Marriage By Necessity: How the wish to live together forces couples into marriage in Azerbajan
Why do young unmarried couples who want to live together risk becoming homeless in Azerbaijan?
Asli and Nurlan Gahramanli got married a year ago. They have a six-month-old son and a cat. The couple lives in a rented two-room apartment in Baku, and, like most young parents, they seem happy.
The couple admits, however, that they just wanted to live together at first without getting married, but in Azerbaijan that turned out to be not so simple.
“We really didn’t want to get married at first,” says Asli, “but in practice it turned out that without a marriage certificate no one would rent us an apartment.”
Nurlan says that they decided to live together partly to save money.
“Even before we got married, we already spent most of our time together. But we were spending more on rent since we lived separately. So, we decided to move in together. That’s when we encountered this problem,” he explained.
“Decent people don’t live that way”
Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable in Azerbaijani society for a young unmarried couple to live together. Now more and more such couples want to move in together, but they have trouble finding a place to rent. In Azerbaijan, it’s standard practice to require a marriage certificate when leasing an apartment, something that nearly every couple that wants to move in together has encountered.
“You’ve probably seen apartment rental ads that say they’ll only be leased to married couples,” says Mardan Tukanov, a real estate agent, adding that personally, he understands the landlords. “Not a single decent Azerbaijani family would allow their son or daughter — especially their daughter — to live with someone without a marriage certificate. And generally speaking, decent people wouldn’t live that way and rent an apartment for it. They’re usually from bad families.”
Nurlan considers official marriage an empty formality, but landlords think that by interfering in his private life, they’re defending public decency.
“The Azerbaijani mentality categorically prohibits pre-marital sexual relations. That’s why people don’t understand how an unmarried couple could live together. And real estate agents and landlords won’t rent apartments to such couples,” complains Nurlan. “And even if I rent an apartment in my name but the owner somehow finds a girl there, then there’s a scandal. That already happened to me once. Asli came over one afternoon. We were sitting, drinking tea. We weren’t doing anything like that, or even thinking about it (laughs). Suddenly the landlady showed up with her husband and they started causing a commotion. They said, ‘We’re a decent family and here you brought a girl home, what the hell is this?’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, what exactly is the matter?! We’re drinking tea, but even if we were doing something else, what business is it of yours? The apartment’s paid for.’ We had an argument and I moved out. I lost the deposit.”
“If you don’t have a certificate, show us wedding photos”
If young couples don’t have a civil marriage certificate, landlords might ask them to produce a certificate for a nikah — a traditional Muslim wedding ceremony. A nikah is performed by a mullah, but a nikah certificate has no legal force in Azerbaijan. To prevent polygamy, which is illegal in Azerbaijan, mullahs are advised to perform a nikah only if the couple can produce a civil marriage certificate. But since this is only a recommendation for which there is no punishment for ignoring, practically anyone who wants a nikah certificate can get one.
In addition, Mardan Tukanov told Meydan TV that, in the absence of civil marriage or nikah certificates, wedding photos can help. Landlords want to be sure that the public believes the couple to be married. The only way to do that is to have a wedding.
“A few times in my experience clients showed us photos from their wedding ceremony,” says Mardan Tukanov. “But we needed the parents of the bride or the groom to confirm the wedding for us, and only after that did we lease them the apartment. Sometimes they delayed getting a civil marriage certificate for some reason and they promised us that they would make their marriage official within a couple of months, but we still needed confirmation from the parents.”
“Forced into a paradigm”
“We thought, if there’s no other option, let’s get married. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll get a divorce,” says Asli, describing the story of her marriage. “But, as you know, marriages are registered a month after you apply. In that time, our parents managed to find out about our application and even threw a wedding for us, which we weren’t even contemplating. After that we showed the landlords our wedding photos and swore that we would have the marriage certificate within a month. Only then did they agree to rent us the apartment.”
In 2019, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Justice registered 62,484 marriages and 14,857 divorces. Of the 26,312 marriages registered in January–September 2020, more than 11,000 have ended. According to Asli, divorces usually happen because the couples didn’t have the opportunity to live together and get to know each other better before the wedding.
“Even if a couple has been dating or engaged for a long time, once they start to live under the same roof there might very well be some unpleasant surprises in store. For example, a person who is always very neat in public might turn out to be a slob at home. Or something else along those lines. But here — not just in provincial areas, but in big cities, too — young people very often marry people that their parents have chosen for them. They get married, and then they get divorced. And it’s all because the people didn’t know each other. It would be better if they lived together first, and then got married.”
Asli also believes that the requirement of a marriage certificate when leasing an apartment forces them into a paradigm that they don’t want to live in.
“We got married. We decided, it’s all right, we’ll get to know each other better, and we can always get a divorce. But it doesn’t work that way. This certificate is a strange thing. It’s as if it imposes certain responsibilities on you after marriage. You already feel responsible for your husband or wife. Now, after marriage, people start to interfere more in your relationship. They ask when you’re planning to have kids", she says.
No hotel either without a marriage certificate
Renting an apartment isn’t the only problem encountered by unmarried couples in Azerbaijan. They aren’t allowed to stay in hotels, either. Inara Jamal and her husband once found themselves in just such a situation:
“We were already married. Sure, we hadn’t had a wedding, but we’d already officially registered our marriage. And one time we wanted to spend the night in a hotel in Baku, but at the reception desk they demanded to see our marriage certificate. We were shocked — it’s not like an ID that you carry around all the time. The receptionist said that they’re required to demand a marriage certificate from couples who come to the hotel, especially if they’re young and they don’t have any children with them. Well, we had a photo of the certificate on our phones, so we ended up showing that.”
Inara Jamal is a lawyer who helps people resolve problems in the legislative arena. But she says that this problem which she encountered herself is one of social norms.
“I can’t find any other explanation. But I don’t think it’s right. In Europe and even in Turkey I never encountered this. I think it’s absurd, because there is no legislative basis for it. It’s just an order given to hotels by who knows who. But I don’t think that there’s any public disapproval. Moreover, a large part of the public approves of and supports it. An acquaintance of mine (he and his family are conservative) heard about it and was sincerely surprised that I disagreed. ‘What’s the matter? That’s how it should be', he said.
I asked why he thinks that, and he answered, ‘And why should people who aren’t officially married stay in a hotel together?!’ Let’s say they’re just on vacation. I don’t see any problem in that and I think it’s totally fine. But for some reason the public views it negatively, and until people change the way they feel about it, this ‘unwritten law’ won’t change, either.”
In August 2020, Laman Mammadova and Elchin Hamidli were planning a vacation in the village of Gunashli in the Lerik region, and they booked a place to stay online in advance. But their vacation was ruined because they didn’t have a marriage certificate.
“We wanted to take a vacation somewhere in the mountains but we knew that hotels won’t take unmarried couples,” says Laman. “So we decided to read reviews online and try to find out what private homes [foreign] tourists usually stayed in. In theory, the owners of those homes ought to be more modern and shouldn’t ask for a marriage certificate. We found a nice house and read all the information about it. There was nothing there about a marriage certificate, but when we arrived the owner wouldn’t take us because we weren’t married. He didn’t refund our money, either. He said that he didn’t want people in an illicit relationship staying in his home. He certainly wouldn’t have said anything like that to [foreign] tourists, but when it’s locals, Azerbaijanis immediately want to interfere.”
“A girl should think about her reputation”
Meydan TV contacted the owner of that house in the village of Gunashli, and he confirmed that he doesn’t demand a marriage certificate from foreign tourists, but he doesn’t want to rent out his home to unmarried couples from Baku. And the reason he gave was Azerbaijani traditions.
“Sometimes a couple comes and says that they’re engaged. I say if that’s the case, then wait for your wedding, and then no one will bother you. Everything in its own time. A girl should think about her reputation. And if she doesn’t care about it, then I have to. I can’t allow that kind of obscenity in my home. Let [foreign] tourists do what they want, but we Muslims must protect our honor", he explained.
Nurlan thinks that if two people love each other and are happy together, they shouldn’t have to inform the public or the state, or get some kind of document, saying, "When two people are in love – and not necessarily a guy and a girl, it could be an LGBT couple – if living together makes them happy, why should they feel required to get a piece of paper from the government? It’s absurd and illogical.”
Produced with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange.
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