"I felt strange about sex. I thought it was a wrong. I had internalized this feeling so much that I could not get past it even after I married. I could not help thinking that if I had sex, I would be doing something bad."
Gular Hasanova (name changed) married a young man she was in love with when she was 22. The couple divorced two years later because they never had sex during their marriage. Gular was diagnosed with vaginismus – a reflex muscle spasm in the vagina during attempts at penetration. The woman was never able to overcome her shame and fear of sexual intercourse even when she was married to a man she loved.
Gular believes that the strict upbringing that she had received was the reason: "Don’t sit this way, don’t talk that way. Sexual relationships were never discussed in our house; the topic was banned in our family."
“A girl is not supposed to jump or run”
Many Azerbaijani families do not talk about sex at all, especially with their daughters. Girls’ key mission is keep their virginity until marriage. Girls should to hide their bodies from others’ eyes, cannot have sex under any circumstances and, overall, should exercise "decent" behavior. Even playing sports may be considered "indecent".
"Our father did not allow us to attend physical training classes. He said that a girl was not supposed to jump or run. During physical training classes, you have to run and wear a sports uniform. My father bribed a doctor into giving him a document that said that we had heart disease and that we could not run, and we were exempted from attending physical training classes," says activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva.
Girls should also learm at an early age how they should sit down and stand up to make sure that they do not inadvertently show any part of their body to people.
"Our father believed that we had to wear clothes two or three sizes large. He told us we had to wear baggy skirts, like our grandmothers had. Our dresses had to cover our knees," Mehdiyeva recalls.
In families that are particularly conservative, girls are banned from plucking their eyebrows and getting tattoos before marriage. In some provinces, they are also banned from removing unwanted hairs on their body, because those hairs have been regarded since ancient time as indicators of a woman's virginity and innocence. The elder generation in the family monitors all of this.
Patriarchy on TV
In Azerbaijan, not only families but also television glorifies the notion of "honor" and the strict upbringing of girls. Movie expert Aygun Aslanli says that there was a relapse after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Soviet years, a woman was multi-faceted and played leading roles in domestic movies, literature and arts. Nowadays, however, the emphasis is placed on traditional patriarchal values. "To attract as many viewers as possible, commercial television has started filming the life of average regular citizens and showing society as it is. And they have started promoting patriarchy in films even, perhaps, without realizing it."
“I did not want anything anymore”
When Gular told her family about the reason for her divorce, her parents could not understand why Gular had failed to "perform her marital duties" and "keep the family together".
"My parents accused me of failing to tell them about it in time. For some reason, they believed that they could have managed to resolve the situation and the marriage would not have broken up."
Gular and her husband had spent almost two years trying to fix their relationship. But when she turned to a doctor and was diagnosed with vaginismus, she no longer had the strength to keep on trying.
"I did not want anything anymore. I simply did not want to be touched, I did not want to tackle the problem," Gular explains.
After her divorce, Gular could not even think of sex, or any relationship with men, for a long time. Accepting her body and her sexuality was a difficult and long process.
After the divorce, when I travelled by bus, for example, I told myself that those people around me also had sex – the women sitting opposite me and that man, and everybody else Gular says.
Seven years later, Gular got married for a second time. She says that she is happily married.
Produced with the help of the Russian Language News Exchange.