Dr Shafag Dadashova considers the restrictions placed on Azerbaijani women during Soviet times and pays homage to Azerbaijani poet and human rights activist Medina Gülgün: a woman who belonged to two different parts of one nation
Diverse cultures have different expectations of their representatives. The expectations about gender-based behaviour appear at individual, interactional and institutional levels. Depending on historical situations, these expectations go through changes, which can be slight or considerable. The image of an Azerbaijani woman presented during my childhood was a caring mother who was expected to accept her secondary position to men.
Meanwhile, an ‘independent Soviet Azerbaijani woman’ had equal rights with men to study, work and be a part of society. I was observing this around me and from TV programmes. The feeling that this ‘equal status’ framed women’s rights in a wider but still very limited structure accompanied me throughout my childhood. It seemed to me insulting that all the people around me were confidently repeating that the most important thing for a girl is to create a family and care for it. My young mind could not accept the idea that – just because you are born female – you should put aside all the personal deeds that form your identity in order to suit expected norms. However, the older women surrounding me appeared to feel comfortable about this and accept it.
When I able to read literary works, the picture became even more complicated. However, I felt happier to know that there were alternative discourses with different attitudes towards women. Nizami Ganjavi, a XII century Azerbaijani poet, became my favorite author. For example, Fitnah, a female servant in one of his works, who was ordered to be killed because she had not given tribute to her master’s skillfulness, managed to prove her point by carrying a calf up fifty stairs, growing in strength as it grew into a bull. My favourite place in this story was when Bahram Gur, her former master, asked for forgiveness. But, unconsciously, I felt that Fitnah trying to prove her strength to a man still placed her in a relatively inferior position.
Then I read Ganjavi’s Khosrow and Shirin and saw personal and spiritual transformation of the previously selfish hero-king (Khosrow) for union with Shirin.
İn his last poem Iskendername (The Book of Alexander), Nizami Ganjavi described another independent and self-confident woman: Queen Nushaba of Barda (an Azerbaijani town), who recognised Iskandar (Alexander the Great) when he visited her disguised as a messenger. She organised a symbolic party and ordered gold and gems to be served instead of food. She explained the meaninglessness of wars in order to conquer new places and become wealthier. Nizami Ganjavi wrote in that epic poem that, after this moral lesson, Iskandar decided to stop wars.
These works prompt other questions: if a poet of the XII century saw women of his nation as self-sufficient, self-confident people, why does modern society find it difficult to normalise gender equality? And how is gender equality understood?
The image of the ‘ideal’ Azerbaijani woman during Soviet times was hard-working, neglecting her personal life
The literary works of the XVIII and XIX centuries in Azerbaijan described women as valuable members of their families, who willingly accepted their status to hold a secondary role in life. The Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, which was established in 1918 having gained independence from Russia, gave women the right to vote. This was during a time when only a few European countries allowed women aged above 18 to do so.
The image of the ‘ideal’ Azerbaijani woman during Soviet times was hard-working, neglecting her personal life and devoting herself to work gathering cotton or operating machinery. The alternative was to devotedly serve the Soviet Party. The protagonists of Soviet epic poems and novels were women who, living for socialist ideals, sacrificed their personal lives, dissident family members and disloyal Party friends.
These women were introduced to the audience as independent members of society with their rights and privilege of ‘free choice’. However, there was little to choose: those ‘independent women’ did not have the opportunity to decide either to serve the Party or not, either be religious or not, or either be happy or not, because everybody had to ‘enjoy the imposed happiness’ of equality.
Without any chance to struggle against the Soviet regime, there were people who struggled for human rights outside the country. With this in mind, I would like to introduce Azerbaijani poet and human rights activist Medina Gülgün.
History sometimes separates a nation into two sections of people who live their lives under different circumstances. The Treaty of Turkmenchay was an agreement between Persia (Iran) and the Russian Empire is one such example. On the day it was signed in 1828, the territory of Azerbaijan was divided into two parts: Russia took power over Northern Azerbaijan, while Iran (Persia at that time) took over Southern Azerbaijan.
Medina Gülgün’s family was from Southern Azerbaijan, Iran. She was born in Baku in 1926 but, during the Stalin repression in 1938 when she was 12, her family had to move to Ardebil, Iran, as they were considered foreigners due to their Iranian citizenship. They later moved to the city of Tabriz and Medina continued her education there. Deportation made her grow up quickly and, at an early age, she was cognizant that education and knowledge are essential pieces of armour in the struggle for justice. She soon acquired Arabic and Persian and from a very young age was decisively taking part in political events. She worked as a correspondent and was an active member of the Azerbaijani Women’s Association and the National Independence Movement of Southern Azerbaijan in Tabriz. She was protesting against the tyranny of the Pahlavi dynasty against the Azerbaijani Turks, the policy of discrimination and the unbearable socio-economic and political situation in Azerbaijan. In the Azerbaijani Women’s Association, she with other members organised literacy courses for women.
Gülgün started her struggle against the oppressors and the position of enslaved women when it was least expected of her
Gülgün was a member of the Azerbaijani Democratic Party, with her activity resulting in the establishment of the short-lived Azerbaijan People’s Government. After the fall of the government, the Soviet agencies supporting her struggle helped her return to Baku, while her family was sent into exile to Central Iran.
Medina Gülgün wrote that she was influenced by the creativity of the 12th century Azerbaijani female poet Mahsati Ganjavi, whose poems reflected the people’s – especially the women’s – dreams of a free and happy life, and were distinguished by their humanism and optimism. Mahsati played an active part in society, organised literature circles and gathered young girls around her. Medina Gulgun’s work in literacy courses for women proves once again how insightful her ancestor’s social activity was for her.
Medina also mentioned Natavan, a XIX century Azerbaijani poet, who was also an embroider, and a painter combining two artistic conceptions, the ‘Oriental’ and the ‘Western’, in her creativity. Natavan made a great contribution to the enlightenment and cultural development of Azerbaijan. She established the first literary society in Shusha and went on to sponsor several more across Azerbaijan, the most popular of them being Majlis-I Uns (Society of Friends), where poets and artists gathered to share their ideas. The Alexandre Dumas Museum in Paris houses a hand-crafted pouch given by Natavan to the Dumas Museum, when she defeated him in a chess game upon his halt in Shusha during his trip through Caucasus, in 1858. Medina expressed her admiration and pride for Natavan, whom she considered her ancestor and inspirer as a social change-maker and a poet.
As writers and poets are very influential figures in society and can create an image of the community they represent, Medina Gülgün’s work, subsuming her life and struggle, introduces an identity of a woman who belongs to two different parts of one nation. In her book titled I have lived this life, we can trace her existence, her struggle and the dynamics of her identity. In one of her poems, Gülgün wrote that during the turbulent time when she was struggling, she did not feel tired and was never was short of breath; however, being in a cosy room, she felt breathless. As my childhood coincided with Soviet times, I would interpret this ‘cosy’ room as a metaphor for the restrictions placed on women in the Soviet Union. Here, gender equality was taken for granted and therefore not discussed or considered to be an issue but, in reality, men and women happily accepted women’s secondary position in society.
Gülgün started her struggle against the oppressors and the position of enslaved women when it was least expected of her. Her status of being a young girl in a Moslem country imposed silence and submission, not revolt against the ‘arbitrary conditions’. Her poetry today inspires young people to be courageous in the ways where changes are needed. With her struggle to make a difference and contribute to a better society, Gülgün felt happy, with this demonstrated in another poem, where she wrote: ‘My bed was a trench, my writing table was a stone.’
There is a deep nostalgia in Medina’s poems. She was longing for the days she spent in Tabriz, the time of her struggle. However, at a time when the cultural environment expected a young woman to be nothing other than an observer of historical events, Gülgün chose to struggle with the pressure put on the language, art and spiritual values of the people of Southern Azerbaijan. Her poems reflect the recurring themes of revival, separation and self-assertion.
In her poem titled ‘That Night’, Gülgün described the time when she left Tabriz. It was a turning point in her life; the time of struggle was over, but it did not end with success:
‘That night, the sky remained starless.
That night, snow fell steadily in Tabriz.
Truly, on that day I did not yet realize
how my life would be filled with sad days of longing.
Time passed on the four wheels of a car,
leaving behind those stony streets.
That night, it was as if the streets watched us
from behind, their green eyes filled with tears.’
The national movement she was actively involved in was reflection of people’s wishes and power. Medina was sure this would remain in people’s memories and inspire them for the struggle for justice and human rights:
‘We became a question in the eyes of little children,
a prayer said by the mothers and fathers,
and, probably, only a bitter dream for some,
just names on tongues, learned by rote.
We remained as the names carved on the trunk of a plane tree.
Our final place forever in the trenches.
It was as if both the horizon and the sky narrowed,
that night, when we left Tabriz.’
The impossibility of further struggle made Medina’s further poems elegic and nostalgic. In the poem ‘My eyes look at Araz’, she wrote:
‘My life is filled with grief.
I migrate with a caravan,
my flame carried within,
as if neither fire nor embers remain.
I reached the winter of my life.
I became a stone
catapulted by fate.
I had nothing more to say.’
Medina Gülgün inherited the best qualities from the people she considered to be her ancestors. With her social activism, creative activity and struggle for human rights, she created an insightful heritage for the generations of women who came after her.
Dr Shafag Dadashova is a Senior Lecturer at Baku University and holds a Ph.D in Philology. Her post-doctoral research includes issues such as self-identity, gender and culture in autobiographical writing. Within the frames of the Women’s Empowerment in Eurasian Contexts (WEF) Programme, Dr Dadashova investigates women’s autobiographies as a means to understand female self-identity, notions of personal power and their intersection with social factors. Using writings from Azerbaijani women’s autobiographies, she studies methodologies and strategies employed by the writers to explore sources of power in their lives.