Traditional Gender Roles Enacted by Men and Women in Azerbaijani Cinema
Contemporary Southeastern Europe, 2020
Women as Objects
Another traditional and linguistic legacy that Azerbaijan continues to sustain and value in the marriage context is the “price” paid for a bride. “Buying a wife” is the way to say a man marries a woman. The word “buy” – “arvad almaq” or “mən səni alıram” is widely used in the marriage context, which characterizes women as objects and attaches a price tag to them. Objectification is now a wellknown notion central to feminist theory. Ownership is the treatment of a person as something that is owned by another (can be bought or sold) and includes the idea of treating a person as an object, which can be seen in well-preserved Azerbaijani traditions. Moreover, if a woman is not “pure” (a virgin) she is considered a damaged good and her life and reputation in the society consequently do not cost much; there is a feeling of an unfair commercial transaction in the eyes of the “buying” family that is openly displayed and used to justify pressure against and opposition to man’s choice of a partner.
The situation described above is very problematic and becomes obvious when experiencing life in the social world. For example, aiming to quantify a woman’s nature following the above-mentioned mentality in patriarchal societies (like ours, according to Catharine MacKinnon) is highly ambiguous and precarious. MacKinnon believes that similar societies tend to believe that women are submissive and object-like (and men are those who objectify women). This means that one might be convinced that women are by their nature submissive and object-like. It should be noted here that following MacKinnon, “men” and “women” refer to gender categories, which are socially (not biologically) defined: one is a woman or a man by virtue of one’s social position. However, the belief that women are naturally submissive and object-like is false, since women have not been made to be like that but rather taught.
One of the most famous and most watched Azerbaijani movies, A Cloth Peddler (Arshin Mal Alan), is based on a comic, romantic operetta written by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov in 1913 that openly depicts the outdated traditions and restrictions set by the society and aims to ridicule them. The movie is about a young man, Asgar, who is a successful merchant that wishes to marry someone he loves—except tradition does not allow him to choose his own bride. Matchmakers customarily arrange marriages and it is impossible for young men and women to see or glance at each other as the latter are secluded in their homes and never come out unveiled or unaccompanied. Therefore, Asgar wanders from house to house pretending to be a poor peddler who sells fabric in order to meet someone he could fall for and marry. Peddlers were allowed to come in and see women unveiled while they view and choose their fabrics. Eventually, Asgar meets Gulchohre, the beautiful daughter of Sultan bey, who is an impoverished merchant now. Asgar falls in love with her and decides that she is the one he wants to marry. Asgar offers Sultan bey the chance to marry his aunt who is a widow, knowing that he favors her; in exchange, he asks for the father to approve his union with Gulchohre. Sultan bey, feeling disrespected, kicks him out and shouts outs behind them that he would never approve the union.
Gulchohre too falls in love with Asgar, but knows him as a peddler and not a merchant, and knows her father would not allow her to marry a cloth peddler. Gulchohre is upset when her father informs her about the upcoming wedding with another man offered by a matchmaker. She begs her father not to force her into this marriage but he continues to be rigid. Gulchohre decides to commit suicide to avoid this marriage, but Asgar comes in the last minute and reveals his plan of convincing her father to approve their union with the help of his friend who is the matchmaker. Finding out that he is indeed a wealthy man, and also convinced by the matchmaker whom he respects, the father agrees and the two eventually get married.
The operetta was ahead of its time. The author wanted to illustrate the family drama around marriage rules and expectations that are outdated and damaging. The movie includes dialogues and music that feature the importance of men’s money and occupation and scenarios showing the secondary role of women who cannot oppose or change anything decided by and between men. Gulchohra’s character is an example of thousands of young women, men, boys, and girls forced into arranged marriages across the country.
Another tragic destiny of a woman is depicted in The Pomegranate Orchard (Nar bağı), a drama directed by Ilgar Najaf in 2017. The Pomegranate Orchard features the story of an old man, who lives together with his grandson and daughter-in-law in a decrepit house amidst a huge pomegranate orchard. His son, who has left the family and gone to Russia, returns home again and reopens old wounds by bringing back forgotten bitter memories with his arrival. Despite that, his family accepts him and tries to build a relationship again. It ends with his son selling the house and leaving again, as he has another family in Russia, and kidnapping the daughter because of his debts. The movie reflects tragic stories and lives of women living in villages and rural areas whose husbands go to Russia to earn money, end up having another family, and sometimes never returning back. This means a woman is left with a child or children and elderly family members to look after. This burden on women also derives from the fact that they are forced to believe in a religious marriage ceremony that is not legally recognized. This is due to a local belief that religious ceremonies with the Quran hold a lot of significance, regardless if an imam (a worship leader of a mosque) is present or not. The use of the Quran in the ceremony appears to give a symbolic value to wedding and make it a legitimate transaction, even though it is not officially registered. As a consequence, this tradition leads to dire consequences for women with children and no source of income like in the case of Sara, the burdened character from The Pomegranate Orchard.
A different modern-day picture is the movie directed by Lala Aliyeva called They Whisper but Sometimes They Scream. The director elaborates on an idea based on mythology, where a lake is taken as a feminine symbol and a mirror for selfcontemplation as well as a chance for revelation. The lake is surrounded by three trees adorned with fabrics woven by women residing in the neighboring Urva village, who come to collect water from the lake and ward off their sorrows by making nature their ally. It shows the life of some women in the village who come to that lake to share their grief, say prayers, and whisper their fears in hope to recover and to find peace and spiritual relief for the troubles they experience. Those troubles are often violence or other abuse in a domestic setting that they would not share or report, but rather tell to the water to keep it safe and secret; hoping that one day, it will absorb their pain. At the conclusion, one can notice a shift in the storytelling approach: the women are not playing secondary or passive roles but rather let their voices and troubles to be heard. It is also crucial to highlight the visions and approaches of modern filmmakers who do not use satiric but rather tragic imageries and scenarios to reflect on the gender issues in Azerbaijan and to shake the foundations of these gender beliefs and norms.
Maternal and Paternal Images in the Cinema
One of the most powerful symbols that resonates across religious, nationalist, and popular discourses within the Azerbaijani context is that of motherhood. In addition to the ideology of purity, decorative roles, and compulsory heterosexuality, Azerbaijani cinema and television presents gender through images of sanctity symbolized by mother figures and the respected rigidity symbolized by father figures. The latter are presented in films as rational figures who are often grumpy, serious, and hard to please. A father has to act as a head of the family and provide for it. A mother on the other hand has to be sacrificing and emotional and make sure that everyone is fed. Analyzing parental gender division in Azerbaijani families, one can notice the model where women enact the role of homemaker and peacemaker, and men enact the role of provider and decision-maker.
In those traditional families, men have more influence in all measured decisionmaking spheres except in child rearing, because it is considered a mother’s job as she is naturally expected to be a caretaker. Motherhood is considered the ultimate sacred role of a woman and her predominant function in society, compared to fatherhood, which is not publicly assessed, measured, or valued as much. This presently results in many dire consequences for all members of society, only benefitting and feeding the ego of old-fashioned people who use the mentality as an excuse to demonstrate their power and control over people’s lives and freedoms. International Women’s Day is also another time to celebrate a “womanhood” in Azerbaijan, highlighting her reproductive function and duty in front of the public and government, harshly neglecting infertile women and men, people with health issues, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, and women past menopause.
A consequential policy of such division is the parental leave policy. Fathers in Azerbaijan can take only fourteen days of unpaid paternity leave, whereas mothers are privileged to take three years of maternity leave. Consequently, men are taught and expected to be only helpers when they choose to take care of their own child. Presenting it as a privilege and positive discrimination against men, the government sustains the harmful traditions and gender specific roles that hinder the country’s development and encroaches on freedom of choice. This gender blind policy leaves women and men in vulnerable positions, with women often being denied work opportunities and career growth as well as no maternity benefits, and men not experiencing early fatherhood and committing to it.
With both genders experiencing different types of pressure in patriarchal society, they also demonstrate a different type of power within the family. Within Azerbaijani patriarchal and familial context, women have varying degrees of power depending on the relationship role in which they are positioned and if they are a mother to a son or sons. Azerbaijani women are revered and are awarded much power as mothers, in contrast to being wives, where they are positioned as subordinate and subservient. A common phrase such as “I want seven sons and only one daughter, a bride” is an example of social norms related to higher male authority and female obedience that strongly correlate with multiple forms of gender-based violence, including sex-selective abortion. The most recent report on this, Gender Equality and Gender Relations in Azerbaijan: Current Trends and Opportunities by the UNFPA, show the results of a survey where male and female respondents were able to provide explanations for those who choose to have a sex-selective abortion. According to respondents, “the girl would be a heavy load to bear for the family” and “the girl cannot stand on her feet freely; she is not independent.” They also mentioned that “every man wants the firstborn to be a boy” and “in some cases daughters grow up to be promiscuous.” As a result, both the state and UNFPA reports show an alarming sex ratio of 116–114 boys to 100 girls in 2014–2017. The high ratio of male to female births is indicative of sex selection that is biased against female births. Another common phrase, “paradise is under mothers’ feet” (“Cənnət anaların ayaqları altındadır”) indicates the respect people pay to a mother’s role in one’s life, a sort of pressure put on women used to remind them that they can earn and deserve it only by becoming a mother. To better illustrate: women are portrayed as sacrificing and caring mothers. These interpretations confirm that although Azerbaijani cinema portrays women as self-sacrificing, they also figure as “indestructible when it comes to protecting” their children, particularly sons. A movie from 1963, Where is Ahmad? (“Əhməd haradadır?”), includes a scene where Ahmad’s (the son’s) mother stands up to her husband and shouts that “Ahmad’s mother is not dead so that you can hit him!” which means she is there to protect him as long as she is alive and would not let anyone hurt him. The movie has an interesting plot; it involves Ahmad and Leyla, a couple who attempt to oppose the old traditions and customs and run away from home to avoid the arranged marriages that their parents offer. Along the way, they meet each other and fall in love, and it turns out that their parents initially planned to arrange the marriage between these very two. The movie demonstrates the power division between husband and wife and illustrates the protest of young people against the pressure and control of the family and society.
In Azerbaijani media, women are portrayed as both supplicants in a maledominated world and as powerful and deified mother figures. Such paradoxical positioning of the feminine provides one source for the ambivalences and contradictions around Azerbaijani womanhood. Several prominent Azerbaijani films narrate this ambivalence.
Similar interpretations of gender in relation to images of nationhood resonate across other movies. For these narrators, gender becomes an important site for cultural difference. Shame, patience, sexual loyalty, and even deference are presented as signifying the “Azerbaijan-ness” of Azerbaijani women. This difference is marked primarily through the control of sexuality and the construction of the pure/chaste woman. Commercial Azerbaijani cinema has also been a masculine domain, which inevitably promoted the depiction of women as objects instead of subjects. In other words, women were primarily seen as “decorative characters” based on their ability to function as objects of male desire, fantasy, and business.
Azerbaijani media is a crucial site for exploring how gender division and roles are communicatively constituted. While doing my research I came across only two articles that describe women’s roles and issues in the national cinema: Alia Dadashova’s “From a Prostitute to a Stepmother” (Fahişədən ögey anaya qədər), and Sevda Suleymanova’s “Female Characters in Azerbaijani Cinema” (Azərbaycan kinosunda qadın obrazı). This also demonstrates a very low interest of the public in female characters, roles, and their concerns.
In this article, I examined famous movies that have echoed in modern society for years in which women are implicated in discourses of motherhood and virginity and men in discourses of guardianship and authority as head of the family. I attempted to unpack some of the contestations and contradictions inherent in the representations and portrayals of Azerbaijani womanhood and manhood in relation to the maternal-feminine, sexuality, and the ideal-masculine. My involvement with researching cinema, gender, and media in society emerges in relation to both my ambivalent consumption of Azerbaijani media and a conscious, reflective recognition of its centrality in constituting subjectivities in our community. As the title states, this paper explores how the feminine and masculine are construed as I outline their roles, and uses this framing to convey the multiple layers of rampant sexism and patronage as well as strictly defined hyper-masculinity.
Screening movies and organizing public events on social and political aspects of gender imbalance and issues should raise important questions. However, simply hoping that these movies and images will hold people back from treating girls and women in a barbarian way is not effective on its own without laws and implementation in place. The Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan (12 November 1995) prohibits discrimination based on sex and states that “the rights of husband and wife are equal,” and after signing the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Azerbaijan passed a Law on State Guarantees of Equal Rights for Women and Men in 2006. This action set the legal foundation for gender equality. In 2010, Azerbaijan passed a Law on Prevention of Domestic Violence. Despite some of the policy and efforts on the legal level, implementation of the laws has been poor, and mechanisms and services are not well developed and effective. Nevertheless, with the active participation and support from the international organizations among others such as the European Union, the United Nations, the German Corporation for International Cooperation, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Asian Development Bank, Azerbaijan is slowly taking steps towards positive changes.
Zumrud Jalilova received her B.A. in Political Science from the Academy of Public Administration under the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan and M.Sc. in Gender and International Relations from Bristol University. She then graduated from the Advanced Program in European Law and Economics at Riga Graduate School of Law and taught Gender Studies in three languages at Baku State University. She is an author of numerous gender related articles and continues to research about the broader insights of gender.