Women in a man’s world
Pippa Ebel joined Luke Grenfell-Shaw for the Azerbaijan leg of his tandem ride from Bristol to Beijing, staying in various communities and visiting charities on the way, including 2017 and 2020 BEARR grantee, the Centre for Women in the Modern World. A full account of Pippa’s experiences can be found on Luke’s blog at “A country of men, for men — Bristol2Beijing“.
Pippa was very struck by the absence of women from public spaces in very traditional and Muslim Azerbaijan, in towns and even more in the countryside. As she recounts:
The question burned brighter in my mind: what was it to be a woman in Azerbaijan?
“I am the only one with a bike”, Nata said smiling proudly. “In my village few people own a bike, and I am definitely the only girl to ride one!” Nineteen-year-old Nata, living 50km out of Baku, was aware and proud of her role as an ‘unconventional woman’. The only teenage girl I had spoken to in Azerbaijan and one of a handful of female athletes in the city, she embodied the enormity of the divide existing between Baku and the regions lying beyond the capital. In Baku, I had met three female cyclists – all of whom had joined clubs in the past couple of years – and who were both conscious of, and excited by, their role as trailblazers.
Later, as I sat in a rooftop café in Baku, taking a break from the relentless consumption of shashlik, my eye caught sight of a very striking pair of ladies wearing crisp outfits with shiny, heeled boots, perching precariously against the railings for the benefit of their Instagram followers. As they greeted us in English, their faces breaking into generous smiles, I became conscious that this was a type of woman I had not yet seen in the country. “Of course we love this city! How can you not love your hometown!” they replied laughing, as I asked about their experience of the capital. “But of course we want to travel. I want to go to Asia, maybe China or Japan. My friend wants to go to India to practice Yoga.” Baku’s Millennial ladies were as cosmopolitan as any other girl their age walking into a bar on the Barceloneta, or trotting along the Champs-Elysees.
My arrival into Baku threw light on a new, emerging type of woman, with a very different past and an even more divergent future from the few women I had seen in the countryside, hovering in doorways or café kitchens. Those were the women whose stories I still had not heard.
I was delighted then, when I got the opportunity to visit Mrs Sudaba Shiraliyeva at her Day Care Centre for Street Children in Baku. The centre – one of two charitable operations she oversees – is on the ground floor of an apartment block and comprises three rooms: a kitchen, office, and a classroom. Daily, in pairs, or by the dozen, homeless children traipse in to get a bowl of pasta or rice, and to change their clothes. Sudaba, who opened the Centre back in 2012, said they never know how many children to expect, but they still stayed open throughout Covid. It was here, through her young volunteers – all bright, dynamic and English- speaking – that I gleaned a little more insight into the Azerbaijan’s rural communities. Although I was sitting in the Baku children’s centre I was keen to learn more about Mrs Subada’s Centre for Women in the Modern World, 120km west of Baku.
“Women get married too early, they don’t have time to make dreams”, Sudaba had answered when I asked what women in the countryside did for work. “They marry, and then they have enough children to keep them busy all day” and, by extension, the rest of their lives. She related how typically, women as young as fifteen were being married off to older men, signalling a sharp end to their education and the start of a whole host of unfamiliar responsibilities. Sudaba – formerly a Professor of Political Science at a local university – was keenly aware of the issues in her own country and felt compelled to act. For Sudaba, this meant establishing a Woman’s Centre in her hometown, Shamakhi. The centre has two primary focuses: offering women a vocation in the form of carpet making and supporting them psychologically and administratively.
Over the years, the BEARR Trust has funded two of the Centre for Women in the Modern World’s projects. First, in 2017, BEARR and the Union of Women’s Centres of Georgia, co-funded the project “Mental Health Among Refugee Women in Azerbaijan and Georgia: Awareness Raising Campaigns and Assistance”. This cross-border project involved eight training sessions in Azerbaijan and four in Georgia. Last year, BEARR funded another of the centre’s projects as part of BEARR’s Small Grants Scheme 2020 supporting projects to strengthen the position of women in rural communities in Central Asia and South Caucasus. This project involved training for doctors, police, youth activists and NGO leaders to promote awareness of domestic violence and the relevant laws in Shirvan rural districts.
I was disappointed not to have the chance to visit the women’s centre in person. However, Mrs Sudaba showed me photos of the centre and explained the women’s work. Hanging above cupboards full of wilting textbooks and basic medical supplies were photos of the women, holding their carpets up to their chins. The women are trained by local experts giving them a skill for life, and with the endorsement of the Ministry of Culture, Sudaba spoke of them bringing in some form of revenue. Shaking her head, she spoke of the impact the past year had had on her two centres. “Everything has got so much worse. Particularly for the women.” I wondered whether these were similar issues to those we had seen in the UK – increased domestic violence, and a sharp decline in opportunities for women- or whether Azerbaijan had its own, distinctive set of problems.
Covid, she says, has been particularly brutal for children on the street. “There are so many more children on the street now. When everything closed they had nothing and nowhere to go, so they begged. All of these children beg,” she said, pointing at the faces of smiling children, some as young as five, displayed across the walls. These pictures do not tell of the hardships they face. Small groups of boys and girls in brightly coloured T-Shirts huddle up into different groups: some eating, others running around playing football, much like any other children their age. Here in her centre she describes how they find a community. “They all tell each other, and bring their friends along”, Sudaba responded when I asked how the children find out about her. This was a little oasis of calm for the children.
Although there were no children there on the days I visited, I learnt about the benefits that the centre brings not just for the vulnerable children but the volunteers. Tommy – an excitable, bright-eyed thirteen-year-old – was so excited to have the chance to practice English with me that he’d stayed up all night practising the words he knew. “I volunteer here because it feels good to help. I help with anything I can, and they have whatever they need,” he said with a beaming smile, explaining that he comes here a few times a week to help out with whatever he can. “Sometimes I teach them reading and writing, sometimes I even teach them English!” Whatever the volunteers can bring to the table, they do, with huge levels of energy and enthusiasm. This keen willingness to help that I observed in all of Sudaba’s volunteers, from thirteen-year-old Tommy to third year computer scientist Esehver, was indicative of the powerful form of community spirit that Sudaba had managed to engender within her centre.
Waving us off with more dolma and carpets, Sudaba spoke of the difference that donations from individuals and funding bodies such as BEARR makes. “If we want to build a bigger centre next year and open up more projects for women in the south, we need to fundraise,” Sudaba said shrugging. “There is no other form of support here.”
Next year Sudaba hopes to open another centre for young orphans and Roma children in the capital, as well as focusing on the needs of marginalised communities in the new Karabakh region.
Clementine Pippa Ebel