The steel-and-glass Flame Towers symbolize how Azerbaijan’s oil wealth is rapidly transforming Baku’s skyline. But behind this façade of modernity, gender attitudes, specifically the way men interact with women in public, remain stuck in an anachronistic rut.
On paper, Azerbajani women enjoy full legal equality with men. Section II of the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan states that “men and women possess equal rights and liberties.” In addition, Azerbaijan signed in 1995 the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. It’s also true that in some professions, Azerbaijani women have been able to build careers.
But on the streets of Baku, in everyday situations outside the workplace, it’s still clearly a man’s world. I have lived in Baku since September 2013, working as a teacher of English, and I witness on a regular basis men accosting women in a host of degrading manners. My impressions about harassment are buttressed by the stories I hear from my Azerbaijani female friends and acquaintances. The most dehumanizing one my local friends and I have experienced so far is the literal catcall. Men will beckon women with the same set of tongue clicks used to attract the attention of cats. Men here also can be very direct, often inviting women, who are total strangers, into their cars.
Constant street harassment creates an atmosphere of intimidation. Men do not restrain themselves to making comments and sounds, but often follow women around after being ignored. Not too long ago, I walked away from an older man who tried to speak to me, and instead of leaving me alone after his advances were flatly rejected, he followed me down the street until I walked into a shop. This all happened in broad daylight, and it happens a lot according to my Azeri female friends who regularly endure similar experiences.
The problems for women intensify after sundown. A woman walking outside alone at night is often perceived to be a prostitute, regardless of what area she is in, what she is wearing, or her demeanor. Men in vehicles are apt to bluntly approach women and offer them money for sexual services. My friends and I walked in the opposite direction after receiving such a proposal, only to realize the driver backed up in the street to follow us. Such predatory behavior is typical. A local colleague relayed that after returning home late one night a man followed her to her building, asking “how much?”
This pattern of male behavior creates an environment that compels women to stay at home after dusk. Though legally they are free to do as they please, women choose to remain housebound due to the harassment they know they will endure by going out.
When I discussed the situation with some colleagues, male and female, I was surprised by some of the responses I got. They all acknowledged that the pattern I described was real, but some thought there was nothing wrong with it. One woman said, “they [men] are just fishing.” While perhaps unintentional, her choice of words clearly underscored the predator-prey dynamic of male-females relations in Azerbaijan.
Street harassment is symptomatic of the continuing existence of stereotypes that depict women as lesser than men. An Azeri guy, whom I consider a friend, bluntly told me “women are less smart than men.” Furthermore, according to the Azerbaijani English teachers I work with, it remains socially permissible for married men to have extramarital affairs, but it’s taboo for women to engage in such behavior. In addition, a wife is expected to accept her husband’s adulterous behavior in order to preserve family integrity. As my colleagues put it, if a woman divorces her cheating spouse “breaking up the family will be her fault; a divorce is a catastrophe for the family.” On top of it all, Azerbaijani society tends to scorn divorced women.
Women also are constrained by the preferences of their male relatives. One of my students, for example, told me her biggest wish is to study in the United States and improve her English, but added that she’s unlikely to realize her dream because her father and brother don’t think it’s a good idea. In another case, a friend wanted to join me on a trip to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, but ended up not going after her father wouldn’t give his permission.
As a result, most women remain locked in tradition-bound roles as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. They are forced to take a back-seat to men, are many are unable to develop their own individual talents.
It’s somewhat ironic that at the very top of Azerbaijani society, First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva has been able to carve out a high-profile role for herself. But in most areas of business and politics, there is a paucity of women in leadership positions, especially in government.
It is important to note that not all Azeri men perceive women as inferior or routinely harass them. In fact, some young people see the harm in it and hope to bring an end to phenomenon. For gender equality to start existing in practice, not just on paper, it will take local will and work, as well as time. In the meantime, a sympathetic, male Azeri friend of mine had the following advice for women enduring harassment; “just ignore them and look at the ground.”
Suzanne Rothman is a recent graduate of Brandeis University, where she majored in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. She is currently a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Baku. Her views do not reflect the views of the Fulbright program, the US Embassy in Baku, or the US Department of State.