Dowries: A changing tradition in Azerbaijan

Author: Gular Abbasova
Edition: Traditions
Topic: Women Traditions

Like many eastern cultures, in Azerbaijan, parents provide their daughters with a dowry of household items, furniture and clothing to support their future life. 

The tradition of the dowry in Azerbaijan dates back centuries. In the 19th century, according to Customs and beliefs of Azerbaijanis (XIX-XX centuries)/ Baku 2019, families would give newly married couples blankets, mattresses, pillows, hand-woven table covers, and other small household items.

“First of all, it was important to prepare (gather items) a dowry chest for the bride in Azerbaijan. The most valuable part of the bride's dowry, wedding dress, silver jewelry, headdresses and other valuables were collected in the decorated wedding chest, which was an alternative to types of furniture. Previously, wealthier families would sometimes give their daughter land as dowry in addition to household items, blankets, and cattle,” stated Customs and beliefs of Azerbaijanis (XIX-XX centuries)/ Baku 2019.

Comparing previous periods, sociologist Lala Mehrali says, in the Soviet era (specifically 1970s-80s), families were interested in buying imported goods for the dowry that were not available for sale in ordinary shops–but were accessible to those with money to spend.

"Department stores had goods that were not for sale in warehouses. They were also bought by the rich and wealthy as dowry for their daughters. In the 1990s, after the [first] years of independence and the first Karabakh war, the general income of families was lower, but they tried to manage to collect a dowry for their daughters. This could create a degree of financial hardship for the family." Mehrali adds.

The tradition continues today although the size of the dowry depends on the family’s means. Some families begin creating a dowry when their daughters are very young and slowly add items through the years. The size and value of the dowry matter to some communities, where girls with small dowries may not be accepted by their in-laws. Some families even borrow money so they can give their daughters a dowry that will be respected by their new husband’s relatives.

Prior to the 2020 pandemic, it was rare for someone to get married without a wedding party. But Covid-19, due to the restrictions on large gatherings and people’s financial woes, ushered in new customs: people started holding small parties instead of large weddings and newlyweds–especially those who are already economically independent from their parents–began shunning traditional dowries in favor of more practical wedding gifts.

This new trend created an impetus for new traditions: dowry practices appear to be fading due to economic change. This photo project explores how views on the traditional dowry are changing.

Sociologist Lala Mehrali notes that perhaps it is a sign of Azerbaijani values that most parents try to buy better things for their daughters. But she adds that it can also be a point of pride; families tend to buy unnecessary and expensive things for the dowry, which puts a financial strain on the family. The new rules during the pandemic changed the trend, however, she says, although it is not clear how long those changes will last.

"People realized that with a small budget, both the wedding party and the dowry could be managed. But will they continue this tendency?  It depends on the young people, if they want to,  they can change this tendency."

Sara, 17. Kurdakhani village.

“My mother has been buying dowry items for me since I was a child. Dishes, spoons, pots, tablecloths, lamps ... I have no plans to get married yet, I am thinking of my education. I am preparing for exams. But what can be done ?! Like all mothers, she is used to it. This is a custom for all our relatives and neighbors, in our village. It is common for parents to buy dowry items for their girls starting from a young age.  My mother thinks that even if she builds the dowry slowly, it will be cheaper. But everything changes over time. Customs as well,” says Sara.

Aliya, 24. Fatmayi village, Absheron region.

“When a young girl gets married, her family should provide her dowry and furniture. Otherwise, the villagers and the people around them judge them. I got married in 2021. Before the wedding, my mother-in-law told my parents that there was no need to buy too many things. A small set of furniture and a few things are enough. My husband's family was wealthy. I would live in the same house with my in-laws. It was a big house with everything you needed for living.

After some hesitation, my parents decided to buy a set of furniture and some household items without spending a lot of money.”

Turkan Bashir, 26. Bina settlement, Baku  (Displaced from Karabakh)

“When I was a teenager, my mother would buy me a few towels and a tablecloth. Once I told my mother that I would buy what I needed myself. When I got married, I was already working and earning my own money. I didn't want to bother my parents financially. We celebrated our marriage with a small party in 2021. I bought household items from the money I saved from my own salary.  My husband's parents also gave us the money they had set aside for gold. We bought other household items instead of gold. To be honest, there was no need to buy so much stuff. We were satisfied with very few things.”

Ulkar Nazarli, 26. Baku (originally from Imishly)

“I have very few items as a dowry. These are antiques left by my mother and grandmother from their dowries and the scarf I am wearing. For the dowry, my mother bought a tablecloth and a few towels. My husband and I told our parents that there was no need to spend extra money on dowry and weddings. With these funds, we can build a more profitable business for our future. But at the request of my father-in-law, we definitely had to buy gold jewellery. Because it is an accepted custom in society. It would not have been possible without it.”

Gulsara Gasimova, 30. Baku

“When I was a teenager, I told my mother that there was no need to purchase dowry. I didn't want my parents to spend too much money on things. 
My mother gave me a Guba carpet. In addition, I also received antiques that belonged to my mother and grandmother, copper utensils. I have a memory of family heirlooms that reflected the folk culture and my family’s traditions. These were valuable to me.
We will buy what we need as we need it after our marriage as long as my husband and I live together.  My advice to those who are getting married is not to pay attention to too many things. The main thing is comfort! You don't need much to be happy!"

Afsana Salehova, 26. Baku

“I plan to start a family in the near future, which is why my mother is already purchasing small household items for a dowry. She made a list of what is needed and almost everything necessary for everyday life has been purchased. I'm not very adept with dowry preparations. I left this job to my mother and sister. The basic kitchenware–gadgets, dishes, towels and tablecloths–is almost ready.

We will probably buy furniture and kitchen appliances before the wedding. Maybe there will be no need, if we move to a fully furnished rental. I think that the pandemic has greatly affected dowry traditions. If five to ten years ago families bought a lot for a dowry, during the pandemic they tried to be more economical. When I asked newlyweds about their marriage preparations, they said that they managed to live with less money and savings. There were even some who did not have a wedding party at all. I am also trying to be economical and cost-effective. I think that extra things are an unnecessary expense.”

This photo essay was produced as part of the workshops led by photographer Heba Khamis, with the support of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


We are a non-profit media organization covering the topics and groups of people that are frequently ignored by mainstream media. Our work would not be possible without support from our community and readers like you. Your donations enable us to support journalists who cover underrepresented stories across the region.