Magazine article World Literature Today

Five Younger Women Poets from Azerbaijan

Magazine article World Literature Today

Five Younger Women Poets from Azerbaijan

Article excerpt







In the center of one square in the capital of Baku, Azerbaijan, stands the obligatory Soviet statue of a woman freeing herself from her veil. This image paints a simplistic picture of gender oppression under Islam-and its elimination under the great modernizing force of the Soviet state. In another square, even more central to the city, stands a statue of the poet and civic leader Khurshidbanu Natavan (1832-97), a woman celebrated both for her lyrical verses and her facilitation of the construction of a critical new municipal water system. Clearly women were busy working and writing-and being appreciated for their work and writing-before the Soviet Union laid claim to the emancipation of Muslim women.

In March 1991, exactly twenty-five years ago, modern Azerbaijan declared independence from the soon-to-be-dissolved Soviet Union. Located in the south Caucasus, about the size of Portugal or the state of Maine, with a population of 9.5 million, Azerbaijan is a place long at the crossroads of the cultural influences of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. For centuries, Persia and Russia each sought control of the region, and in 1828 the area in which Azerbaijani Turkish was the dominant spoken language was split by treaty between these two empires. Today ethnic Azerbaijanis are Iran's largest minority; northern Iran is still referred to by Azerbaijanis as "Southern Azerbaijan." Until a brief period of Ottoman influence in the region, when sixteenth-century poet Fizuli began to write in a form of Azerbaijani (as well as in Persian and Arabic), the region's literary language was Persian. Embodying this intersection of cultures, today's Azerbaijani language contains many Persian, Arabic, and Russian loan words, and the influence of Persian and Arabic forms can be seen in Azerbaijani poetry, especially in the oral traditions of Ashiq (poetbards) and Mugham (lyrical folk music).

By the time of the Russian Revolution in 1905, the capital city of Baku was home to a wide variety of peoples, languages, and religions. A nineteenth-century oil boom had led to the rapid growth in wealth of a group of local families, many of whom participated in movements to reform local institutions of religion, education, and government and to foster the arts. Indeed, by the time Azerbaijan became a Soviet member state in 1920, the push for more education and a larger public role for women was already well established, at least in the bigger towns and cities. In this period, women leaders like Hamida Javanshir, who founded the first co-educational school in Azerbaijan, and the aforementioned Natavan, daughter of the last khan of the Karabagh region, promoted both the education of girls and the cultural and civic participation of women, ensuring that the seeds of gender equity had been sown.

During this period, women's literary production blossomed, supported by educated patrons such as Natavan, who in the nineteenth century held literary salons for both women and men in her home. This early support for women's participation in civic and cultural spheres was certainly reinforced by the Soviet philosophy-if not always the practice-of gender equity. Azerbaijanis continue to speak of women as having played a lengthy and central role in the region's social and cultural spheres. From the same city as the more well-known Nizami Ganjavi, a shadowy twelfth-century female poet called Mehseti Ganjavi, about whom there are few scholarly sources, nevertheless features prominently in Mirza Ibrahimov's introduction to the first collection of Azerbaijani poetry translated into English (Azerbaijanian Poetry, Moscow, 1969). He praises her and recounts stories (perhaps apocryphal, but no less culturally powerful) of her resistance to traditional limitations on women's activities more than eight hundred years ago.

While Muslim women, like women worldwide of all backgrounds, may at times struggle for public equity, their lives are anything but homogeneous. …

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