I cried. I refused the abortion. My boyfriend fled. He later called me and said that if I decide to give birth, then it’s my problem, and that he would wash his hands of the entire affair.”
Gulnara’s relatives began suspecting something was not quite right. Her nausea, fatigue, dizziness – everything betrayed her condition. When her aunt asked her if she was pregnant, Gulnara denied everything. But she had to move away because her stomach began to get bigger. However, she had nowhere to go.
“For several days I spent the night in an unfinished building. Then I had to tell all to one of the activists of our youth movement. Almost everyone found out. These people have quite modern views, and no one condemned me. I found an apartment, one of the activists asked my relatives to take me to work. I lied to him that I had divorced because my husband beat me. So, I already had an apartment and a salary. These guys supported me in every possible way, they said that my child would become the “son of the movement”.
Gulnara did not even think of telling her family about her pregnancy. After all, a daughter who gave birth to an illegitimate child is the most shameful thing that can happen in a patriarchal family in Azerbaijan. But her mother arrived unexpectedly, and her secret was unveiled: she was already in the beginning of her third and final term.
“She cried so much, as if she found out that I was mortally ill. She said, ‘Why did you not tell me in advance, I would have taken you to get an abortion, and no one would know about our disgrace!’ “I replied that it was for this reason that I did not tell them: so that they wouldn’t force me to get an abortion. She left me crying and begging that no one else find out about my pregnancy. She told my father and brother, but did not tell them where I live. My brother arrived in town looking for me, swearing to kill me. Fortunately, he didn’t find me.”
When the child was born, members of the youth organization stood by her in the hospital. Doctors and nurses wondered with surprise why there were so many young people here. Gulnara told them that she was an orphan, her husband had died, and these children are relatives of the deceased husband who support her. She had a son.
Money to take care of the child was gathered by members of the youth movement. When Gulnara’s son turned three, her mother’s heart began to fail, and she came in from the provinces.
“When my mother saw my son, the first thing she said was, ‘how small, like a little mouse he is!’ And she started taking care of him. She is a nurse, and she knows how to take care of a child properly. And she taught me. I promised to do everything so that my father and brother accepted me. When the child was a year old, he fell ill. I called my mom. She came and we took him to the hospital. The fever lasted ten days. The child was in a fainting state. Mom, ‘taking the opportunity’, called my father and brother, told them that the child was not guilty of anything, she asked them to take us in. Reluctantly, my father agreed. But on one condition: we all had to lie that I was kidnapped by a guy to get married, then we broke up, and the child was from him … “.
Her mother took her home to the village. When her brother saw her, he wanted to beat her, but her parents prevented him. After some time everything was settled. And although Gulnara lives under the strict supervision of her parents, the neighbors and relatives still do not know the truth, and the attitude of her family towards her is no longer so tough.
“The main thing is that the family ‘was not disgraced’. We concealed from everyone how I gave birth. I think if anyone had learned [the truth], I would have been much worse off, and the child, too, probably.. “, Gulnara says with a smile.
Her son is now 5 years old. A pretty, handsome boy. Gulnara is happy that she gave her son the opportunity to live. And without the help of friends, the youth movement, it would have been impossible.
“I was 31, already an adult, I knew what I wanted from life. I had good friends. If they did not support me both morally and materially, I could not have gone through all of this. They found me shelter, work, protected when my brother was looking for me and wanted to kill me. Had it been a younger girl in my place and a girl who did not have such friends as I did, she would have had to have an abortion. Or she would have faced an enormous amount of persecution, hatred…”
According to the State Statistics Committee, 15 percent of children are born from extramarital affairs every year since 2012. Each year their numbers vary between 20,000 and 27,000. In 2015, the number of children born out of wedlock reached 24,038.
It may sound rather strange for a country where 93 percent of the population is Muslim and society is rather conservative. The fact is that in Azerbaijani society there are several types of families and official relations. The first is when a man and a woman officially register their marriage, the second – when the couple have a wedding, but they do not rush to their registry office, and the third – when the groom kidnaps the girl and begins to live with her.
In all cases, informing the society about the establishment of a family is enough to consider the marriage official, and the child from these connections is “legitimate”. In such cases, there are no complaints from the society towards the mother or the couple. The law may consider their child to be extra-marital (as Goskomstat considered), but the public considers them to be legitimate children.
Single mothers are those women who have not passed any of the “ceremonies” – registry office, wedding, or abduction. A very low percentage of women in the country decide to do this, because in this case she can expect to be harassed by her relatives, whom she has “shamed”, ridiculed on the street, friends. Most likely, they will turn her away from her, and at work she will be fired at best, or at worst, men will try to abuse her. A single mother is considered a “disgraced”, “dissolute” woman, who has blackened her reputation forever and disgraced her family for hundreds of years.
If a single mother in Azerbaijan is lucky to escape the vengeance of her family or a forced abortion, the child she gives birth to is placed in a difficult position, often a sad one. Single-mother children face ridicule at school, insults from neighbors and relatives. And although children from formal and informal relationships are considered the same in the eyes of the law, the children of single mothers rarely receive alimony and are often excluded from their rightful inheritance.