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'The Power of We' in Azerbaijan: An impossible dream

Posted by Arzu Geybullayeva Prominent Azeri blogger; author of Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines

15th Oct 2012

In rural Azerbaijan, many women shoulder the burden of caring for their families and earning a living while their husbands migrate to Russia to find work. For 'Blog Action Day', Azeri blogger Arzu Geybullayeva travelled to Sheki in Northern Azerbaijan, to meet Arzu Cabbarova. Arzu defied stereotypes to set up several organisations which empower women to earn an income of their own.

"When I was 18 and about to graduate from music school in Sheki, my uncles decided it was time for me to get married. I wasn't ready for marriage at all. I saw my husband-to-be for the first time on the day of our engagement. He was 15 years older than me.

"As it is part of our custom, I moved in with my husband and his mother, who was very authoritarian. I was forbidden from attending the music conservatory in Baku, and instead took a job at a musical school nearby to earn an income. However, I was forced to give my earnings to my mother-in-law, and miss afternoon classes.  

"By the age of 25 and after giving birth to two girls, I realised that this wasn't the life I wanted. On my birthday, I told everyone that I was going to get divorced. No-one supported my decision, not even my family. It was only after I wrote a letter to my husband stating that I wouldn't be seeking any financial assistance that he agreed to a divorce. I even sold the earrings which my mother gave to me on my wedding day to pay for the court case.

"At first it seemed my husband was satisfied with the divorce agreement but then he abducted my six-year-old daughter. When I tried to get her back, he and my mother-in-law beat me up. After that, I had no choice but to go the police. The police were reluctant to intervene and it was only after I told them that I would commit suicide at the police station that they agreed to help, and got her back.

"Despite all that had happened, my mother refused to take me back into their home as they didn't approve of my decision to divorce. My daughters and I sought refuge at my grandmother's house.

"One day, I discovered a small handicraft school near my grandmother's house. They were looking for teachers, so I started giving sewing classes there in my free time. It was there that I found out about a training course on how to set up and run NGOs. At first my grandmother wouldn't let me attend but I disobeyed and joined the course. It was just the right thing for me - setting up projects that help other people.

"The training course encouraged me to help set up my own NGO. With approval from the Justice Ministry of Azerbaijan, I established my first NGO - Qaygi ('Care') to help empower women to learn new skills such as sewing, and also access their basic health rights. Most of the women I taught were uneducated and unemployed, and often the main carers for their large families because their husbands had migrated to Russia to find work.

"From then on, my life changed profoundly. I began meeting people from other international organisations and attending training courses in Azerbaijan and abroad. Meeting likeminded people gave me the strength and self-esteem to realise that I could do something to change my situation and help vulnerable women across my region.

"But I still faced challenges being a single mother and working with men in rural Azerbaijan. My family and neighbours began to question my motives, and rumours began to circulate that I was an immoral woman. I remember my neighbour's husband showing up at my door and wanting to have a relationship with me. It took a while to quell the rumours, but soon I became recognised for my work in the region. I began to work with international organisations such as the World Bank, the European Commission and Cooperative Housing Foundation (CHF, an international development and humanitarian aid organisation). As part of CHF, I worked together with local communities to help develop projects to improve their situation.

In Sheki, stereotypical attitudes towards women still exist. Both men and women believe that wives belong at home. I'm slowly trying to change things. Together with a few other active women, I co-founded the 'Regional Business Alliance of Women'. So far, we have 120 members, and plan to teach men and women to produce and sell handicrafts.

The reason I've achieved so much is because I took a risk. The cost for me was losing the support of my family. But if I'd known now what I was going to achieve, it would have seemed like an impossible dream.

Arzu Geybullayeva is a prominent Azeri blogger, and author of flying carpets and broken pipelines

Blog Action Day

Oxfam's work in Azerbaijan

Blog post written by Arzu Geybullayeva

Prominent Azeri blogger; author of Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines

More by Arzu Geybullayeva