A Wedding Without a Bride

Author: Ilkin Huseynov, Lucy Wallwork

Edition: Taboos/ Stigmas

At a wedding in Nardaran, a small town on Azerbaijan's Absheron peninsula known for its religious conservatism, all of the usual ingredients are present - the confetti, the kebabs, the traditional dancing and a ribboned marquee. Yet, no bride. Female guests are nowhere to be seen.

The question of gender and public space is still a sensitive one in Azerbaijan. Unwritten rules have men dominating tea houses, certain restaurants, often streets and parks - and weddings. Usually a lavish affair, weddings are loaded with symbols and rituals and for centuries they have been a male-only event. The practise of separating men from women on such occasions has its root in the Islamic prohibition of ikhtilat, the free mixing between men and women, in order to avoid temptation. However such religious principles are not observed as strongly in Azerbaijan as in many of its Islamic neighbors.

The longstanding tradition is slowly fading in the South Caucasus republic and today many weddings are mixed gender. Indeed modern weddings are often seen as an important showcase for families to 'show off' their daughters, in the hope of finding a suitable husband.

In specific areas however all-male weddings - the kisi toyu - survive as an example of a space that is still explicitly reserved for men. Like in Nardaran, renowned as a rare outpost of religious conservatism in an otherwise secular country, where the tradition of kisi toyu still holds strong.


Text: Lucy Wallwork

Photo: Ilkin Huseynov

Weddings are of symbolic importance to Azerbaijanis. Families often spend a large portion of their income holding and attending weddings, still seen as the most important life event for both men and women.
But the way they are carried out has been transformed, and continues to be a shifting blend of tradition, Islamic rituals and trends imported from the West.
At this traditional kisi toyu, an all-male wedding, the women stayed firmly behind the scenes, cooking food that would be fetched and served by male members of the family.
All-male weddings are often accompanied by a separate all-female wedding. At the all-female event, a woman appointed as sarpayi might be in charge of shooing away any men trying to peek through gaps in the tent and catch a glimpse of the women.
Nardaran, a town of about 8,000 people sitting about 30 kilometres north of the capital Baku, is considered a bastion of conservative Shi’ite Islamin in Secular Azerbaijan
At this wedding only tea and juice are served, but not all-male weddings abide by strict religious norms. In other 'Baku villages' - on the outskirts of the capital - male weddings on the contrary can be an opportunity for drinking and gambling in excess.
It is a chance to indulge in hedonism with male friends away from the eyes of female relatives.
Men have been known to gamble away their own houses on the eve of the wedding. Indeed not is all as it seems... at this wedding, despite the solemn and religious atmosphere, young men could be spotted loitering around the wedding hall smoking marijuana.
At many religious weddings, dini toyu in Azeri, dancing and music too are prohibited, replaced by readings from the Koran.
At this event the praying took place on the first day, while these photos capture the celebrations of the third day, when meykhana and ashiq music was played.
One young Bakuvian (a resident of Baku) bride, who married into a family that decided on a segregated wedding, posted on Facebook on the day of the male wedding that “today is my wedding, but I'm at the office.”
However segregated weddings in Nardaran and elsewhere – including in Talysh communities in the south – are becoming less popular due to financial pressures.
Holding two separate weddings is an expensive option for struggling families.
However this wedding hosted 300-400 guests, and the father of the groom was a well known 'vori v zakone,' a term used for mobsters that dates back to the Soviet gulags.
This wedding continued for three days.
While modern weddings are strikingly different from their traditional precursors, any visitor to a wedding will notice the legacy of gender segregation.
Western guests are often surprised to see gender segregation on the dance floor - the men will often gather to dance around the groom and the women will dance in a separate group.
Men and women are also often informally separated at the dinner table.
However this is more likely to be because the men are drinking alcohol, still seen as inappropriate around women in a traditional society like Azerbaijan.
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