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Arranged family marriages

 Arranged family marriages in Azerbaijan

 A photographic project documenting issues around one of Azerbaijan’s most deeply rooted and widespread social phenomena – arranged marriages between close relatives. In addition to being locally relevant, my project has global significance as it addresses issues such as gender relations, poverty, cultural traditions in the context of modernity, as well as public health.  All these topics are framed in the context of family, a social unit which links us all together in our common humanity, in spite of our differences.  

 Even though marriage between relatives is often stygmatised in the West, cousin/family marriages account for 10% of the world's total marriages, and here in Azerbaijan, cousin marriages are practiced by many in rural communities as both a cultural tradition and an economic choice. While most commonly spread among families of lower economic status, some wealthy rural families practice inter-marriage to increase the size of their 'clan', consequently widening its power and influence, while keeping the family's heritage and wealth among its own members. In other cases, some disadvantaged families decide for cousin/family marriage to make the start of a new family more economically efficient, especially in the case of sharing property.  With real estate prices reaching new heights due to the oil boom, it has become unaffordable for most young families to start their married life in a new home. In such cases, newlyweds remain in their parents/family home after marriage, thus saving money on rent and expenses which one would have to provide with 'new' in-laws. 

 In my project, I will try to take a non-judgmental approach and investigate the reasons underlying this phenomenon – the traditions and choices – as well as document family life as it is, with its moments of joy, sadness, kindness, love and struggle. However, I do recogize at the same time some distinct disadvantages associated with inter-family marriage:

1. Clan mentality. Marriage between relatives, especially among ethnic minorities hampers their social integration. While preserving cultural diversity, such marriages also give grounds for inter-ethnic disputes. By keeping to themselves, people may develop intolerance to other groups within their wider community. Family disputes arise both internally and externally, as families attempt to protect their sphere of influence.  

2. Distortion of gender roles. In most cases, the inter-family marraiges are arranged by senior family members when their children are 10 - 15 years old, without considering the opinions and feelings of the young people involved in the arrangement. Consequently, both young people are under immense social pressure to accept the fate that they have no control over.  This way, in many cases, deprived of their own choice, the two young people start a new life unmotivated, relying on their parents to solve all of their problems. Particularly, in the scenario of an arranged marriage, women are often more disadvantaged as it is always a prerogative of a man's side of family to decide which bride they choose for their son.  This further distorts gender roles by limiting the women's choice over the matter, if not depriving them of choice entirely. 

3. Public health risks. There are many well known health risks for children born into/from cousin marriages – for example increased likelihood of diabetes, thalassemia and other genetic disorders. According to Azerbaijan Center for Thalassemia, 40.5% of children diagnosed with this condition are born into cousin marriages. At the same time, the UN agencies quote a very alarming statistics of 15% increase in development of hereditory deseases in the provinces of Azerbaijan. 

 I have been working on the subject of family in Azerbaijan since 2007, focusing more on arranged marriage since 2009. This subject is close to me as many of my own family members are married to their close relatives, namely cousins.  I have been documenting their family life in the village of Hovsan, near Baku where I grew up, and have become especially interested in the family subject from the point of view of public health during my own pregnancy. Even though my own marriage was not arranged like most of my family members', during pregnancy I experienced anxiety that brought the issues of child health even closer to me. 

 I'd like to expose the public to the realities of the vital social, gender and health issues associated with arranged marriage between relatives. With this documentary photography project, I am hoping to bring the public closer to the issue and show a fragment of a family life in a remote corner, but at the same time create a general human interest story that everyone can relate to.  I focus on familial bonds that hold them together, on distance and closeness between the members, on problems and struggles and traditions. With these photographs I want to raise awareness and challenge the barriers of intercultural understanding of this issue. 

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