Dowries: A changing tradition in Azerbaijan

Image by Gular Abbasova. Used with permission under partnership agreement.

This article was first published on Chaikhana Media. An edited version has been republished here under a content partnership agreement.

Like in many eastern cultures, in Azerbaijan, parents provide their daughters with a dowry of household items, furniture, and clothing to support their future life.

The tradition of the dowry in Azerbaijan dates back centuries. In the 19th century, families would give newly married couples blankets, mattresses, pillows, hand-woven table covers, and other small household items. According to Mahabbat Pasayeva, author of Customs and Beliefs of Azerbaijanis (19th and 20th centuries):

First of all, it was important to prepare (gather items) a dowry chest for the bride in Azerbaijan. The most valuable part of the bride's dowry, wedding dress, silver jewelry, headdresses and other valuables were collected in the decorated wedding chest, which was an alternative to types of furniture. Previously, wealthier families would sometimes give their daughter land as dowry in addition to household items, blankets, and cattle.

During the Soviet era (specifically 1970s–1980s), families were interested in buying imported goods for the dowry that were not available for sale in ordinary shops but were accessible to those with money to spend, according to the sociologist Lala Mehrali:

Department stores had goods that were not for sale in warehouses. They were also bought by the rich and wealthy as dowry for their daughters. In the 1990s, after the [first] years of independence and the first Karabakh war, the general income of families lowered and although they tried to collect a dowry for their daughters it created a degree of financial hardship for the family.

The tradition continues today, although the size of the dowry depends on the family’s financial means. Some families begin creating a dowry when their daughters are very young and slowly add items through the years. The size and value of the dowry matter to some communities, where girls with small dowries may not be accepted by their in-laws. Some families even borrow money so they can give their daughters a dowry that will be respected by their husband’s relatives.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was rare for someone to get married without a wedding party. But due to the restrictions on large gatherings and people’s financial woes, new customs became commonplace. People started holding small parties instead of large weddings and newlyweds — especially those who are already economically independent from their parents — began shunning traditional dowries in favor of more practical wedding gifts.

This new trend created an impetus for new traditions: dowry practices appear to be fading due to increasing economic challenges amid an international inflation increase, sanctions on Russia, and a possible recession. This photo project explores how views on traditional dowries are changing.

Sara, 17. Village of Kurdakhani.
Image by Gular Abbasova. Used with permission under partnership agreement.

Sara: My mother has been buying dowry items for me since I was a child. Dishes, spoons, pots, tablecloths, lamps … I have no plans to get married yet, I am thinking of my education. I am preparing for exams. But what can be done ?! Like all mothers, she is used to it. This is a custom for all our relatives and neighbors, in our village. It is common for parents to buy dowry items for their girls starting from a young age.  My mother thinks that even if she builds the dowry slowly, it will be cheaper. But everything changes over time. Customs as well.

Aliya, 24. Village of Fatmayi. Image by Gular Abbasova. Used with permission under partnership agreement.

Aliya: When a young girl gets married, her family should provide her dowry and furniture. Otherwise, the villagers and the people around them judge them. I got married in 2021. Before the wedding, my mother-in-law told my parents that there was no need to buy too many things. A small set of furniture and a few things were enough. My husband's family was wealthy. I would live in the same house with my in-laws. It was a big house with everything you needed for living.

After some hesitation, my parents decided to buy a set of furniture and some household items without spending a lot of money.

Turkan, 26, Bina settlement, Baku.
Image by Gular Abbasova. Used with permission under partnership agreement.

Turkan: When I was a teenager, my mother would buy me a few towels and a tablecloth. Once I told my mother that I would buy what I needed myself. When I got married, I was already working and earning my own money. I didn't want to bother my parents financially. We celebrated our marriage with a small party in 2021. I bought household items from the money I saved from my own salary.  My husband's parents also gave us the money they had set aside for gold. We bought other household items instead of gold. To be honest, there was no need to buy so much stuff. We were satisfied with very few things.

Ulkar, 26, Baku.
Image by Gular Abbasova. Used with permission under partnership agreement.

Ulkar: I have very few items as a dowry. These are antiques left by my mother and grandmother from their dowries and the scarf I am wearing. For the dowry, my mother bought a tablecloth and a few towels. My husband and I told our parents that there was no need to spend extra money on dowry and weddings. With these funds, we can build a more profitable business for our future. But at the request of my father-in-law, we definitely had to buy gold jewellery. Because it is an accepted custom in society. It would not have been possible without it.

Gulsara, 30, Baku.
Image by Gular Abbasova. Used with permission under partnership agreement.

Gulsara: When I was a teenager, I told my mother that there was no need to purchase dowry. I didn't want my parents to spend too much money on things. My mother gave me a Guba carpet (traditional and valuable handmade carpet). In addition, I also received antiques that belonged to my mother and grandmother, copper utensils. I have a memory of family heirlooms that reflected the folk culture and my family’s traditions. These were valuable to me. We will buy what we need as we need it after our marriage as long as my husband and I live together.

Afsana, 26, Baku.
Image by Gular Abbasova. Used with permission under partnership agreement.

Afsana: I plan to start a family in the near future, which is why my mother is already purchasing small household items for a dowry. She made a list of what is needed and almost everything necessary for everyday life has been purchased. I'm not very adept with dowry preparations. I left this job to my mother and sister. The basic kitchenware — gadgets, dishes, towels, and tablecloths — are almost ready.

We will probably buy furniture and kitchen appliances before the wedding. Maybe there will be no need, if we move to a fully furnished rental. I think that the pandemic has greatly affected dowry traditions. If five to ten years ago families bought a lot for a dowry, during the pandemic they tried to be more considerate. When I asked newlyweds about their marriage preparations, they said that they managed to live with less money and savings. There were even some who did not have a wedding party at all. I am also trying to be considerate and cost-effective. I think that extra things are an unnecessary expense.

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