Hidden hands of women behind Novruz celebrations

Photographer: Tati Sattar

Edition: Traditions
Topic: Traditions Women

As Azerbaijan celebrates Novruz, the New Year holiday marked around the world in late March, women across the country are buckling down to cook the dishes and prepare the meals that define the day.

“In the Novruz tradition, nature and the femininity associated with it are given special power. But, of course, during the celebration of the holiday, household labor falls heavily on women,” notes researcher Sevinj Samadzade. 

She noted that traditions used to mean a community of women working together to prepare for feasts and festivals, due to urbanization, today most women are expected to prepare for their own families, without much help. 

In my family, my mother Saida Sattarova, 52, is one of those hard-working women who keep the household together during the holiday. For me, it is her labor—not the parties and celebrations—that define Novruz. For days leading up to the first Charshanba (celebrations held every Tuesday during the holiday season), she spends hours in the kitchen and local market after she gets off work to ensure the family is ready. This is in addition to her normal cleaning and cooking, and the entire process has always struck me as unfair: why should the burden of these holiday feasts fall on her?

This year I decided to speak to the women who make our families’ Novruz celebrations possible, to see how the force behind the holiday, feasts and traditions feel about the burden that has been forced upon them.

I spoke to my family in the capital, Baku, and to families in the villages in rural districts of the country.

In the remote village of Sym, a mountain village in southern Azerbaijan, 236 km from Baku, families preserve the region’s traditions, including special customs and sweets made just for Novruz. For Zulfiyya Aliyeva, 49, that means hours of work in addition to her job as an English teacher at the local high school and the family farm and small bed and breakfast. 

Zulfiyya says that she has loved Novruz since childhood but the holiday has become a time of exhaustion lately. 

Raziya Safaraliyeva, 63, agrees the traditions have become more difficult to maintain. Raziya lives in Balakhany, near Baku, and counts on help from her daughter Nurana and her granddaughter, Amina, to prepare food for the holiday. Some traditions, like growing səməni - germinating wheat grass seeds to grow grass for the table—have fallen by the wayside.  

“Now, we just buy it from the market,” she says.

Amina, 20, is loath to perpetuate some parts of the tradition, especially the fact that the women do all the work.

“Don’t you think it's unfair that women do all the housework, cooking, cleaning, everything? Everything should be equal, right?” Amina asks Raziya during my visit. 

Her mother and Raziya first appear confused by her question. Raziya notes that life has been like this “since we first opened our eyes.”

“Men don't do housework. How do you think of such strange questions?” she counters. 

My aunt, Aytakin Sattarova, 62, a housewife, agrees that it is the role of women to prepare for Novruz. She believes that every Novruz preparation is an experience. “I became an expert after all these years. Like, you know how to perfectly roll the shekerbura dough and close its edge spiraling,” she says. 

She recalls the hard work of Novruz as a time of community, when women put their best skills into work. She says that “We paid a visit as guests on Charshanbas and exchanged sweets. Then, we would see who made the tastiest shekerbura or pakhlava, who made the best ‘stitching’ pattern on the shekerbura. We were not judging, rather trying to learn something for the next Novruz.”

Aytakin’s Novruz memories echo the experience of Shahnaz Alishova, 58. 

Shahnaz lives in Baku’s Shikhov settlement with her husband Ismail, daughter-in-law Rena, son Jabrayil and two grandchildren, Madina and Agshin. She has been a housewife since she got married and is responsible for most of the cleaning, cooking, and childcare while Rena is at work.

“I am tired of all these,” she says, but quickly adds that there is no other life for women and she hopes her granddaughter will also grow up to be a housewife like her. 

“This is how it should be. [Preparing for Novruz] is not the role of my son or husband.”

When my mother told me “I think you took enough photos. Now, put the camera aside and help me a little,” I started helping her make pakhlava. I asked my brother to take our picture.

My mother decided to buy səməni (wheatgrass) this year at a market. One of the symbols of the holiday, she says she used to germinate the seed herself but not anymore. “Now, I got no time or desire to do that,” she said.

My mother made traditional plov with pumpkin for the Charshanba (Tuesday) table. In Azerbaijan, every Tuesday people celebrate the day of one of the four elements – water, fire, wind and soil.

“I can't work comfortably when your father is in the kitchen. He is disruptive, he asks unnecessary questions sometimes and interrupts me. Only you can enter the kitchen to help me,” my mother tells me.

My aunt, Aytakin Sattarova, says preparing for Novruz and taking care of all the cooking is not a burden. “I have become an expert,” she said.

Aytakin prepares səməni seeds to germinate before the holiday. “In my family, we do the preparation and cooking close to the last Charshanba (Tuesday) or the evening before the holiday, usually. We used to germinate the səməni on the first Charshanba, so that it would be fully grown by the holiday.”

Aytekin prepares the Charshanba table. “I have beautiful old plates that I inherited from my mother. I kept them as a memory. Perhaps, the Novruz table looks even more beautiful with them.”

Shahnaz Alishova prepares to bake sweets for Charshanba. 

Alishova teaches her granddaughter, four-year-old Madina, to make patterns on the shekerbura cookie dough.

Shahnaz and Rena, her daughter-in-law, prepare the table for Chanshanba.

Raziya prepares shekerbura together with her daughter, Nurana, 41, and granddaughter Amina, 20.

Raziya Safaraliyeva: “I fill the inside of the shekerbura dough, Nurana folds the edges and Amina adds the patterns. We finish our work faster this way.”

Nurana’s husband, Tahir, sometimes helps as well—he is an artist and the women say his talent comes in handy when they are pressing the designs into the shekerbura cookie dough.

While Amina’s father helps with some chores, like cookie decorations, it is still uncommon for men to play a major role in preparing for Novruz.

Raziya asked for a group photo with the Novruz xonçası (khoncha) and everyone wearing the traditional silk headscarf, the kalaghayi. As an important element during the holiday, khoncha is a tray that gets filled with sweets, various kinds of nuts, dried fruits, candles and other traditional items, and is placed in the center of the dining room table throughout the holiday period.

Sym village is located in the south of Azerbaijan near the city of Astara. The village is known for preserving the region’s traditions.

Zulfiyya Aliyeva, is an English teacher and a homeroom teacher for one of the ninth-grade classes at the local school. As her class on March 14 overlaps with the last Charshanba, Zulfiyya will start to prepare for the holiday when she returns home from work.

Zulfiyya milks the cow to prepare a pastry sweet called Zeren. Zeren is only prepared by the Talysh community for Novruz.

Zulfiyya makes sweet Zeren with milk from the family farm.

The lights went out in the village while the family dyed eggs, one of the symbols of Novruz. Zulfiyya tries to decorate the eggs as her husband, Parviz, provides some light from his phone.

A bonfire on the last Charshanba of Novruz in Sym.

Zulfiyya watches her husband Parviz teach their son, Metin, how to fire a gun to celebrate.

Two men, one dressed as a pregnant woman, the other holding a stick, visit Zulfiyya to receive Novruz sweets. The costumes are an old tradition, although its origins and meaning are not clear. Some people say men used to dress up as women so they could visit the homes of their betrothed and spend time with them and their families.

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.

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