Women in Azerbaijan: Clothing, Careers, and Customs

In Soviet times, both women and men in Azerbaijan achieved high levels of education and could hold jobs at many levels of their country’s economy and government.  Since the independence of Azerbaijan, however, a number of patriarchal traditions and cultural assumptions about gender roles have re-emerged. What does this mean for the women of Azerbaijan in the 21st century?

Typically, when someone mentions gender roles in the non-Western world, one might immediately picture women who are confined to the home to carry out domestic duties.  Women in Azerbaijan certainly make a habit out of intensively cleaning their houses or having inexpensive help in doing so.  Many also stay home to care for their children and hardly leave home.  Although this might be the case for many Azeri women, many enjoy the process of applying make-up and styling their hair before leaving home.

Throughout the past few decades, women of Azerbaijan have mostly discarded the head-to-toe covering of their bodies and have transitioned to a time where women can wear shorter shirts.  Some see this as a liberating experience for Azeri women, while others see it as a cause for unwanted attention and objectification of women.  Essentially, the option to wear clothing that completely covers the body or to opt for less clothing gives Azeri women a choice to make about themselves.

Customs and law no longer decide what the women of Azerbaijan will wear.  However, after the collapse of Soviet communism within Azerbaijan, the reentry of religious values into the country has made its way into the decision-making process of younger women’s attire.  Nonetheless, women are mostly free to wear a hijab (head scarf) or look to the monument in Baku of a woman discarding her veil and do the same.

Although women’s clothing in Azerbaijan is not a contested issue, the subject of women in the workforce remains a hot discussion topic.  In 2006, Azerbaijan passed a law on gender equality, defining gender-based discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction, exercised on the basis of gender, including sexual harassment.”  However, Azerbaijani officials rarely enforce these laws or inform women of such decrees-especially in a post-Soviet Azerbaijan.

If an Azerbaijani woman decides that homemaking is not a suitable career, her acceptable alternatives are typically teaching and nursing.  Even if a woman does enter the workforce, the household and family remain her number one priority.  Azeri women typically marry early, leaving them a small time frame to enter into a career and ensuring that they will likely experience the double day.  Female teachers in Azeri schools often skip class to look after guests or leave school early for a trip to the bazaar (market).

Before becoming a married woman, an Azeri woman must have a family accept the potential groom.  Americans often refer to the act of a man asking a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage as “old fashioned” or “traditional,” whether they like or dislike the custom.  The Azeri culture has created a way to make this process less painless for the groom and his family; they will serve unsweetened tea to spare the male’s family humiliating rejection if they deny his marriage proposal. If the tea is sweet, the couple may marry.  If the ultimate decision to allow my significant other to marry me rested in the hands of my father, I am sure I would prefer to have the meeting with this Azeri custom.

Statistical findings from the Caucasus Research Resource Center show that the Azeri population’s attitudes towards gender equality seem a bit ambiguous.  Many people express traditional attitudes about gender roles, division of labor and participation of men and women in domestic and public life.  Yet, much of the population also thinks gender equality has already been mostly achieved.  This indicates that the perception of gender equality differs from the actual distribution of gender roles.  Gender equality and gender roles are a popular topic among anthropologists, social scientists, and many non-academics.  Sometimes, what we think is oppressive or too liberating might be thought of as the opposite in another culture.  Azerbaijan’s gender roles may seem quite divided to many people and to some of the Azerbaijani population; however, laws and cultural groups exist today that share the common goal of pursuing gender equality, in its cultural context, within Azerbaijan.

Post written by Elizabeth Cavin Urquhart