The cultural fault line that seems to divide the West and many formerly Soviet states is perhaps most visible when it comes to differing attitudes on LGBT issues. But a culture clash is also flaring in the sartorial sphere. In Azerbaijan, for example, a public debate is brewing over whether it is appropriate for men to wear shorts.
Traditional attitudes remain deeply entrenched in Azerbaijan. Accordingly, the general consensus holds that it is taboo for men to wear shorts. Anyone who defies the unofficial ban runs the risk of being rebuked by family members, friends or even strangers on the street.
“If a man is showing knees, he may get disapproving stares or comments in the streets,” said Emil Musayev, member of Flashmob Azerbaijan, a group that organized a demonstration on August 2 to launch a pro-shorts movement.
In Baku, foreign tourists are generally not hassled for wearing shorts, and even Azeri men run a lower risk of criticism if they choose to show some leg in the some of the more cosmopolitan, central neighborhoods of the capital. But few dare to defy convention anywhere outside of downtown Baku, and on beaches.
“Traditionalists remain hostage to ethno-cultural stereotypes. Religion also bans exposing your body, so these two factors lead to antagonism toward shorts,” said Gunel Aslanova, a psychology instructor at Baku State University. “This category of people feels insecure in the face of any manifestation of globalization for it challenges their core beliefs.”
The public debate over wearing shorts erupted after a few Caspian Sea resort areas – including Novkhany, a popular seaside escape just outside Baku – reportedly banned men from entering waterfront restaurants in shorts. Some media outlets published commentaries critical of the ban.
“Most people go to the beach exactly in trunks, flip-flops and tank tops. Nobody is bringing special clothes to change into after swimming in the sea and to go eat gutabs [traditional meat-stuffed flatbreads],” stated a commentary posted on Day.az, a popular news outlet.
The ban has plenty of defenders. “I have very little desire to dine with my family or with a woman while staring at … hairy legs,” said one Azerbaijani blogger in a comment posted on Kavkazsky Uzel.
The flamboyant leader of the Muasir Musavat Party, Hafiz Hajiyev, waded into the debate, saying in a recent interview with oxu.az that the wearing of shorts was “depraved” and “dishonorable.” He went on to blame European values and television for promoting a fashion idea that runs against local tradition.
Hajiyev’s credibility on the issue took a hit when he himself was photographed sporting shorts in a restaurant. Hajiyev later explained that the photo was taken on the property of an oligarch friend, which somehow makes it different. “I don’t sashay around the city in underwear or shorts,” he said in an interview with Minval.az.
He vowed to continue his campaign against men wearing shorts. “It is amoral and runs counter to national mentality,” he said.
Public attitudes on the wearing of shorts have long been more lenient in Georgia, Azerbaijan’s neighbor to the northwest. Even so, many Georgian men, especially older men, stick with wearing full-length pants, socks and closed shoes throughout the blazing Caucasus summer. A popular way for men to keep cool is to pull their shirts up over their stomachs.
“Globalization is too strong and it overpowers extremely conservative views, or pushes them toward the cultural periphery, if society is more or less open,” said Giorgi Tsotskolauri, Tbilisi-based psychotherapist.
Aslanova, the Baku professor, believes that attitudes are slowly changing in Azerbaijan too. “These changes may not be spontaneous or radical, but they are happening,” she said.
Hoping to promote their cause, some shorts enthusiasts recently posted online a photo of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian-minded president, Ilham Aliyev, in shorts.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. He is a frequent contributor to EurasiaNet.org's Tamada Tales blog.