10 Sep

Honor and Death: Is the Internet Exacerbating Suicide in Azerbaijan?

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September 10 is World Suicide Prevention day.

The most recent data on suicide in Azerbaijan is from 2007. However, according to this (iffy) website, suicide is the 20th most common cause of death in Azerbaijan, with over 400 each year.

In an informal analysis of Azerbaijani news stories, I came up with 6 young female suicides or attempts in 2013 and 4 in 2012. Obviously, this is not an official count. [Link to reports]

Why so many suicides and attempted suicides of teenage and young women?

In Kazakhstan there has been a lot of teenage suicides as well. Recently there were suggestions that information overload and the current media environment is causing the suicides in Kazakhstan.

But what of Azerbaijan? In a piece that I’m working on right now about Internet gender inequality in Azerbaijan, I speculate that these extreme measures – i.e. suicide attempts – are because of Azerbaijan’s honor culture.

An honor culture is is one that uses specific behavior codes to which members of the culture must obey. Upholding and defending the reputation of one’s self and family is paramount. This honor serves as a structure of social power and discipline. If someone else violates someone’s honor, a response or retaliation is required. In honor cultures, women are modest, have a norm of shame, and avoid behaviors that may embarrass their family. A failure to maintain honor harms their and their family’s reputation. Men, on the other hand, have to constantly prove their manhood as social status. Research shows that individuals in honor cultures are more vulnerable to suicide because of social isolation and feelings of being a burden to the family. For women especially, suicide may be the only way to restore family honor and remove shame.

In this paper, I argue that the Internet may be making female honor more complicated in Azerbaijan. Blackmailing women with honor-related overtones is something that happens for both public figures (like Khadija Ismayilova, a frequent target of honor-related shaming), as well as regular Azerbaijani women who become victims of blackmail attempts.

Recently I was made aware of one of these situations. A young woman was filmed doing a (somewhat) erotic dance. At BEST she looked extremely uncomfortable. At worst she appeared to have been drugged. It was painful to watch. I can imagine exactly what happened. Her boyfriend said, “Hey, can I film you with my phone so I can watch later? (While in the army? At home?)” She didn’t want to. Maybe she told him she didn’t want to, maybe she didn’t. But he suspected her reluctance and said, “Don’t you trust me?” What is a young Azerbaijani girl supposed to answer to that? “No, I don’t trust you. Do not film me.” — That would be impossible. So she let him film her.
Weeks or months later, for whatever reason, they broke up. Maybe he threatened her with making the video public. Maybe he just put it online. Regardless, it make it online.
Soon after, she attempted suicide.

While it is impossible to blame these suicides and attempts on “the Internet,” given Azerbaijan’s honor culture, the Internet and social media’s attributes that are usually highlighted as assets (ease of low-cost creation and distribution, for example), are also the same attributes that make bullying possible as well.

I wish that I had a way to help these young women — not let themselves be filmed or photographed in the first place, perhaps? But helping young women play defense is not going to resolve this issue. What is a realistic approach to reduce suicides? How can Azerbaijani women be encouraged to go online when the possibility of this sort of personal blackmail exists?

I’ll be thinking about these questions, in light of World Suicide Prevention Day, and I hope you will as well.

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