Contemporary Southeastern Europe, 2020
Movies have an increasingly powerful effect on gender beliefs and attitude development in people of all ages because of the conspicuous high rates of its consumption. It is the message and the messenger. Stereotypical images in movies certainly impact our culture, economy, politics, and national discourse, but most of all they shape children’s brains, relationships, and emotions. Along with advertisements, television shows, video games, and social media, films affect people’s minds and behaviours 24/7.
Therefore, when it comes to representing gender on screen one should be aware of its damage, as it is a deceptive act that can ruin relationships and the emotional well-being of people. Telling stories that are similar to those that people experience in real life leads to taught behaviour, subconscious consumption, and memorization of information, attitudes, and reactions– sometimes without questioning them–and subsequently repeating them. In addition, there is more to be explored in the gender-specific content featured in popular culture like music videos, lyrics, and film soundtracks. Biased and sexist media images, videos, and lyrics: all of these together have a profound impact on gender relations, especially in conservative societies where it enables young women and men to act in gender specific roles and ways, which form certain prejudices during their childhood and consequently carry through to adulthood.
Azerbaijan as a patriarchal society
“You cannot be what you cannot see.” We rely on stories, examples, and leaders or, in the most basic form, images to inform us about who we are and what our potential is; without these we are left unaware and unable to be that which we cannot see. Ultimately, people tend to incorporate gender clichés presented in cinema into their own concepts of reality, forming perceptions of themselves and consistently behaving in a manner in that matches stereotyped images that are ubiquitous everywhere. Television remains the main source of information publicly available and accessible in Azerbaijan. People receive and reflect on the information heard and watched on TV. By briefly investigating the ways in which gender roles are enacted on-screen, I hope to dismantle alarming stereotypical imageries and values that continue to define societal gender beliefs, norms, responsibilities, behaviors, and attitudes. Azerbaijani society is defined by ideas of masculinized dignity and feminized sacrifice to sustain a sense of nationhood that upholds to a traditional and–in some of the more conservative parts of the country like the south of Azerbaijan–religious lifestyle. In those traditional families, men have more influence in all measured decision-making spheres, except in areas with greater female participation, such as taking care of children and the elderly. The society there is crafted with the presumption that mainly men should have the authority to make the decisions and be breadwinners, providing for their families and parents, and women are meant to be wives, mothers, and caretakers. These roles are very gender specific and any type of “misconduct” leads to condemning discussions and conflicts within families and society. News media, reports, and research conducted by international organizations like United Population Fund (UNFPA) frequently show the dire consequences of these gender stereotypes, mentality, and taught behaviors that develop into certain type of interactions and expectations in Azerbaijan, often leading to conflicts, anger issues, sex-selective abortions (son preference), early and child marriages (virginity cult), domestic violence, and honor killings. It is no surprise that Azerbaijan is a very patriarchal society loyal to its gender specific roles for men and women, considering that in the 120- year-old history of Azerbaijani cinema male and female characters have been presented to the public through men’s lenses and predominantly with their participation. This includes male characters mainly depicted as hyper-masculine individuals in the role of protector, provider and decision-maker, and females as secondary characters in the role of victim, mother, and wife. Men are often pictured as dominant, victorious, and in elevated positions, while women are pictured in more helpless, submissive positions. Messages about “feminine” and “masculine” behaviours are embedded in advertising, media, news, educational materials, and so forth.
Looking at a number of movies screened since the 19th century, only a limited number of movies feature female protagonists and demonstrate their individuality, nature, and concerns. For example, only four films–Gilanian Girl, Sevil, Ismat (İsmət is a female name),and Almaz (Almaz is a female name)— depicted the path of women’s spiritual and political development between 1923 and 1931. It is worth mentioning that films like Sevil and Ismat were vessels of Soviet propaganda that aimed to unveil and modernize Eastern women, thus spreading the USSR’s colonial power. Soon after becoming part of the Soviet Union, one of the main themes of Azerbaijani cinema was the emancipation of women and the promotion of their rights. However, soon after gaining its independence, the country became more conservative towards women. If women were previously portrayed as strong and independent individuals without being subjected to patriarchal norms and their particular honor code, later in history they were presented to the public as subordinate wives, daughters, and mothers. Although the male gaze has been dominant in art and subsequently film throughout its whole history, the situation has started changing in the last 30 years, albeit at a very slow pace. Nevertheless, women continue to embody one of these roles: mother/daughter, wife, innocent love interest, slut (a woman nearby that intentionally or due to certain circumstances has to sleep with other men; interestingly, she usually dies in the end), etc. With that said, I aim to bring to attention some of the roles enacted by men and women in media consumed by the Azerbaijani population that continue to shape and influence the relationship in families, as well as the mind-set and gender attitudes in society at large.
Purity of women and honor of men as vital values
One of the key aspects a girl should act to defend in Azerbaijan is her purity, which along with certain standards of behavior and appearance, also means her physical privacy. As you can see on Figure 1, early marriages and prioritization of protecting the reputation of girls continue to take place in Azerbaijan and damage the lives of young people. To highlight the peculiar and petrifying wedding culture based on the aforementioned values, it is worth mentioning a 14-year-old Lerik girl who was married in August 2018 to her rapist, reportedly to save her own honor and that of her family.In 2011, UNICEF estimated that about 11 percent of Azerbaijani girls marry before their 18th birthday.
Azerbaijani media continues to protect the mentality that a woman’s body and honor belong to a family (male members) and consequently to the man who will marry her regardless of her age (be it an 18-year-old girl or 40-year-old woman). If a woman leaves the house of her father (ata evi) and starts living in a romantic relationship, or if she is divorced, society would slander and stigmatize her, labelling her a slut (“fahişə” or “qəhbə”) and not accepting her as part of the family and treating her as a member. The word is widely used to describe any type of women who dates a man and dares to choose him as an intimate partner, especially after being divorced. Parents would oppose such an affair of a son or daughter in the described position, as it would be considered to be dishonoring a family and disrupting its reputation. Film writers and directors develop plots that consist of these life narratives devised and presented in the national film industry, where scripts often include different forms of violence either from the parents or from a man. As an example, one of the most famous movies in the country produced in the 1990’s, Tahmina directed by Rasim Ojagov, depicts the love affair between Zaur, a man from an affluent family, and Tahmina, a news presenter who is divorced and is doing her best to survive in a conservative society with that social stigma.
Zaur’s family condemns this romantic relationship and tries to divert him into an arranged marriage with a daughter of a family friend, who they know and approve. As a result of social pressure, slut-shaming and continuous phone calls from Zaur’s mother to Tahmina accusing her of seducing her son eventually form a crack in their relationship. Zaur marries Firangiz under the societal and family pressure, whereas Tahmina dies from heavy drinking. When the couple returns from the honeymoon, Zaur’s brother-in-law breaks the news to him. Albeit devastated by the news, the final scene of the movie shows him taking out his wife’s grocery list and driving to the market, implying that life goes on and that a woman’s life is not as valued if she does not comply with the societal criteria of “purity.” The “slut” always dies, even if she is as innocent as Tahmina. This is a classical film trope and one of the signifiers of the male gaze in Azerbaijani culture and film industry. Analyzing the plot of the above-described movie, one can highlight the role of the traditional mentality that prevails: one that values honor and women’s purity over everything, even at the cost of their children’s happiness or someone else’s life. Since the 1990’s, the idea of a traditional family model and “purity” of girls has not changed much; on the contrary, the number of suicides keeps growing for the same old reasons: arranged marriages, women’s chastity, and societal pressure. On the other hand, some young filmmakers make attempts and efforts to change the discourse by questioning this notion and revealing some of the multiple complex and contradictory ways in which gender roles and expectations are placed and perceived. This trend is also due to high rates of honor killings, divorces, and instances of domestic violence widespread in the country, which recently have been reported by the media and addressed by activists a lot more. More recent movies like The Curtain (Pərdə, 2016) directed by Emil Guliyev and Second Bullet (İkinci Güllə, 2017) address the problems of arranged marriages that girls are forced into against their will (often with violence), slut-shaming, and virginity, and are screened in national, local and international cinemas.
The very interesting plot of Second Bullet, directed by Natig Rasul, takes place in a remote village of Azerbaijan. Weddings in the village cause intrigue and excitement as the virginity of a bride and honor of the family are unveiled to the community. In this case, this is done in a very peculiar way. The long-lasting tradition of the village is arranged to inform everyone on the virginity of the bride by loading the gun with two bullets and shooting into the sky on the night of marriage: two shots in the air means she is a virgin, and one means she is not. The latter would cause trouble in a family, disrupting its reputation and respect. In this movie, the bride turns out to be a virgin, but the groom fails to shoot the second bullet because the gun malfunctions. Misinterpretation of this in the village rapidly leads to false allegations on bride’s honor. The bride’s father, hearing one shot, decides to kill his daughter with an axe from his garden. Meanwhile, another interesting scenario is shown in the movie when men condemn a prostitute in the village (who they all presumably see from time to time) but in the end seek help from her, despite belittling and disgracing her. She is the person who offers a solution to them: they get a bullet from her, and rush to load the gun that they left on the terrace. The movie finishes unexpectedly when the bride takes the gun and shoots herself with the same second bullet that they failed to fire in the air. Another interesting detail of the film is that we never see or hear the bride. We see her family, the groom, and the villagers, but not her. The only noise she makes is the sound of the bullet when she decides to commit suicide, serving as her voice and a metaphor for the value of young women in the community. She is heard only when she dies as a victim of violence. The director leaves the audience to think about the actions and reactions, false alerts, and gossip that people impose and spread while not knowing or caring about the different underlying reasons behind things, as well as they way it can influence one’s life in the most dreadful way. The movie raises the question of the virginity cult preserved and controlled by men in Azerbaijani society, which puts pressure on everyone but most importantly on women, who are trapped in the general presumptions and gender norms that limit their life choices and chances.
It is worth mentioning that the public in Azerbaijan actively discuss and gossip about the private lives of people and intervene in their relationships, but avoid speaking up or acting against domestic violence issues. Young feminists who arrange peaceful walkouts face brutality and violence from the police, whereas no measures are taken to stop extremely unethical and sexist talks in the media and on TV Programs that spread hatred and justify violence against women. Additionally, the public condemns and criticizes people who proactively protest, especially with the recent walkouts organized to address the issue of domestic violence.
In this contradictory context, there is a clear cultural message on gender inequality in Azerbaijan, which is “the personal is not political.” Another great example is the movie from 1981 called A Closed Door (Bağlı Qapı) also known as A Woman Behind the Green Door directed by Rustam Ojagov, which reflects the ignorance of society towards the violence against women. It involves a man who just returned home from a mistaken imprisonment and his neighbors. He witnesses violence happening behind the doors of his neighbor and chooses to act. Eventually he gets detained by police for intervening in the family and trying to protect the wife of the abuser. Unexpectedly, all the neighbors come to police station to defend him, as they all understand their mistakes and that he did the right thing to stop the continuous violence against this woman.
According to Sevda Sultanova’s research, In the Name of God (Bismillah) was the first movie that discussed the issue of women’s freedom in Azerbaijan back in 1925. Zeynab, one of the main characters, does not reveal the fact that she was raped by a mullah, and then her family forces her to marry another man. On the wedding night, when her husband learns that Zeynab is not a virgin, he expels her from his house. Zeynab, while rejected by everybody, is caught by Musavat (a political organization developed into party, currently an opposition party in Azerbaijan) soldiers and is forced into servitude on the plantations. Afterwards she joins her brother Jafar, who is a Bolshevik, in his struggle against the government. At the end of the movie, the sexual assault by the mullah is revealed and he is sentenced to imprisonment, leading to restoration of women’s rights in cases of rape after the establishment of the Soviet government.
These aggressive depictions of characters and their roles reflect the lifestyle and traditions blindly followed regardless of dire outcomes. Only few Azerbaijani movies address the issue of violence against women, arranged marriages, and virginity in a challenging manner, as it is still valid and highly controlled by the patriarchy. Virginal obsession and the myth of purity are nothing new, though. Virginity is historically rooted in establishing paternity and is entrenched in male ownership. Gendered portrayals of controlled sexuality, monogamy, and purity in Azerbaijani cinema continue to influence the interactions and behavior between men and women, and the way this narrative is articulated through popular culture has not made much progress.
The next part of the article will be published soon.
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.