Defining Success for Women in Society
This quote from a Voice of America news article caught my eye today:
“I was married the week after I got out of college and when my children they would say to me well how come so and so went to law school, and she was your age? And I would say, ‘She was a failure. I was a success.’ Because success in 1959 was to go to college, graduate from college and get married.”
This is a fascinating way to look at how we measure ourselves against the society we grow up in. For that woman, and for that society at that time, success for women was fairly strictly defined. And that statement reinforces my thoughts about Azerbaijan being set at different decades of development when compared to Europe or the US. It’s not really a fair comparison, but there is no doubt that certain aspects of Azerbaijan feel very much like eras past of countries in the “developed” world (I still remember stepping off the plane in Baku, my first step into Azerbaijan, and thinking about how it reminded me of what we imagine as the 1950s). Instead of thinking about the buildings and environment, however, the statement above strikes very closely to the ideal of women in Azerbaijan, whose socially-defined success ends at getting married and having children. For women in villages, that statement expects too much by including going to college. I think it’s fair to say that the aspirations for many women here, and the expectations of parents for their daughters, is to get married. So much so that early marriage is still a problem in Azerbaijan. For a woman in Azerbaijan, success is defined as getting married and having children.
This reality hit me in an unexpected way last week when I was discussing a new soccer camp we’ll be doing for girls in Lənkəran next week. The plan is to get about 40 girls from Lənkəran together at the sports school and teach them basic things about playing soccer, staying healthy, and being active. We’ve got some fantastic soccer players here who are PCVs running the camp, and we’re also having some of the players from the local Xəzər Lənkəran soccer team join us!
This sounds great, right? Right. But imagine that your perspective on women in society is that their main role is to get married and have kids. In discussing getting funding to put on this camp with my Branch Manager at the bank, we talked about why we were doing the camp. Rahman talked about this camp being a big competition, with a championship at the end, which really isn’t built into the camp since this is more about teaching skills than having a tournament. He then talked about this being an opportunity for coaches from around Azerbaijan to basically scout for promising players for girls’ teams. Again, this misses the point of the camp. Rahman was exasperated by me when I explained that the camp wasn’t really either of those things, and the only question he could come up with was, “Then why do girls need to play soccer?”
Yes: this is where our American and Azerbaijani perspectives on women crash into each other. From the point of view of someone whose mindset says that male and female gender roles are relatively fixed, and that the woman’s measure of success is getting married, there really is very little reason, in this conception, for girls to play soccer. Explaining that women should be active and should be participating in things like sports to stay healthy didn’t really convince him. As a bank manager, he’s much more focused on results than he his on whatever processes you use to get there; thus, the lack of a “result” from a tournament or a possibility of being recruited precipitated the above question.
This also lays bare a sort of cultural imperialism as we American PCVs seek to get women in our host countries more active and empowered. Fortunately for my sanity, it’s a type of cultural imperialism that I have no problem attempting to impose. That makes my service here as a PCV much less anthropological and much more normative, not only recognizing the differences in culture but also seeking to make moves toward a more Western conception of women in society. As far as I know, these ideas of women’s emancipation have available in Azerbaijani literature for hundreds of years. Mirvarid Dilbazi described her conceptions of it in a fascinating interview with Azerbaijan International in the 1990s, talking about the ideas contained in Azeri plays:
Between the 1920s and 1930s, the most burning issue among the Azerbaijani intelligentsia related to women’s emancipation. This theme became very popular in literature. For example, there was Jafar Jabbarli’s play “Sevil,” Mammad Said Ordubadi’s “Misty Tabriz,” and others. What was meant by women’s emancipation was first of all taking off the chadors [veils], then women’s participation in governmental affairs and women’s literacy.
So, with ideas like that around for so long (and let’s not forget that the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic in 1918 also granted women voting rights before the USA), how long does it take for a society to shift their conceptions of success for women? It also makes me curious about how we would articulate a socially-defined measure of success for women today in America.