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.
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.