Ancient tradition empowers women in a rural community

Author: Tati Sattar

Edition: Labor

In 1920, women in the Azerbaijani capital Baku created the country’s first club to empower women through literacy and sewing circles. The club sought to free women from the traditions and culture that kept many illiterate and powerless. One member, Farideh Heyat, noted that the club “reached out to masses of Azeri women in an attempt to transform every aspect of their lives…[the club] …did not just give them skills and training; this was a place that transformed the women's worldview.”

The clubs expanded across the country, with women even sneaking in sewing machines to learn a craft and practice away from the watchful eyes of their husbands and fathers. 

A century later, Kifayet Talibzadeh, 30, also found herself turning to traditional crafts to help women. Kifayet had returned to her hometown in Masally, a region in south-east Azerbaijan, to settle and find a job after she graduated from university in Poland. Lingering gender roles made it impossible, however. 

Kifayet Talıbzadeh (30) The founder of the social entrepreneurship project "Azer Jorab" to empower unemployed women in rural areas of Azerbaijan, Masally.

“I found it very difficult to realize my goals in life, due to the absence of equal opportunities in Azerbaijan. I understand this is just the result of the conservative social values that shape the views about women and popularly accepted traditional roles of women,” she said.

Kifayet did not give up, however. Fighting for her dreams is nothing new for her: she fought her family for the right to finish high school and go abroad to study. When she realized the issues holding her back were also affecting scores of other women in the community, Kifayet decided to create a social entrepreneurship project that would employ local women to knit traditional socks and sell them in locally and abroad. Called Azer Jorab (“Azer sock”), the business started in November 2019 with four women. Today, it has 20 knitters in Masally and the number is growing every month. The Azer Jorab knitters sell homemade socks to clients everywhere from the United States to New Zealand through Etsy and social media ( and

Despite her successes, however, Kifayet says “there is still a lot of work to do in order to empower women.” 

In her native Masally, a small town in the foothills of the Talysh Mountains, most women still need permission from their male relatives (father, brother, husband) to do anything beyond the home. One member of the collective told Chai Khana “My husband did not allow me to the outside of our house. I could only leave with his permission or with him accompanying me everywhere.” 

Kifayet notes that many women who join the collective start to gain the confidence to question traditional gender roles and social taboos.

“Before, they spent almost all their time in their houses. Now, they go out, they work, socialize, help each other and engage in the learning process, and earn income for their families.” She recalls the time when she first met Agida Shirmammadova (46), the collective’s designer. She was very reserved and barely said a word all day. But now, she has become one of the most active members as she comes up with creative ideas and designs motifs and patterns for the socks that are knit, Kifayet says.

“These women are now acted as equals of male members of the families,” she adds.

Mahbuba Asadova (60), one of the first members and teachers of Azer Jorab. 

60-year-old Mahbuba Asadova was one of the first members of the collective and now teaches other women how to knit.

“This is our manual work… we put our love in it and we love what we do,” says Mahbuba. She is a firm believer that women have all the strength they need to succeed in their lives.

Mahbuba with her two students in the orchard of her house. On her right side is Aytan Aliyeva (35) and on the left side is Shafa Musayeva (35). She is teaching them how to knit socks with the five knitting needles technique. “The easiest design for beginners is the baklava pattern,” says Mahbuba.

The knitted baby socks with a baklava pattern. The knitter noted that “knitting baby socks is harder than adult socks due to the patterns. The small size of the sock doesn’t allow to make large and difficult patterns on it. But over time, these socks become easier to knit. You can finish knitting in half a day.”

One of Mahbuba’s students still struggles to speak up during class, although most start to open up and gain confidence as their skills improve. When asked about how sock knitting changed her life, Mahbuba responded: “We teach and we learn and, most importantly, we earn our income.”

Knitting with five knitting needles. The finished product will be sold abroad through Azer Joab’s social media accounts.

Socks sell for between 14 and 20 Azerbaijani manat (approximately $8-12).

Mahbuba demonstrates the scarf she knitted for the winter. It was her first experience of crocheting a scarf and now she wants to develop crochet skills too, in order to knit different items (hats, shirts, sweaters, tops, etc.) for herself, her family, and maybe even to sell.

Firana Huseynova (40) is one of the first members, the youngest teacher, and the supervisor of Azer Jorab.

She says knitting has given her hope for her future. In Azerbaijan, 57.4 percent of the unemployed are women, even though they make up less than half of the labor force in the country. 

Firana has been the principal team leader of knitters of Masally not just to teach how to knit, but also to supervise the work process and assure the quality of socks produced. She notes that there are two kinds of knitters:

The older generation knits by instincts that they have developed over the years. Show them a sock and they will knit you the exact same. However, the new generation knits with sketches.

No matter what method the women choose to knit the socks, she thinks that the work helps them to earn money—and overcome the social and psychological oppression of “sitting at home.” The experience has helped Firana care for her family during her husband’s absence—he lives and works in Russia and sends money home.  Firana’s knitting career has given her the strength and power to raise three children alone and help them prepare to enter university. “The income I earn from knitting socks is not that much if I think of that amount in terms of my future,” notes Finara. “However, this income, now, enables me to provide a better future for my children. Once they grow up, they will attend a university and after that, they will have the life that I have envisioned for them.”

Firana with her neighbors who are also knitters and her former students, talking about knitting and future plans.

The neighbors refused to have their faces photographed due to religious reasons and because their male family members don’t allow it.

One of Firana’s neighbors holds up a photo of a sock the collective knits for men. Azer Jorab depends on social media to market and sell the socks. For the knitters, the money they earn helps them challenge the old traditions and cultural norms that used to keep them tied to their homes all day.

Knitters also knit the Frisbees for their children and sometimes they sell them to clients in America. 

Firana and neighbors play with knitted Frisbee in her yard.

Agida Shirmammadova (46) designs the sock patterns the knitters use. She matches the color of socks, decides on patterns, size, and writes the techniques for beginners. Due to a physical disability, she was born with, her father wouldn’t let her do the housework, go to school, and even get married. “My father couldn't trust me, could not trust anyone but himself,” says Agida.

The living room of Kifayet’s family house is where all knitters come together two times a week for handing over the produced socks, having new materials, getting their wages, and spending time together. Firana teaches her new students Aytekin Guliyeva (36) on left and Esmer Hashimova (34) on the right side how to knit. 

Kebire Najafova (53) learned to knit as a child. She acts as a substitute knitting instructor when they cannot attend the meetings.

Kebire Najafova, says that “we love what we do for the love of Kifayet.” She notes that the income she receives from her work at Azer Jorab enables her to help with family shopping. 

“I have bought all whatever I wished deep in my heart. But I have bought small portions of them. Let God, give you more Inshallah! Be a rich woman,” she tells Kifayet.

This photo story was produced in the framework of the Chai Khana Fellowship program - Spring 2022

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