By Heather D. DeHaan
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.