Equality. It should be dead easy for me to write on this subject. I am a lawyer. I have been teaching and researching various aspects of human rights and minority rights law since 2001. I can recite by heart the key international and European treaties designed to protect women. But my well-honed analytical mind cannot fully compensate for a lack of visceral experience of feeling safe, loved and respected as a woman. There is a big gap between an intellectual knowing, and deeper kind of knowing which comes with years of experience. I lack the latter. I grew up in an environment where domestic violence was the norm, not just by men towards women but women themselves too. This unending fear of physical, emotional and with time sexual abuse left deep scars in my being which no knowledge of international treaties and court cases can erase. Only experience can help to un-learn the trauma of inequality. It’s been five years since I’ve been with my husband, and only nowadays my being is starting to accept the possibility that perhaps I am safe.
On 22 April 2011, my husband and I went to visit my family in Ganja, Azerbaijan. We were married for two weeks and wanted to meet my side of the family. When my husband asked my grandma’s blessing, she took his hands in hers and looked straight into his eyes.
‘I beg you, don’t beat her up.’
She did not ask him to love me, to treasure me, to take a good care of me. She had one plea only. I felt ashamed. Dumbfounded, I wondered whether to fudge the translation. They were looking at me expectantly. But if I didn’t translate it and my husband’s reassurance was not convincing enough, she might get worried. And if I did… There was no time. Blushing, I translated verbatim.
I look back at that day with more compassion now. My grandma’s request came from her own experiences. She knew no better in life. This legacy has been passed down for many generations.
Take my mother. She has been a women’s rights activist in Azerbaijan since 1997, a vocation she embraced as a result of her own history. Today, she has a shelter for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. She raises awareness about women’s plight across the country and abroad. Her research is widely published. Her non-governmental organisation offers free court representations for women. She has been brave enough to speak openly about gay and transsexual persons’ rights in the country for years.
Yet, I remember watching her interview in the local media a few years ago. She recounted an example of violence she experienced as a young woman. Her father raided her handbag and came across a young man’s photo inside a textbook. It was 2 am, he came back from a late shift. The man on the photo was a fiancé of mum’s friend. My mum happened to have it because she borrowed her friend’s book. Without a single question, she was dragged out of bed. My grandfather banged her head at a wall so hard that her scull had fractured. I knew this anecdote by heart – I’ve grown up on a whole diet of those stories. What shocked me was her expression. It was so matter-of-fact, as if the father was entitled to raid her bag, as if she should have known better, as if she deserved to be treated like that. Possibly that’s why her four husbands used to beat her up. Maybe this pattern repeated itself in all her marriages because she lacked that deeper knowing. I know it from my own personal experience. Until age 35, I went from one abusive relationship to another, and it’s only when I embraced emotional and spiritual healing that my external reality started to shift.
Hopefully, my daughter who was born a mere five weeks ago will have a fundamentally different experience of being in the world. From the moment of conception, she’s been absorbing all the healing practices I’ve been doing to free myself from within, to let go of this legacy, to embrace that deeper knowing of respect and safety. Presently, she is happily gurgling in the background while I am typing away. She is growing up to see a mother who is pursuing her dreams.
I know my family of origin’s experience is rather extreme, and hopefully none of those stories resonate with my readers. But when my husband’s family was visiting to meet my daughter a few days ago, I was struck at how much admiration was expressed at the fact that she was so calm and easy going. She didn’t mind that everyone took turns to hold her and she was very quiet. Then my son came from nursery and started bouncing off the walls. No one batted an eyelid at his behaviour. After all, boys are boys, right? So, it made me wonder whether even in societies where there is equality between men and women, there are some unconscious stereotypes we still carry around.
There is an intellectual knowing that as a woman you deserve love and respect, and there is deeper visceral knowing which comes with experience. Start cultivating this knowing in your children early. Teach them to say ‘No’, ‘Enough’, ‘Stop’! Teach them self-worth, the value of speaking their truth and being heard, and the spiritual awareness that they deserve nothing but to be loved.
And the best way to teach them? Model it in your own life.