When Shahnaz Ahmadova got married six years ago, the question of kids came up immediately.
Shahnaz, 29, and her husband Huseyn didn’t want to have children yet—they were young and they didn’t feel ready to bring a new life into the world. They were enjoying each other and being a family of two.
None of their relatives could understand that, Shahnaz recalls.
“In the first year, everyone was expecting a child. Even a month after the wedding, they started asking ‘Birşey-mirşey var?’ [is there anything?],” she said. “‘We are not ready yet’ was not an acceptable answer for them. And my husband is the only son in his family. For them he is the one to continue the family name.”
Shahnaz says they were both under tremendous pressure the first year to start a family. The newlyweds spent the 12 months fighting back.
Then parents and in-laws changed tack: they decided that the two were infertile, so year two of their marriage was spent fending off requests to see a doctor.
Mehriban Zeynalova, chair of the Clean World Aid to Women Public Union, says the wall of disbelief and judgement that Shahnaz encountered is common in Azerbaijan. The accepted reality is that women were created to have children. But Mehriban notes that no one asks women if they want to become mothers.
“There are people who aren’t ready to have children. There are also women who simply do not want to reproduce. Society is very cruel to these people,” she says.
Mehriban recalls a woman she knew who regretted becoming a mother. “After giving birth, she saw that being a mother did not match her lifestyle and mindset. She gave birth to a child, but struggled to raise it. When she says that out loud, she is attacked.”
Shahnaz says things were really getting out of control with her relatives and in-laws until her husband finally put an end to the pressure.
“It is good that we are not economically dependent on anyone, we could object. Young people who depend on their families cannot do that. I refused to go to the doctor,” Shahnaz says. “The only thing that didn't enter their minds was that we weren't ready. This is unacceptable for them, it is impossible, it is a sin.”
When someone asks Shahnaz if she and her husband have children, she says yes since she considers their cat Mia their daughter. “Sometimes I think we, my husband and I, take better care of Mia than ourselves. We never miss her doctor appointments and we buy her the best food and take care of her all other needs.”
“My husband reacted harshly when relatives started to push me to go to the doctor. He said ‘Our lives are not your business.’ They were shocked,” she recalls.
“It was a situation they were not used to. Normally, the mother-in-law takes the bride and begins to knock on doctors’ doors. We did not allow it.”
Eventually, her parents and in-laws realized that they could not pressure Shahnaz and her husband into making babies. But the wider family has still not come to terms with their decision. Her parents are frequently asked “How can you agree to the wishes of your children?” and “Doesn’t he respect you?”
It was also difficult for her to deal with their outrage and shock—even well-wishers who tried to comfort her, thinking she had fertility problems, would anger her, she recalls.
“At first, I was irritated and angry with those who said, ‘I hope you will have a child’, ‘It will definitely work’... I was annoyed and responded like ‘Who told you that we are not able to have a baby?!’ But now I'm so used to it that I accept it as normal, say thank you and go on. It is quiet,” she says.
Shahnaz rarely met anyone who tells the couple they will have a baby when they are ready to. She stresses, however, that no one considers they may never want to have children. That is unequivocally unacceptable.
“I was 23 when I got married. It was too early to be a mother. I am 28 years old now. Now the idea of having a child is no longer so foreign,” she says, adding that they are considering having a child after they turn 30. “It should be planned. We need to think about the child's future.”
Gender activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva says that the problems and pressure Shahnaz and her husband experienced are common in Azerbaijan. Unlike some developed countries, where childless couples are more common, it is still rare that people choose to forgo having children in Azerbaijan, she notes. Gulnara adds that people do not even openly discuss the fact that becoming a mother is a choice, not an obligation.
In Azerbaijan, she notes, it is “impossible” to think of young people not becoming parents. “Girls are prepared to become mothers from childhood,” she says.
“It is not only a problem for young people to decide not to have children—it is also an issue to have a planned pregnancy. After marriage, couples start to face serious interference and pressure from outside.”
Rovshana Babayeva, 44, has also felt the pressure to have children. She and her husband do not plan to—they see offspring as an additional, and unnecessary, responsibility.
But she notes that despite the fact that she and her husband are clearly happy with their choice, “relatives, acquaintances and neighbors do not understand.”
“They say, ‘If you are married, you should have one,’” Rovshana says.
“The loudest critics seem to be people who are unfulfilled in their own lives, who are not happy, who abuse their children, who gave birth for the sake of procreation, and who are in forced marriages. For them, it is as if it's a sin to not want to be like them.”
Rovshana says that comments from her family still frustrate her, especially when they warn her she is “running out of time” to be a mother.
“It's most irritating to raise the issue of age,” she says. “‘If you don’t give birth now, later it will be difficult,’ and so on. It's doubly stressful.”
Even couples who want to have children eventually can feel a degree of pressure from parents and in-laws, who express desire to become grandparents.
Rovshana loves to cycle. Her house is 15 kilometers from the center of Baku and she often travels the distance by bicycle. She says that cycling is a sport as well as a healthy and environmentally friendly way to move around the city. She really wants bicycle lanes in Baku.
Rubaba Guliyeva, 33, and her husband Ulvi have been married for five years and do not have children yet because they are not ready. Rubaba says her parents are supportive and she and her husband have not experienced “any special pressure but our parents occasionally voiced their wish to become grandparents.”
While some may write off the constant barrage of questions as the older generations’ “desire to play with grandchildren,” in reality the pressure is real and has a serious impact on young people. Gulnara notes that couples who decide not to have children can feel excluded from society as a whole.
Gulnara stresses that very few women in Azerbaijan today have the independence and autonomy to decide when—or if—they want children.
That trend appears to be changing, however, albeit slowly. Rubaba notes that her generation—friends and acquaintances—understand their childfree life.
“I have the impression that giving birth to a child is a very serious responsibility. You have to be an individual and independent,” Rubaba says.
“I don’t support being a parent at an early age, because at an early age people are not fully realized, they don't know what they want. How can a young person be a parent if they are not yet fully formed as an individual?”
Rubaba is a designer and her artist vision also influences the rest of her life. She says she feels passionately about creating nice things that improve her life. Beautiful objects inspire her creativity.“I feel quite happy and I would say that I don’t like to be dependent on anything. I love to live surrounded by beautiful things." Rubaba collects buddha figures. She likes the way they look, especially sculptures of buddha heads. She has 17 in her collection, all selected because of how they look and make her feel.
Gulnara says that about one out of every ten couples she knows do not want children and slightly more want to wait to start a family. “There are many people around me who have decided to become childfree,” she says, “and they are not just women.”
Rubaba says that both she and her husband have spent the first years of their marriage focused on different priorities.
“I want to understand myself, to know what I want. Work, career, entertainment, travel. In my opinion, it is not possible to raise a baby with these things at the same time. My husband also shares my opinion,” she says.
“Though I hadn't wanted a baby these five years, I'm considering it as a possibility in the near future.”
This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.