Aaron in Azerbaijan

Just another blog about Azerbaijan.

Defining Success for Women in Society

with 8 comments

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.


Written by Aaron

July 19, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. Aaron, I don’t have much to comment on here except to say that I really enjoyed this post — in fact, I’ve been reading your blog these last few weeks and have found it very insightful regarding a country that I know next to nothing about (except, perhaps embarrassingly, their Eurovision participation).

    It does occur to me that this issue of where to draw the line between human rights and cultural autonomy tends to become very clear when we discuss women’s rights, and is something I’ve encountered writing studying and writing about immigration — it’s a thorny issue, really, and I hadn’t really considered it from an achievement perspective like this.

    As to your last sentence, I think the answer is going to be highly tinged by class, region and race. I’ve recently moved to the south, where many upper class women still define their success by marriage and children, but also by charity work and community involvement (for good and not-so-good really). It’s been interesting to see that. But even here that definition is challenged by a whole host of others: other women define their success through careers, others by religion (being successful is being a “good Christian”) and still others by their ability to be BOTH mother and worker. Some of this is class-defined, but there remains a good deal of conflict within classes, here as elsewhere, over what “success” is for women, something that is particularly evident to moms like myself: for instance, the surprisingly prevalent belief that a mom should only work if her husband doesn’t make enough money — indicating that “having” to work is a sign of a lack of success. On the other side, there are those who automatically assume that a stay-at-home mom is the victim of gender roles and therefore “unsuccessful.” Neither of these, of course, has to be true. For my own part, I think a successful woman (or man) is one who has been able to make choices as freely as possible (with the full realization that everything we do is constrained by culture and social structures). Even that focus on individual choice, of course, is a culturally derived metric, of course.

    Sorry, this has gotten long-winded for someone who doesn’t have much of a comment, but just wanted to say “hi” and let you know I’m reading (this is Carly from DLS, in case you didn’t realize!)


    July 19, 2011 at 5:08 pm

  2. Hey Carly–Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I think the key here is that I’m enjoying writing stuff, so maybe that helps make the posts a little better.

    That’s a great observation about the role of class in assessing ‘success’. That definitely exists here, as well, as more women are encouraged to go to university. Though, I’d say that most people still don’t believe in the necessity of it for women. I also think it interesting that you said that there are various ways for women to assess their own success, be it family-wise or a religious standard or career-driven. While people in Azerbaijan might laud the efforts of a woman who strives for a career, what I’ve witnessed is that there is very little encouragement along those lines except in very specific instances. Some people get that social mobility thing, and others just don’t seem to see it happening through women’s work.

    And I’m most definitely on board with you about people being able to make their own choices and be able to define their own success. Though, I guess that gets a little meta when we say society defines success for you as you defining your own success…


    July 20, 2011 at 4:19 am

  3. An interesting thought piece Aaron and an issue I considered when living in Egypt where many of the same things apply. If I was being glib, I would blame it on Islam, after all there is an old Islamic saying in “Ali and Nino” that says women are but men’s shadows and that a woman is nothing but a field to be ploughed… Yes, Azerbaijan was dominated by Russian then the Soviet Union but the place of women under that system was just as oppressive as it was under the previous one. Women were there to provide workers for the next generation. Oh yes, and to drive tractors during wartime… How many female Politburo members were there, I wonder?

    Azerbaijan is a developing country but developing in an uneven way. Women had the vote in the UK by the 1920’s but the “glass ceiling” was still in place fifty years later and it has only been since the 1970’s that women have been able to climb to the top of the greasy pole, just like men…


    July 20, 2011 at 4:35 am

  4. Nice post..Yesterday on my way home I ear dropped a conversation between a lady and a young boy in the shop.. Mostly I heard his advise to the lady.. so the issue was the lady had refused her only daughter to marry the guy from the other region… and young guy looked at me as if he wanted me to listen to his words carefully and said that the girls’ hand is asked for at most three times, so if they don’t marry they stay at home ( which is almost a great embarrassment for most girls and their families).. Whole day i tried to find answers to my questions… in the evening I talked about this with my mum and she said he was right.. girl is supposed to marry at early age in order to be happy .. I really can not quite understand this ugly truth of my country… I understand my mum’s generation as they have been raised up in this way.. but I don’t want that generation influence our generation.. I hope our generation will find another direction in pursuing happiness…

    P.S. my personal opinion is being married and having kids is a great happiness for women.. but it shouldn’t be in the way it is in our country.. i wish one day girls will understand the importance of family, and also they will understand that life is not just limited with house works and the world is not limited with Azerbaijan…

    Sabina Savadova


    July 20, 2011 at 5:54 am

  5. I think it is not so bad to get married and grow up children…You see only the disadvantages and show our country as a horrible place where women have no rights…please, consider that there are a lot of families who do their best for daughters’ education


    July 20, 2011 at 7:41 am

    • I agree–getting married and raising children is a wonderful thing. And I have no doubt about a family’s intentions with their daughters.

      As I pointed out above, I’m just noting a general attitude in Azerbaijani society. Certainly, there are opportunities for women and many of the people I work with are outstanding Azeri women who have pursued their education. Yet at the same time, as demonstrated in the news story about early marriage, many women are put in a situation where their only option is marriage. I think we can all agree that women are supremely capable of more than only marriage.

      As for rights specifically–yes! In Azerbaijan’s laws, women in Azerbaijan have rights on par with any European country. However, we cannot forget that Azerbaijan is not necessarily great at implementing laws. And in any given country, the social norms are just as important as the legal structures.


      July 20, 2011 at 2:14 pm

  6. Raising a family is a great thing to do, so long as it is a choice. If it is seen as the only valid path for women in a society, it is not a choice. For women in some parts of Azerbaijan [as in many other countries in the world], getting married and having children is seen as the only purpose a woman has. This is in a society where education is valued and available to women.

    Some educated woman I have met have told me their families believe education only has value for finding a prospective bride an educated husband. That is a sad state of affairs.

    I believe that men and women are different but men have as much responsibility to nurturing and raising children as women and that women are just as capable as men, when it comes to building a career and earning money.

    By the way, I love Azerbaijan and its people.


    July 20, 2011 at 8:19 am

  7. Women are quite powerful and sometimes they are even more successful than men. This post is quite a good one. Defining success for women in society is a really great topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about it.

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    January 26, 2013 at 4:05 pm

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