Despite being mocked, a brave Azerbaijani woman started a small sewing shop and saved several families in her home village who were in dire need of income.
Vafa Nagiyeva is from the small village of Khorgaragashli in Azerbaijan's Neftchala District. Several years ago, she studied Political Science and International Relations in Istanbul. She had planned to remain in Turkey, was sending around her resume about to apply for a job with a local television channel. Vafa would not have returned to Azerbaijan had it not been for a trip she had to make to her home village.
"My grandmother died in April. I arrived here for the funeral. You know what commemoration events are like in Azerbaijan. The entire village gathers, and everyone is especially interested in seeing people who have come from afar," Vafa says.
At grandmother's commemoration event, the focus of attention were granddaughters who arrived from Turkey – Vafa and her two sisters. Women there told Vafa about their difficult life, many of the women cried, complaining about their poverty, unemployment, and lack of basic amenities. Vafa listened, empathized with them and felt a little guilty for her own life in Istanbul which now seemed so easy and comfortable to her.
"Afterward, I shared my feelings with friends. I told them – can you imagine how difficult it turns out people's lives are? But they only laughed: it has always been like this, it's just that you have been away for so long."
“In villages things are even harder for women”
Soon after her grandmother's funeral, Vafa went back to Istanbul, received her diploma and began to prepare for the move.
"I told my friends that I was going to Azerbaijan to start my own business there. They couldn’t believe it and called me crazy."
Vafa decided to apply for a grant from the Prague Civil Society Centre. That grant would help her with startup capital.
"I did not really expect to win. In other countries, large projects had won. I didn’t think I stood much of a chance applied anyway."
In her business plan, Vafa described how she would start a sewing shop to employ her fellow female villagers.
"We had a sewing machine in our house in the village, and I knew that every house had one of those machines and that every woman could make an even seam."
Vafa won and received a grant that allowed her to rent a room in the village to use as a shop and buy several sewing machines and pieces of fabric for making bedsheets.
Vafa's plan was to start a social business, the main purpose of which was not to earn lots of money, but employ other women.
"We live in a patriarchal society, in villages things are even harder for women, they are not free. They do not have their own money and for this reason they become dependent. Many bans are imposed on them. I know that in our village there are many girls who want to go to study at a university.
The response they receive is this: “We can barely make ends meet, we have difficulty even feeding you, where will we find money for your education? Domestic violence compounds the problem. I know that a woman's economic independence can rectify that situation."
“What can a girl do?”
Unlike the European foundation and its expert panel, Vafa's fellow villagers were very doubtful about her idea. The father of the future businesswoman was the biggest skeptic:
"My dad was very angry, he is still angry," Vafa says. "He said, ‘why do you need this? Why are you pushing your ideas here? What can you do?’ In general, he believes that it would be better if I got married. He says that people my age already have children growing up."
The in the village said, “what can a girl do? What kind of a business can she run?" She continues to hear these offensive phrases to date, but they hurt her much less now than they did in the beginning.
"I spent a long time doubting it, I thought: well, what if I start that shop but nobody wants to work there?"
But very soon it became clear that these fears were groundless – literally all the women in the village came to apply for a job.
"There were 40 to 50 women, and it was the first time I had seen many of them. I had to seek my parents' advice – who are those people, why are there so many of them, how did they learn about the shop? My father responded, “what do you mean, how did they learn about the shop? You are the one everyone was waiting for! You wanted it, now sort it out yourself,’" Vafa recalls.
It was impossible to hire everyone, and Vafa decided to choose those who needed the job the most.
"This is how I evaluated the applicants: Does her family keep domestic animals or grow crops or have a plot of land? Does anyone in her family work? What income might they have, how do they live? I wanted to give the job to those who needed it the most."
As a result, Vafa hired five seamstresses. For them, it was their first workplace.
“A woman with money is a confident woman”
Neftchala District is located not far from the capital, Baku, just under a two hours drive. But the bumpy dirt road from the district center to the village is the longest part of the trip. At the entrance to the village the our film crew is met by a group of men. We ask them to show us the way to the sewing shop, but after they notice video cameras in our vehicle, they suggest that we start with filming the state the roads are in. But they do show us the way.
The shop is small. It is a room with a large table, stacks of sets of bedclothes and pieces of colorful fabric, as well as three sewing machines.
"I have never worked before. I only took care of the household and picked cotton," says Tamilla Huseynova, 56. "I studied to be an accountant, but I have never worked."
Tamilla has three children. Her daughter is already married and lives with her sons who also have families of their own. The family lost its breadwinner back in 2005. And despite the dire need, Tamilla has not been able to find a job over the years, although she proudly says that she studied accounting.
"We have one hospital for three or four villages. That is the only place where there is work. There is a school, too. Teachers work there, and there are a couple of cleaning ladies, that's it. There is no work in the village. Everyone else only does seasonal jobs. We wait for work to begin in the fields, and afterward we sit at home without work."
In Azerbaijani families, especially in remote population centers, it is not customary to openly discuss men's incomes and disclose how much they earn. So, Tamilla, too, tries to use vague phrases when answering questions about where her sons work and how they earn their money:
"One of them works… in the yard, he does the kind of work that his father did, he fixes cars. Otherwise, there is no work in the village.”
– Have you received your first salaries yet?
– Yes, we have.
– Are you happy with your salary?
– Certainly. A woman with money is a confident woman,
It is with special pleasure that Vafa talks about how happy the seamstresses were when they received their first salaries.
"It even seems to me that in the beginning they did not really believe in my idea. Perhaps they thought that I would not be able to pay them and that they would do a bit of work and leave," Vafa says. "After their first salaries were paid, there were even more people willing to work for me. People came here even from neighboring villages. And now they look forward to their salaries. Every time they finish sewing a set of bedclothes, they ask me when I will pay them their salaries."
A Meeting Place
Salary, however, is not the only thing that brings women in the village to the shop. Vafa says that although she only has five seamstresses working for her, 10 to 15 women gather in this small room almost every day.
"They gather for no particular reason, just for a chat. As I have already said, I have observed that women in villages visit commemoration events not so much to cry but to see each other, to have a chat, you see? Where else can they do it, after all? From this point of view, it is easier for men, because they can gather in a teahouse or in the street. There is no such place for women."
Vafa's sewing shop has now become a meeting place for the women of the village of Khorgaragashli. But that does not affect the quality of the seamstresses' work, Vafa says. And for the time being she is quite happy with how much they sell.
"People with civic responsibility always try hard to support a social business," Vafa says and highlights support that her business receives in social media. "Literally days after we opened, people on Facebook began writing about our shop and I was invited to hold a fair in Baku. Here I was going to exhibit my products for the first time. I brought everything we had sewn to the fair. Members of the social initiative team 'Gəl danış' ('Let's talk') helped me organize the fair. The guys asked me then if I was sure I could sell all that? I replied – I do expect to sell it all, but I am not sure. I sold everything I had brought by the evening." Over these couple of months, nothing that I sell has lain around unsold in the shop for too long yet.
"We have yet to hold on to our stock, we have always sold what we have sewn so far. We even receive recurring orders," Vafa boasts. Individuals order a couple of sets of bedclothes and large orders come in as well. Therefore, it is with even greater confidence that Vafa is planning on continuing her business without the help of grants, so that the business can support itself.
Vafa also plans to open similar shops in neighboring villages. "People often write to me to say that it is not easy to find a job in those villages either, and that there are many needy women who also need money. For this reason, yes, I have plans to expand my business as well," Vafa says.
With the support of the Russian Language News Exchange