Narmin Kamal: Boys Gathering Violets


My birthday was the day my father started to grow a beard. According to the rules of the village a man must let his beard grow for one week or 40 days when a close relative dies. This time nobody died but God granted my father a daughter, instead of a son… In every phase of my life I came up against constraints that prevented me from feeling like a human being. In third grade I realized that as a girl I must conceal myself. There was graffiti on the school walls: Rza + L = Love and Mammed + A = Love. In declarations of love boys wrote their names while keeping the names of the girls they admired a secret. This was done to protect the girl’s name and not to injure the boy’s pride. Our literature teacher, Nazim, used to say to us, “Do not irritate the eye like a nettle, Be a violet and let somebody find you.”

At university I studied philosophy but thought of becoming a reporter. In my first years as a student I dreamt of writing from hot spots around the world. This is when I began writing my first articles and submitting them to a newspaper. As soon as one story was published I would have another one ready. This brought me into the world of mass media. The majority of journalists working in our newspaper were men. At first I wrote on social issues but later switched to politics. My wild dream of becoming a war zone reporter was closer and clearer than before.

At 18-19 I was already used to participating in press conferences. Once, my colleague and I went to the Parliament building to gather information for an article. From far away, we saw a young girl who I knew fearlessly conducted economic and political investigations for a daily paper. I look at her and said, “She looks so small, fragile and shy but her articles are so good and daring. I think she is a nice person.” To which my colleague replied, “If a girl writes for a newspaper, how she can be ‘nice’?”

Men of all backgrounds and regardless of their level of education talked about women in a sexist way. In discussing world famous women authors they focused on their private lives and external beauty but not their work. It did not matter what I did, my gender was always a barrier. Despite this I continued to write short articles for my newspaper. They would get published with my photo at the top. From time to time I managed to contribute to other periodicals as well.

As my career began to progress I met my first love. This was an Azerbaijani man with whom we worked together at the paper. We felt a connection while reading the same book – The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Our topics of conversation ranged from European history to movies to philosophy. It seemed I found an island of Europe in Azerbaijan. And this is why I loved him.

This was a time when I was surrounded by intelligent people who worked in high places as editors-in-chief and politicians. According to many of them, the best woman was the one least talked about by the public. The social withdrawal of a woman was considered attractive. An active woman, who worked, wrote for newspapers, engaged in discussion with other men, was not marriageable. She was like a beautiful but oil-stained blouse. These people believed that women should think of marriage to a man as an award. A woman should be happy to be picked out like a Christmas tree from among other trees for her appearance. She should be happy because someone CHOSE her in marriage.

I remained indifferent to these comments because my beloved was not at all like them. I was supposed to live my life differently. And the one day, he said to me, “I don’t want you writing these short articles for the newspaper.” I asked him “Why?” and my open-minded man responded like this, “In Azerbaijan people use newspapers in the toilet. I don’t want someone to wipe his bottom with a photo of my lady from the paper. Moreover, I don’t want other men to talk about my woman. I also have pride and dignity, please understand this.”

I could not understand him and continued my work. Eventually we broke up and in a couple of years he married another girl, a school teacher. She lived her life without paying much attention to events taking place around her or the news in society. The children surrounding her at school did not threaten his dignity or manhood.

Dr. Narmin Kamal is a researcher, scholar, and writer from Azerbajan. You may reach her on Facebook or through commenting where this essay was originally posted, at this forum on women and society:

After graduating from university I started studying for my master’s degree. While working on my thesis I participated in a number of conferences on philosophy and travelled to Europe. Unfortunately, my trips were often only a few days long. My father used to say, “You lose one day to get there and one day to come back and waste hours waiting at airports. So you only spend about a day at your destination. Is it worth going through all the trouble with visas and other documents for only one day? I am not saying you can’t travel but you waste so much time and energy for only one day.”

I was happy to spend a month collecting all the required documents if only to be given an hour in Europe. My parents would sound concerned when I called them from abroad. They were worried that something bad might happen. But in Europe I felt more confident than in my homeland. If I decided to take a walk after midnight in Baku, there would always be someone to make comments and make you feel insecure. In other cities, like Munich and in Bologna, I felt comfortable by day and by night. I could lie down on the grass in the park and nobody would pay attention.

Back in Azerbaijan I would be shocked by the contrast. It was not the level of economic development or the cleanliness of the city. It was that in Baku I felt like a giant walking genital organ. If this organ happened to say something about education, banks, railways or hospitals, a deep aversion became palpable. In the taxi from the airport my father would talk to the driver. This was male conversation, in which I could not participate.

It may sound strange but Azerbaijani people equate Europe with immorality. There is so much sexual anxiety that it is like a ghost that follows them everywhere – from the bedroom to the street, to the market place, to work. A woman’s presence causes tension. Men talk about a woman interpreter, “With whom does she sleep?” Even men, who are aware of and acknowledge women’s rights, have to live under the psychological pressure of the ignorant mass.

Among my relatives there are many women who are treated like property by their husbands. They could easily lose their mobile phone privileges or be beaten. One man did not allow his wife to clean the windows in their apartment fearing that she might look at someone else. As Simone de Beauvoir said, “Man’s love for a woman, made her a slave.” Perhaps this is why Azerbaijani women, who call themselves ‘feminists’ wear provocative clothes while speaking in public.

After completing my postgraduate degree I got married to an Azerbaijani man. He had studied in Europe and we shared a lot in common. He wanted me to continue my education and would help me by ordering books over the internet. However, his relatives did not like the fact that I danced at our own wedding. They wanted the bride to sit meekly in her chair as they not only take away her moral but also her physical rights. I had to hide my past career as a journalist from them and again I did not feel like a human being. I was a bride and a wife and had to behave accordingly.

All of the above was written in the past tense. When women talk about their lives and current events why do they often sound as if everything took place in the past?! Is it possible that my father, who started to grow a beard after my birth knew how difficult it would be for an Azerbaijani woman?

I was standing on the balcony overlooking the city. The whole of Baku was clearly visible. Kids were rushing down the street on their way to school. I could almost hear their conversation, “What would one world with two suns look like? How would one class with two teachers exist?” A new thought crossed my mind, “Everything will be different for them. The new generation will not live their life as violets.”