Four major currents of Western and Eastern culture collide in the post-Soviet Caspian republic of Azerbaijan. Women exist in four very divergent cultures: Turkic, Persian, Russian or Soviet, and European or Western. Never quite certain of their status or fully in tune to the rhythms and expectations of any of these four cultures, women are tethered by family and traditions customary in the Caucasus.
Virginity is valued and marriage occurs quite young compared to the West. In the countryside, girls can be married as teenagers while in urban Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, women are often married before the age of 25. Divorce is only evidenced in Baku, where some women (and men) in the elite, find liberation through the dissolution of their marriages and the unshackling of societal expectations. Children are the typical glue in a society where marriages are more often arranged than not.
The confrontation between these four very divergent cultures creates stark contrasts akin to the shifting of cultural tectonic plates. The Baku woman wears stilettos and short skirts, but virginity is still expected of her until marriage. Like in the Middle East, women are often viewed as either representations of purity vis-à-vis virginity or whorishness. Baku is also a city of prostitutes that cater to locals and the country’s large foreign expat community that serves the country’s only predominant industry, oil.
Azerbaijan sits on the world’s 19th largest proven energy reserves comprised of crude oil and liquid natural gas. In the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has tapped into its natural wealth and constructed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which has done more than anything else to bring Azerbaijan into contact with the West. Ten thousand foreign workers, mostly all male, work for BP, the main foreign oil company invested in Azerbaijan, and the city of Baku is now prone to traffic as SUVs, luxury cars of all make and model zoom down the city’s ancient streets and the posh Neftchiler Prospekt, or Oil Workers’ Avenue. The outcome of the influence of this new influx of foreign residents and wealth is yet to be determined, but if history is any guide – the country’s first oil boom and one of the first oil discoveries in the world occurred in late 19th century Baku – women will remain moored to cultural traditions as a means of maintaining their identity and coping with new circumstances.