Shalala Amirjanova, 19, Marneuli

„My name is Shalala. “Shalala” means a waterfall in my language. I am the only unmarried girl among my former classmates. I graduated from the Marneuli School as an external student last year and enrolled at the Science and Arts Department of Ilia State University. My major field of study is sociology. When I was enrolled at the university, for one year I studied only the Georgian language. I started studying other subjects from the following year. It is probably because of my mother’s influence that I have lived a free life without facing any cultural restrictions. My mother, like my grandmother got married only after she graduated from school, got a higher education and a job.

However, this was only a little stimulus. I realized independently what would be better. Because of the influence of my family “Hi”, “How are you?” were the only phrases I knew in the Georgian language up to the eighth grade. People speak only the Azerbaijani or the Russian language in our community and families. I appeared among Georgians when I attended a training course in the Marneuli Youth Center in the eighth grade. There were Georgians in the parallel grade in our school but to us they were the “other” as we were the “other” to them. From the Youth Center I was sent to a five-day training course in Tbilisi. I will not forget this period. My birthday coincided with that period and at 12 a.m. training participants – people who were strangers to me – threw a surprise birthday party. I thought for the first time that day that these “strangers” were people like me and maybe even better than me. I thought then that ethnical identity brings more harm than benefit to people. I also remember how my Armenian friends and I found it difficult to chum up. This was because it was ingrained in our memory that we were enemies. But when you get to know each other better, you realize that things are much simpler. These Armenian girls are now my best friends. Therefore, I think that integration and relationships will help resolve conflicts.

During the training organized as part of the ANI project I talked in the Georgian language for the first time. Even though I studied everything by heart to make a presentation, I became more interested in learning the language and studying sociology in the Georgian language. Before that I toured Marneuli villages and ran training courses in the Azerbaijani language. I ran training courses about family violence against women. But the community is less interested in the topic. Families do not allow girls to attend the training course because most of them think that as soon as a girl finishes the 9th grade, she must get married…

For the very reason that girls get married or are engaged, the last school bell for them rings in the 9th grade! My first classmate got married in the 9th form. She did not want to and cried but she was persuaded anyway that this was a good outcome. Eventually only two girls (including me) finished our school from our grade.
Generally girls are under the influence of their parents. Parents think that the earlier they will give their daughters away in marriage the better they will protect them from danger. They lure girls into marriage by painting a colorful future for them: that they will have a rich husband, a big house, they will not lack anything, parents will support them and they will never be hard up. Giving a daughter away in marriage is a huge burden for families. They take USD 15, 000 and even more in loan to furnish son-in-law’s house and it takes them the whole life to repay the loan.

I remember that one day one of my friends called and invited me to her engagement party. I got mad because I knew that she was not going to get married yet. She told me that it did not make any sense to resist as they had already drank a sweet tea. There is a tradition in our community, when the parents of the girl and boy arrange a marriage, the parents of the bride-to-be invite the parents of their future son-in-law. If they offer sugar to their guests when they drink tea, the matter is already settled. The girl does not take any part in the arrangements.

What do girls like in this proposal? That there is nothing new in their life except for Turkish soap operas. I always say that there are three entertainment opportunities in Marneuli: Shawurma, the furniture store and “Zapchasti”. It is good at least we have a new Smart (a chain store), where we can sit in a café. They were also going to build a movie theatre but ended up with building a supermarket. The situation is disastrous in villages. Do you know what the only entertainment for teenagers is?! Weddings. They compete, whose wedding is ‘”better”, who has more beautiful dress, who has the best cuisine served during the wedding… When you are at the wedding party, you wish you were in the bride’s place because wedding is the only entertainment we have… If a girl is engaged she visits Tbilisi together with her fiancé once a week to have some fun. This is also some kind of allurement.
Even though I am only 19, people are surprised when they learn that I am not married. When my relatives come to visit us they never ask me how I study. They only ask me when I am going to get married, “You have already graduated from school and enrolled at a university, what else do you want? You have even visited the United States!”

I went to the United States in November. I am probably lucky to have such amazing people like my mother around me. The UN Association of Georgia (UNAG) nominated me as a candidate for one of the programs of the US embassy. I won the competition held by the embassy. I could not believe that I was going to visit the USA. My relatives even met my brother. They wondered how he could let me go to the USA, they also asked the same question to my mother. They do not know that my mother cried tears of joy together with me, when I got a positive response via e-mail.

Currently part of my tuition fees is financed by SOCAR. I pay the remaining part myself from my salary. I work for the Marneuli community radio and prepare some stories. During the period of studying I would like to visit villages and run training courses. I am going to embark on a tour of villages as part of the PITA project. Maybe I am capable of making miracles happen.
I also started learning English. I would like to get a master’s degree abroad. Women’s rights advocacy is my future.“