Islamic Paradox? – Gender in Baku

In western popular consciousness, Islam is a faith that rigidly patrols its boundaries. In this conception of Islam, the “House of Islam” combats the world of unbelief, religious infidelity is punished by the state, and uncovered women are banned from public space. The only boundary that the West might wish to introduce–a religious/secular divide–is staunchly rejected. Given such an understanding of Islam, the western public cannot quite fathom Islam’s variability or the fact that “flexible” Islam exists.

Living in the secular Shia state of Azerbaijan made me consider anew the question of Islam, for Azerbaijan’s post-Soviet Islam offers a paradox: a distinct “male” gendering of public space, despite the presence of “liberated” women in European cuts of fashion.  Unlike Russia, where the figure of the babushka (the Russian grandmother) dominates public space, public space in Azerbaijan is distinctly male. Here, there is no sign of the male emasculation associated with Soviet-era repression (in which the state usurped the role of father) or with post-Soviet unemployment (which left men unable to provide). Indeed, neither Soviet nor post-Soviet economic struggles appear to have limited the size or cohesion of the Azerbaijani family, and Azerbaijani men remain central to family life. While not unaffected by Soviet life, Azerbaijani traditional culture remains exceptionally strong.

As a westerner, this vitality might not be immediately visible, for Azerbaijani streets tend to be filled with small groups of men who have apparently nothing to do. They gather at the junctions of streets, on the edges of the dvor, and around metro entrances. Shifting restlessly, but not with any sense of haste or impatience, they engage in long conversation marked by few words and multiple drags on a cigaret. Some of them are taxi drivers waiting for a customer to appear. Others appear to be arranging a deal of some sorts–a swap, a trade, or something else. Some are surely pensioners, while others are probably unemployed. High unemployment alone cannot explain this phenomenon, however, for in places such as Russia or Georgia, similar post-Soviet unemployment rates failed to produce this male-dominated street scene. The men on Azerbaijani streets signal something else–namely, that public space is coded male.

This gender coding is unmistakable. For every woman in the metro after dark, there are at least a dozen men. In the heart of Baku, men and women together remain out late, but this does not change the overall gender imbalance on the street after dark. Males dominate the night, and to some extent they even dominate the day, for they are the ones responsible for public errands as opposed to domestic chores. Azerbaijani teahouses are purely male “hang outs,” and even public parks seem to privilege men, who gather there to play chess, dominoes, and backgammon, or perhaps just sit.

Baku park (photo by J. Michalec)

Not that women are entirely absent from public space; only, they tend to be busy with activities other than leisurely conversation in the street. When small clusters of 2-5 women appear, they are generally on their way to somewhere, never stopped on a street corner.  Although women do frequent restaurants and cafes, these are crowded and expensive mixed-gender spaces. Bathhouses are gender segregated, but going to the banya is regarded as something that “the boys” do when seeking to relax or bond. Women do occasionally stop and chat together in the dvor, but not as often as men, and they are usually busy supervising children as they talk. In any case, the dvor is something of an extended familial space, being only quasi-public. The hair salon provides a site for female sociability outside the home, but such salons consist of interiors sheltered by curtains from public view.

Despite male dominance over public space, women walk Azerbaijani streets with remarkable freedom from harassment. As a rule, Azerbaijani men do not ogle women. They make no unwelcome advances, and one has the sense that they would be dreadfully embarrassed if some action on their part caused offense to a woman. Moreover, such respect is granted no matter what the woman’s attire–headscarf or revealing “European” cut of clothes. Freedom of dress may be a legacy of the Soviet past–of an imposed secularism in which fashion was a mark of cosmopolitan sensibility, but thankfully it’s a practice that has lingered. This is a world where women have the freedom to choose–to work or not work, to sport a headscarf or not. They can also wander into “male” space and not be harassed.

This spatial arrangement is tied to domesticity, being a city-wide expression of household arrangements that sustain the family. Yes, Azerbaijani women may opt for careers or European dress, but nearly all have families, and the pressure to bear children is very high. To support family, which Azerbaijanis value deeply, men assist in childcare, running errands and taking children outdoors to play. Meanwhile, women cook, clean, and keep the home in order, whether or not they have careers. Despite women’s freedom of career, social roles tend toward the traditional, and the street’s gender code illustrates this. Male-coded streets not only reflect the political and economic dominance of men over women (top posts in Azerbaijan are, of course, dominated by men), but also a deep male-female interconnectedness–that is, a shared strategy for managing all space, both interior and exterior.

Navigating such spaces can be complex, for class and neighborhood also divvy up Baku’s urban terrain. In Baku’s large markets, where low-brow and more transient men appear, a “ruffian” may comment on some woman’s clothing, provoking a fistfight with “her” man.  The offending comment might be relatively innocent by western standards–a mere reference to a logo on a shirt, perhaps; but, such remarks represent a transgression, an impropriety that insults the woman’s honor and thus that of the man. Such conflicts involve manhood–that is, the male defense of honor and territory, as defined by the woman and her relationship to these men. In a typical scenario, a man from a middle- or upper-class neighborhood enters the “lower” world of the market. The man in the market then responds, challenging the newcomer’s social code and place at the same time.  Cultural and economic differentials help provoke the conflict. Class and territorial boundaries–not just gender lines–are at play.

To understand this complicating feature of the gendered landscape, it’s important to remember that Soviet Baku was historically divided into neighborhoods, each with its own codes of dress and comportment. Many were ethnically mixed, turning “territoriality” into an expression of class. Memoirs of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s describe how young men in one neighborhood organized to keep “their” women away from the men of other neighborhoods; in fact, dating a woman from another neighborhood was a sort of “coup.” Women could cross neighborhood boundaries, but the men who accompanied them might be challenged by men from competing neighborhoods. In other words, the male coding of urban space in Baku did not exclude women, but left games of trade, influence, and policing to the men.

Perhaps ironically, Azerbaijan’s male dominance on the street appears to benefit women. In Russia or Georgia, where women “occupy” public space to the same degree as men, women require male accompaniment after dark, for harassment and assault are not uncommon. Yet in Baku, where men rule the street, women are generally safe from verbal or physical harassment, as if virtually veiled and protected from objectification. They are defined, after all, in relationship to men–as wives, mothers, sisters, and neighbors, all in a world where family traditionally extends into the dvor and the dvor into the neighborhood. Far from marking the “bogey men” of unemployment or conservative Islam, then, Baku’s male-dominated street marks the resilience of a complex traditional social code, one that is post-Soviet and yet distinct to Azerbaijan.

All of which highlights the variability in Islamic practice, something all too often forgotten in popular western conceptions of Islam. Thanks to Soviet influence, the strict Islamic segregation of space according to gender has broken down, leaving a milder gender code that nonetheless protects many of the fundamental principles that Islamic practices were designed to uphold, starting with respect for women. In striking contrast to southern Azerbaijan (i.e. northern Iran), Azerbaijani women in post-Soviet space enjoy freedom that defies the boundaries cast both by conservative Islam and by the West’s conception of it. Unlike the state-imposed boundaries of Iran or the imagined Islam of the West, Azerbaijan’s boundaries are complex and evolving, influenced by Iranian and Soviet pasts and a distinctly Azerbaijani present in which the boundaries of class, nation, faith, and gender shift continually.

Sketches of “my” dvor

When discussing Baku’s beauty, foreigners generally focus their comments on the city center, where massive investments into infrastructure and new construction have rendered old Soviet Baku unrecognizable. Tearing down homes and historic architecture, the state has produced a city center that is a  controversial but impressive symbol and agent of change. Thanks to the funds invested into soaping and scrubbing downtown streets, the downtown literally glistens. It was impressive and, in many ways, lovely, and yet it wasn’t “my” Baku. Yes, I visited the center, as did droves of young people and families on weekends. Still, my “home,” the place where I spent most of my day-to-day life in Baku, was my dvor–the famous and embattled Baku dvor.

My “dvor” was in many ways still a Soviet dvor–a bit ramshackle and unkept, a site for both play and what might be called “everyday economics,” including car washing, laundry drying, and automotive repair. Ringed by six five-story Khrushchev-era apartment buildings, the dvor held trees, a few vegetable stalls, a bakery, a shed, and a small drive with parking all along the perimeter. When we first arrived, my husband and I noted a small outdoor community faucet from which water flowed constantly. Men drew water from it to wash cars (though there was a car wash at the far end of the dvor), and small boys sometimes attempted to wash themselves, though they did little more than dampen and spread the dust with which they had covered themselves (how I longed to watch their mothers react!).

The dvor went through a daily routine: mornings tended to be sunny but quiet, as mothers accompanied children to school, men and young boys quickly ran to the corner bakery to buy naan, and others walked to work. The cars tended not to move, and in general we often had the sense that the city slept–or, at least, that our dvor slept. At 10 o’clock, we might see a mother on a bench with a child, and perhaps a salesman might enter the yard, broadcasting his wares with a rich, echoing call: “Apples, small crisp apples! Apples, IMG_6750small crisp apples!” or “Brooms!” Now and then, a woman (it was almost always a woman) would cross the dvor to the small “everything store” on the ground floor of an opposing apartment building. Days were generally very quiet, though, especially in the cold winter months.

In the early afternoon, the dvor began to come to life. First, the yard would fill with children returning home from school; always accompanied by mother or an older sibling, they ran and “jabbered” with all the boisterousness that one would expect of children recently “released” from school-day discipline. If the weather was good, young boys would then begin a soccer game, while girls might skip on the pavement just below our window. By late afternoon, the dvor’s activities would peak. Adults would return from work, often with a load of food goods in hand. Well-attired youths would head to the metro, perhaps to the boulevard for a stroll with friends. A group of fit-looking young males would gather around a small set of outdoor bars, doing chin-ups, sit-ups, and other exercises. At times, someone in the apartments above would open a window and shout to a child below, launching a conversation for all to hear. And gradually, starting with the children, everyone would drift back indoors.

There was no clear distinction between the interior and exterior of these buildings; one blurred into the other as people reached across the black-and-glass divide to communicate. Salespeople exploited this. Though it was not uncommon to be solicited by young people who entered the apartments and knocked on doors (a new, post-Soviet phenomenon), traditional salespeople communicated to us from the ground below, something in which I delighted though their lives and work could not have been easy. Their calls filled the space, becoming a part of the sound and feel of the apartments, not just of the space below. Twice, a man selling wooden lutes entered the dvor, advertising his goods by playing a number of playful tunes.  I peered out our second story window when I first heard him, for I was attracted to the sound and rhythm of the music below. When the salesman caught my eye, I turned away, determined not to be “lured.” The moment reminded me of how intimate these spaces were, however; the salesman below had entered my personal space, even as he remained below.

Though what city planners would designate “green space,” our dvor was not particularly green. The unpaved areas tended to consist of sandy dirt, and grass thrived only under the slides and benches–in short, in all spaces sheltered from human feet. Elsewhere, the grass was patchy and beleaguered. Although town workers (middle-aged women sporting bright yellow or blue vests) cleaned the yard regularly, garbage tended to gather in entryways and corners, as Baku’s winds sent the detritus tossed into the bins at the far end of the dvor soaring into the air. Before capitalism brought a surfeit of packaged goods, this dvor might have been clean; in post-Soviet Baku, garbage services proved inadequate. The litter made everything appear still more grey. Mulberry trees lined the entire dvor, but several were clearly dying, and most were slow to leaf out in the spring. In the mulberry tree outside our window, the only “fruit” to appear consisted of garbage–perhaps, a pink plastic bag on the branch above, or perhaps a white rag on the branch below. The trees did add character to the dvor, however, and many served as posts for the laundry lines that ran everywhere from windows into the dvor.

Perhaps because the dvor was something of a public/private space–an extension into the public of domestic life–there was never a day when these laundry lines were entirely empty. My husband swore that he would never use our own clothesline, which was blackened from a long period of disuse. Besides, with all the grit that flew through the air, Jim regarded air-dried laundry as less than clean. I couldn’t entirely disagree, although the lack of a drier made drying bedsheets indoors something of a complex operation. Given this, I certainly understood why our Laundry Bannersneighbours used the drying lines, despite the dust, and in some ways I was thankful that they did, for their laundry was a window into the lives around us–who had children, which apartments were filled with middle-aged or senior adults, what cartoon characters children loved, and more. Besides, Bakuvians’ standard dress throughout the winter months was black: black coats, black shoes, dark hats, and dark pants. Only the clotheslines hinted at the more colorful world that would emerge with the spring. Admittedly, when regarding the wide yellowish-green, black polka-dotted robe that appeared regularly on the clothesline next to us, it sometimes occurred to me that I might not want to see this more colourful apparel. But perhaps the nicer clothes were dried indoors? I sometimes suspected this.

Women were central to this quasi-domestic space, and they often entered the dvor in their fluffy indoor slippers, sometimes even in housecoats. One of the slipper-clad women also sported a headscarf, a likely sign that she had moved to Baku from “the provinces.” Watching her, I wondered if all the slipper-clad women were newly minted “Bakuvians” (“bakintsy”). Did women in Baku wear such slippers on the street in Soviet times, when Azerbaijan and Baku were part of Russia? I wondered, for in Russia I had been reprimanded by my host family for wearing a flat pair of patent-leather dress shoes with a skirt and also by a male stranger for wearing a pair of Aerosole sandals. “Those are slippers,” I was told. “It’s shameful to wear these in public!” Actually, I was told the same thing with regard to running shoes until about four years ago, when my former Russian “mom” purchased her own pair of these. “They protect your feet!” she exclaimed, apologizing for years of harassing me about my footwear preferences. Given such experiences, I never quite knew if I was witnessing “provincialism” or something else, perhaps a touch of the Azerbaijani “come as you are” approach to life. Or perhaps the answer had to do with the nature of the dvor itself, with its function as an extension of domestic space.

I have to admit that my experience was colored by memories of living in Russia, for this dvor conjured memories of other dvors, some of which were ringed by these very same “Khrushcheby” (as these Khrushchev apartments were known). “My” Russian dvors had lacked mulberry trees and outdoor vegetable stalls, and this Azerbaijani dvor had 10x the children. But, the space nonetheless offered a sort of “communalized domesticity.” What this dvor lacked, however, was snow, the sort of crisp “squeaky” snow that comes only with bitter cold weather. I missed that. Baku was not warm, for its winds are harsh and bitter; yet, its the bitterness never came with an odd sound that I love–that of rug-beating on the snow. In my dvor in Nizhnii Novgorod, when cold weather produced crisp, grainy snow, Russian women (the square strong “babushkas” for which Russia is famous) would haul their carpets outside, turning them facedown onto the snow before beating them with big wooden sticks. The strokes were slow, no more than 1 every 2-3 seconds. The muffled thuds would echo through the expanse of the yard, steady and determined and somehow comforting. . . I often find myself wanting to return to that space, though it no longer exists . . . Vacuum cleaners and parking lots have disappeared it forever.

Likewise, I had the sense that my Azerbaijani dvor was rushing toward obsolescence. Already threatened by cars and trash (I discovered that a nearby Stalin-era dvor had been reduced to car sheds), my Azerbaijani dvor faced yet a new threat: reconstruction. Tall new apartment complexes sprouted up all around us, replacing Soviet-era housing. These new buildings were far too tall to permit for the interaction that I had enjoyed with the lute salesman. Yes, of course, someone on the second floor might still catch a salesperson’s eye, but most residents were out of reach, being 8, 10, maybe 12-15 stories up. Such manicured new buildings lacked clotheslines, vegetable stalls, and soccer fields, and I doubted that their children lit bonfires on Novruz. The “communalized public” of my own dvor appeared to be absent in them, giving me the sense that my own dvor was but the shadow cast by the retreat of a Soviet past.

Reflections on Azerbaijan


I miss Baku, Azerbaijan – despite its heavy winds, dust, garbage, pollution, high food prices, and overcrowded metro. I lived in a renovated but, in my view, overpriced Soviet (early Khrushchev) apartment overlooking a dvor (courtyard) that featured more dust than grass, plus dead, living, and half-dead mulberry trees. It was not beautiful. When I walked along the main road (Tabriz) to the metro, I stressed out, for the narrow, uneven, and pitted sidewalk seemed treacherous, and the traffic noise from the street (just a few feet away) could sometimes be overwhelming. I tired of the all-pervasive image of the country’s former and Heather at the Baku Railway Station 2014current leaders, which haunted spaces as intimate as a dining booth and as remote as a distant mountain ridge near to Nagorno-Karabagh. Central Baku is lovely, but most of the city is not.

Nonetheless, I came to love Baku, particularly my little corner of that city. I came to love the human kindness so readily on display. I delighted in our view overlooking the dvor, which was adorned by the varied colors of the human interaction that took place within it. My husband and I discovered our own footpath to the metro, which turned out to be something of an informal but major pedestrian highway lined with small grocery stalls. The city proved to be a puzzle, a mix of impressions that I cannot yet fit together, and perhaps it is this challenge that I love most.

I launched this blog in order to share some of my varied experiences, perhaps even more to start exploring the “puzzle” that is present-day Azerbaijan. Actually, I’ll explore a bit more than that–a bit of Tajikistan, Georgia, Turkey, and even Iran, all sites that became a part of my regional itinerary. I did not go to Armenia and therefore will not write about it – this was a diplomatic choice on my part, for I do not wish to delve into the Azerbaijani-Armenian dispute. Please stay tuned . . . Next up will be something about my favorite space in Baku: the dvor.