Azerbaijan: Getting Married at 17

Author: Lucy Wallwork, Sitara Ibrahimbayli


It wasn’t an official wedding, but it looked like one. Women and girls gathered around the 17-year-old bride the night before for a traditional henna party; men accompanied the groom as he went to his fiancée’s house to take her to their new home. There was music, tables covered with food and everyone wore their best clothes.

Yet this union in Lerik, a southern district of Azerbaijan that borders Iran, has no legal status. At 17, the bride, Tarana, is a year younger than the minimum legal age for marriage. Her wedding will be officially registered once she turns 18.  

Many Azerbaijanis often cite Islam to justify such marriages, UN agencies report. One British non-profit that has researched early marriages in the Caucasus found that mullahs have, indeed, helped make early marriages “an acceptable practice” in communities throughout Azerbaijan.

These weddings appear to occur frequently in Lerik’s socially conservative Talysh region, but accurate data is scarce. UNICEF estimated in 2011 that about 11 percent of Azerbaijani girls marry before their 18th birthday.

But the role of religion in these weddings is complex.

In Tarana’s case, no imam was present. For the local community, however, the use of a Quran in the ceremony appeared to give her wedding symbolic value and make it a legitimate transaction, even though not officially registered.

Certain imams, as well as the government, have denounced early marriages,
but, in conservative areas like Lerik, poverty and the importance attached to marriage and motherhood for women can still lead to a decision to have an underage daughter marry.   

Questions of reputation can also play a role. In early August 2018, a 14-year-old Lerik girl was married to her rapist reportedly to save her and her family’s honor. The event sparked debate across Azerbaijan about the practice of early marriages.

For Tarana’s own family, though, there appeared to be no debate. They thought the time had come for the teenager to get married and considered that the 21-year-old son of one of her father’s business partners was a good match.

She had only met her future husband a few days earlier.

Azerbaijani photographer Sitara Ibrahimova was invited to attend Tarana’s wedding while travelling through Lerik’s villages. (The name of the village and the participants’ full names have been withheld.) This is her photo chronicle of that day.

In popular understanding, Islam allows early marriages. But this reveals a very superficial comprehension of Islam and Sharia law. Sharia law does not specify the exact age of marriage, but it does stipulate a fixed standard of mental maturity or sound judgment that must be reached before a person should marry. As a mullah interviewed for this research explained, ‘early marriage’ in Islam does not mean child marriage.

While most of the child spouses interviewed for this research had had a religious marriage ceremony and had a kabin religious marriage contract (although some did not even have this), they were not actually practising Muslims. Given that this was a small-scale, qualitative research.

It is not uncommon to hear that the phenomenon of early marriages derivates from Islam, which endorses early marriages. However, contrary to a popular misconception, Shariah Law does not specify the exact age of marriage. It stipulates fixed standard of mental maturity or sound judgment. There is clearly a difference between attaining puberty and physical aptitude on one hand and maturity and the qualification to manage life on the other. According to the Koran, married life necessitates that both husband and wife are enlightened and sensible. It is not, therefore, served by the marriage of children.

The majority of marriages in Azerbaijan are also Islamic marriages. Early marriages are conducted by local Mullahs and in spite of agreements between the Islamic Council and the state, these are often not officially recorded as is legally required.

Azerbaijan, both on a state level and a social level, is increasingly trying to avoid discussions on early marriage and although officially illegal, on a community level, through the support of Islamic social figures such as Mullahs, it has become an acceptable practice.

The journey begins the evening before the wedding with the henna party when girls gather to paint their hands with henna. Tarana’s cousin (left) helps her to prepare. She is also engaged to be married at 16 years old.
The wedding will not be registered until Tarana comes of age in a year's time as it is required by the Azerbaijani legislation which sets at 18 the minimum age to get married.
Wedding preparations in the village.
The morning of the wedding day, the family crowds into the bride’s family’s house to celebrate.
Women scatter rice over a red scarf during the henna party at the bride’s house. Rituals involving rice are common in Azerbaijani where it is a symbol of fertility.
Tarana poses with her dowry (“cehiz”), designed to include all the essentials to take to her husband’s house and begin their life together.
Nowadays the bride’s dowry might include luxuries like jewellery, but also more prosaic staples like toothpaste and grooming products.
Tarana poses for pictures with her female relatives.
Parents in Azerbaijan often use the word "vermek" (“to give”) when refer to marrying their daughters off. Mothers would stop considering the daughters they had "given away" as part of the family, not listing them when asked how many children they have.
An all-male orchestra plays in Tarana’s half-finished family house. Her father explained that the rest would be completed in time for when her younger brother gets married.
Asked what would happen to Tarana should the couple divorced, or in case something happened to he husband, the parents looked taken off-guard. They begged the photographer “Please don’t say that will happen, it won’t happen”. Often women who divorce their partner are not welcomed back to their father’s home and are left in limbo.
A friend helps Tarana to walk down the wooden ladder as the groom and his friends have arrived, accompanied by traditional music. She’ll follow him to her new family - this is known as “gelin getirme”.
Tarana is about to leave her family to join the groom into her new home. For families with limited financial resources marriages are important so that girls do not become a financial burden.
While there was no official religious ceremony, the young bride must duck under the Qoran as she is picked up by the groom and his friends and symbolically leaves her own family behind.
Tarana’s husband is 21 and is the son of a business partner of her father’s. The couple met for the first time a few days before the wedding.
Tarana appeared relatively shy and awkward as she sat with her future husband, whom she barely knew, at her wedding.
Tarana stopped attending school when she was 10. Her father explains that, since both his wife and he work, no one was available to make sure nothing happened to Tarana as she walked through the village to school each day. In a society where everyone follows everyone else's business closely, families -- particularly fathers and brothers -- safeguard against any hint of blemished honor.
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