Azerbaijan, unlike Central Asia, gave its women an earlier start on the path to modernity

Azerbaijan, unlike Central Asia, gave its women an earlier start on the path to modernity

Farideh Heyat is a British-Iranian anthropologist and writer residing in London. Heyat used to lecture at SOAS and at American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She also undertook a consultancy role for the OSCE travelling into the South of Azerbaijan to conduct a research on the position of women. Overall, she produced numerous articles on gender topics in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. She has also established herself as a writer and her latest book called “The Land of Forty Tribes” was published in 2015 by Hertfordshire Press. The novel takes the reader on a journey from the UK to Central Asia, to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in particular.

- Your book “The land of Forty Tribes” is based on a journey of a British-Iranian woman who is witnessing a negative attitude towards women in Central Asia. Could you please tell us about your impressions about the gender situation in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan?

My heroine Sima’s first impressions about the situation of women in Central Asia is through her contacts with the women there and the true stories about their lives she hears from them. I have reflected this all in my book, Land of Forty Tribes. My own impression of the subject naturally derived from what my women contacts told me. I also learned a lot from the interviews I conducted with some of the women NGOs in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan between 2002 and 2003 during my research on women, culture, and society of the region.

Speaking of family relations and social relations, I found theme very hierarchal, with the elders having much power and influence over the young, especially in Uzbekistan. Male bias also prevailed in most aspects of life in both countries and violence against women was rampant. Life stories of women in the novel clearly demonstrate this. The most shocking thing, from a female point of view, was the phenomena of bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, discussed extensively in the book, with many examples provided. All of this, however, is less evident among the educated young generation. I did share these observations in my book. I hope that both the hard copy and Kindle version of “Land of Forty Tribes”, which is to be launched soon, will be of interest to the readers.

- The novel touches upon the spread of radical Islam in Kyrgyzstan and you mention some fundamentalist women. Why do you think women become radicalized, what’s in it for them?

- The increase in Islamic belief and practices in Central Asia in the post-Soviet era can be attributed to the wish for seeking authenticity and independence. However, the spread of Wahhabi Islam in the region was promoted by Saudi Arabia through various grants and scholarships for studying religion over there and sponsored trips to Mecca for hajj. These processes have equally influenced women. Some women have also reacted to the arrests and imprisonment of their menfolk on charges of radicalism by joining such groups. Evidently, the radical Islam spread far more in the south of Kyrgyzstan where traditionally Islam was stronger than in the north of the country, which is more russified, as they say, and is more developed. I have naturally observed this during my work and reflected this in the novel accordingly.

- Prior your insights into Central Asia, you have researched the position of women and gender relations in Azerbaijan in your book “Azeri Women in Transition: women in Soviet and post-Soviet Azerbaijan”. Can you tell us about your key findings? Last but not least, are there any current similarities between the gender relations in Central Asia and in Azerbaijan?

- I started looking into the position of women during my PhD and I focused on the Soviet times. Later, I also investigated the post-Soviet period, with a focus on the early years. The book was published in 2002. In my research I relied upon fieldwork from 1994 to 2000. The respondents were from a variety of backgrounds but were all eventually a part of the intelligentsia. I found Azeri women to be the carriers of the community’s ethnic and religious identity. I also argued that there is a common fallacy about Soviets being the first to liberate the Azeri women. The Soviets did liberate them from the veil but the actual movement about women rights was emanating in Azerbaijan prior to the Soviets. In my findings, Azerbaijan, unlike Central Asia, gave its women an earlier start on the path to modernity due to Azerbaijan’s closer position to Europe, its cosmopolitan population, oil-related industrialisation and Azeri intellectuals concern with the women rights.

One can recall even playwrights by Mirza Fatali Akhundzade which did touch upon the subject. As early as by the end of the 19th century – the Azeri intellectuals were calling for women’s rights. You can find more information about this in a whole chapter about the role of intellectuals. Altogether, this led to significant changes in important areas of material culture, consumption, dress code, and the education of women. With the arrival of post-modernity, things have not changed much. Young people travel often and in Azerbaijan, the regime and people do identify with Europe (whereas in Central Asia there is not such a strong identification with the West, I’d say that the region looks up to Russia more – this is the major difference between the two).

Speaking of gender relations, I found that a lot of pre-Soviet traditions were preserved, because of the USSR cutting off the influence from the outside. The USSR was afraid of the links with Southern Muslim countries, therefore it banned the travel and connections. In a way this helped to preserve the tradition. However, in the result a contradictory situation was formed. On one hand, there was the question of the Soviet ideology – a call for gender equality as per communism, with the laws calling for that, but in practice there was still male superiority present, i.e. the old system was preserved. It applied to Central Asia also.

Now speaking of similarities, I see that the legacy of the Soviet period is common for both regions but as time goes on, this legacy becomes weaker. In terms of current gender relations, there are a lot of similarities between Azerbaijan and the Muslim Central Asian societies. However, in recent years with the ease of travel to Europe and Western influence through social media, films and the TV, young people in Azerbaijan are beginning to change in their attitudes and expectations. No doubt, similar processes are also affecting the Central Asian youth but at a slower pace.

- And how about radicalization – were there cases of radicalization in Azerbaijan during your work and visits there?

- I believe that in Azerbaijan radical Islam did not find much of a foothold. This was partly due to the government’s policies of prevention and the country’s wealth generated by oil and relative proximity to Europe.

In the new era, a lot of modernization was happening so this has helped to prevent the spread of radical ideas. Although, there was still something going on - it was not all smooth. For example, there was Iranian influence and occasional interference due to a border with the country. In Iran, the Islamic regime was trying to influence people in Azerbaijan, but the regime in Baku was quick to stomp on that. In my view, it was this combination of the government being aware of the influence and its attempt to block it, on one hand and on another, having the oil wealth and relative prosperity.

- Your novel was described as “a unique book covering a range of subjects, including the often-neglected historical connection between Iranian civilization and Central Asia.” When did you learn about Central Asia yourself and how much do people in Iran know about the region these days?

- In Iran, interest in Central Asia is focused more on Tajikistan because of the language similarity. During the Soviet period, in Iran there was hardly any contact or knowledge of Central Asian countries. However, since the opening of the borders with Iran and the ease of travel to Central Asia, some interest in the region has started being generated. A few years ago, a relative of mine, a camera man working with Iranian TV went there with a crew and did a series for the state TV station. The BBC Persian service has also done a series on Central Asian countries, briefing on their cultures and societies. Truly, there is interest but as I already mentioned the focus is more on Tajikistan due to language matter.

My own interest grew out of my interest in and research on the formerly Soviet Azerbaijan. My family members are from Iranian Azerbaijan. In the past, that is before I went to SOAS, Central Asia seemed so remote, it seemed to be like almost a mythical region. But during my PhD in anthropology I took a course in culture and society in Central Asia, which provided me with some familiarity, and I could see this was another world that was close to my own roots, yet little known and far away. Being generally a curious person, I became interested to further study and eventually visited the region. Then the opportunity arose when I got a teaching job at the American University Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. During that year I travelled extensively in Kyrgyzstan and visited Uzbekistan staying with an Uzbek family for a week. A few years later I went back to Uzbekistan for a longer visit. I found the country so rich in history, culture and diversity. One would need a long time to really see it all. Being a Persian and Turkish speaker, I could communicate with people easily, especially with people in Samarkand and Bukhara.

- Sima’s character in your book seems to be sarcastic at times and she laughs not only at some of the locals, but also at some of the foreigners in Central Asia. Could you tell us about the most common misperceptions or stereotypes about the region or its people (women in particular)?

In terms of the British people’s views of Central Asian countries, and more specifically about the women, I think people are not familiar and hence are not really interested in them. Uzbekistan is a little more known, perhaps because of its touristic sites, such as Samarkand. Kazakhstan is known because of its oil wealth, but when it comes to other three countries, most people don’t seem to have heard of them much. I think this is a shame. Kyrgyzstan with its fantastic mountains and the Issyk-Kul lake, for example, could do a lot more to promote its tourist potential. I think generally people in the countries of Central Asia are very friendly and hospitable. They are receptive to tourists. If only their governments would be more attentive to the wealth and wellbeing of their citizens than their own, the region would have realised its great potential.

- Tell us about your current research interest or a book you are working on?

The book I am currently working on is about Iranian Azerbaijan. It is a historical novel set in the period 1945-1946 when a socialist government seeking autonomy from Iran's central government was elected and was subsequently overthrown by the Shah's army waging a bloody battle that killed many people, reversing the reforms of the Azerbaijan’s democratic government.

This tragic day was then nominated by the Shah's regime as the day of liberation of Azerbaijan and celebrated nationally since. Initially Stalin's Russia actively supported and encouraged the formation of this government. Then in 1946, upon the pressure from the US, the USSR withdrew its support and ordered the leaders of this government to flee to the neighbouring Soviet Azerbaijan. The events of that period in Iran are very much tied up in the politics of Russia and its relations with the West. But my focus in the book is on the personal tragedies that emanated from this historic tragedy in Iran. It is the human element which matters the most.

Zaynab Muhammad-Dost
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