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Caucasus: Society, sex and the dating game

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Illustration © Scary Azeri in Suburbs

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, hopes that new freedoms would quickly replace the old have often been dashed by the re-emergence of patriarchal, conservative and traditional practices. Largely kept suppressed by the communist system, and exaggerated by the exodus of many who might have formed the middle classes during the economic collapse of the 1990s, gender and issues of sexuality were particularly affected.

True, homosexuality has been decriminalized, although homophobia remains a significant problem, and new freedoms might have “liberated” a minority of citizens in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, but sexuality remains a contentious issue for society as a whole. In 2007, for example, a study by the Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC) found that there was still resistance to the idea of pre-marital sex.

70.4% of respondents in #Armenia considered pre-marital sex unacceptable at any age, 72.8% in #Azerbaijan, 63.8% in #Georgia…

Nevertheless, if talk about sex was once taboo, although male bloggers still disrupt Women's Days marches to change prevailing attitudes on female virginity and domestic abuse, there is at least now the possibility to discuss matters more openly. LGBT groups can operate more openly, and have especially empowered themselves through blogs, while, as recently seen in Georgia, discussion has gone online.

The CRRC data, for example, even formed the basis for a three-part series of posts on Women's Forum by a former Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) stationed in Azerbaijan on dating, or rather the absence of it. In the first post, Micael Bogar says that there isn't even a word for it in Azerbaijani. As is also true for the entire region, attitudes towards sexuality are usually not only gender-biased, but also arguably hypocritical to the extreme.

You can learn a lot about a culture by learning its language. Back in 2003, I was surprised during one of my first Peace Corps Training classes to find that there is no word for “date” in the Azerbaijani language. After class, I pulled my young modern language teacher aside to clarify. I figured she’d give it to me straight. “Was there really no such thing as dating in Azerbaijan?” Her response was a surprise to me.

She detailed the custom of dating as a furtive awkward attempt for two people to get to know each other through secretive phone calls and quick exchanges in parks or on the street. To be alone in a room with a person of the opposite sex without a marriage license was strictly forbidden. If word got out that such a thing was happening the girl would be labeled a whore and the boy scolded. Boys will be boys – it’s the girl who was to blame.

Frankly, I was shocked. [...] Sitting out on the balcony of our tiny two bedroom apartment zdanie we’d watch young girls walking by. “That’s Aysel. She’s a whore,” my host sister Layla would say. “She meets with Ferid in the park in the center of the city and everyone knows it. Everyone knows that Ferid loves Sevinj and he would never take Aysel as a bride. Aysel is just a whore.”

In the second post, Bogar details her own experiences in Azerbaijan when she started to get close to a local acquaintance.

I know what you’re thinking: “What a whore!” And I was. In Azerbaijani culture I was being a qehbe (whore). Still to this day I cringe thinking about it. However, I grew up in a culture where having sex with your boyfriend is perfectly acceptable. So, to deny myself that freedom was silly. It’s not like I was saving anything. He left my apartment that morning just before the sun rose in the hope that no one would see him sneak out. Of course, they did.

If you’ve ever spent any time in an Azerbaijani mehle (apartment courtyard) , you know that nothing goes unaccounted for. Once the news spread, my life changed. It was never anything I could point to. No one ever said anything directly to my face but things started changing. People stopped smiling at me in the street. [...]

[...]

Ali and I stayed together for nearly two years. Still to this day he is one of my dearest friends. I would not change our relationship for the world. I am not ashamed or afraid to say that he was my boyfriend and yet even as I write this I am not using his real name. Even as I write this, women in Azerbaijan are forced to keep their romances a secret and feel ashamed of their desire to love.

What is so shameful about wanting to get to know someone intimately before you commit your life to them? As Azerbaijan continues to modernize, I worry what kind of effect this cultural expectation has on my close friends. The country is full of young women that have traveled the world, speak different languages and have never known what it’s like to be intimate with a man they care for.

The third post comments on the results of the CRRC survey.

The Caucasus Research Resource Center administered a survey in 2007 in Azerbaijan with the question, “At what age is it appropriate for a man/woman to have sexual relations before marriage?” I’ve created a graph below to show the results. The answers may surprise you. Nearly 70% of the respondents agreed that such behavior is never appropriate. And even more striking is that female respondents were 10% more likely to say “never” than men.

[...]

I do not miss the harassment and cold looks. I do not miss the fear and the feeling of disempowerment. Back home, I feel blessed to have the right to choose for myself who I want to sleep with and know that my identity will not be based on that one fact.

I write this in the hope that my friends in Azerbaijan will someday soon have these same rights. I think it is important for Azerbaijani women and men who don’t agree with this cultural norm, to begin looking for ways to talk about sex and dating in their lives. Power is found in words. We create our reality through our language. New words are formed every day. I think it’s high time we construct one for dating.

Having already tackled the sensitive subject of virginity restoration, another contributor to Women's Forum, Scary Azeri, also comments on dating in Azerbaijan on her own blog, and especially the importance of not appearing “loose,” another reality in neighboring countries as well.

I thought of back home, and my dating days. Oh, those sweet and sour days…So many years passed since then!

Nobody ever grabbed me as I was walking past. To be honest, I never really liked meeting men in bars. Must be a cultural thing. Azeri girls spend all their lives fighting off strangers. Because we are so used to harassment at every step we take.

You chat to a taxi driver and he will assume you want him right there and then. You smile to a waiter and he will ask for your phone number. You walk past a construction site…Well, you just don’t walk past construction sites.

So if you are a cool chick back in Baku, you are probably very good at brushing men off. It is an automatic reaction.

Although both posts, as well as similar ones on attitudes to sex, societal expectations of women and family pressure to marry in Armenia, refer back to even before the CRRC survey, many hope that the situation might be slowly changing. Moreover, given that those constituting more progressive elements in society generally have access to the Internet, it is also interesting to note that discussion continues to go online.

Also commenting on the situation in Armenia, new media and democracy advocate Mark Belinsky, for example, notes the role social networking sites such as Odnoklassniki might be playing.

Unlike Facebook, there’s little opportunity to make it more of a broadcast medium. The key feature here is that you can see who is visiting your profile and how often. So can others, hense it becomes very public flirting in a country that is otherwise very conservative when it comes to sex.

And, while online discussion is arguably more active n Azerbaijan, hopes to usher in a sexual revolution in Armenia are being expressed in the form of a Facebook group as well as on sites such as Unzipped: Gay Armenia. In one post, for example, the blog details the despair of some local men in finding a “pure” girl. However, this is perhaps most likely true only for their immediate socio-economic circle.

Back in Azerbaijan, Emotions on Air, Mind Mute recounts an experience at a local drugstore which notes the prevailing attitudes which still have to be contended with.

today morning as i went to the drugstore hoping for a miracle-pill to liquidate my last symptoms of a (human) flu, i had to eye-witness one lovely (younger) girl trying to buy “odorous and colorful elastic stuff” (thats the words she used to describe it) called condoms in common usage.

[...]

the first (and last) thing the pharma lady asked if that girl was married or so. the answer was, as expected, – so.

[...]

while i enjoyed the sight of two women in “dialogue” and was seduced by lovely packages of “odorous and colorful elastic stuff, i could not fight the tempation to buy one just for nothing with the following comment of mine “married”

but the maneuver didnt work… as a result the girl and i entered “the whore list” in the drugstore No.3** right behind my workplace and ended leaving it without condoms and flu pills.

Even so, things are perhaps albeit slowly changing and, having recently returned from Azerbaijan, sex therapist Marty Klein notes the similarity between the situation in the Caucasus today and the United States half a century ago.

And what did these kids want to know about? The same things that all college students want to know about: love, desire, love, sexual incompatibility, love, orgasms, and love. Who doesn’t want to know more about love?

[...]

I must report, with all due modesty, that the kids loved me—my active lecturing style, continual kibitzing of individuals who texted or talked while I spoke, and willingness to use words like “vagina” and “balls.” When they said people just don’t say such things in public, I asked why. I then asked if they’d say them in private. “Not to your future wife,” said one. “Or your actual wife,” said another.

Americans were sexually inhibited 50 years ago, too. But we weren’t continually pressured by MTV, internet porn, and the 24-hour-a-day contact of mobile phones. Yet in my two weeks here, I rarely saw young people hold hands, much less kiss. When I mentioned “kissing with tongues” during my talk, many of the students giggled or blushed.

And so I simply talked about “myths about sex;” said that feeling confused about sex is normal; reminded them that some girls like sex and some guys don’t; and threw out lots of words: menstrual period, masturbation, clitoris, going slow during intercourse, big breasts. They stayed and stayed; although I was hot and tired, I stayed and stayed, too.

Indeed, commenting on the CRRC survey during a private Skype chat today, one Azeri blogger, while also recognizing that traditional values will take decades to really change, even wondered if this wasn't more to the point. “Statistics are like bikinis,” she wrote, quoting Aaron Levenstein. “What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

Global Voices Online author Dodka also discussed societal attitudes towards sex in Georgia in a recent post.

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  • reader

    very nice post reflecting the realities in Azerbaijan and the region.
    and also sexual revolution should start physiologically in beds not just stay ideologically in minds. one thing is to have an intention, the other – is to make this intention an action. for sure, most young people here do want sex outside of marriage, but not all have the opportunities (again economics and independence?) to practice it. yes, it will take a lot of time to overcome hoary traditions existing in the region, but it is time to start something positive about sex and then it will have a domino effect and will spread to a larger audience.

  • http://blog.oneworld.am Onnik Krikorian

    Reader, thanks for the comment.

    BTW: The Women’s Forum site is really quite impressive, although strangely, like the Women’s Resource Center in Armenia’s site, is only available in English which perhaps indicates a select target group.

    Regardless, I’m disappointed to see that all the comments on Micael Bogar’s three part essay posted on the Azerbaijani women’s site have disappeared, apparently because of a “technical glitch.”

    Can’t help but wonder if it was a technical problem, or perhaps societies aren’t so ready for open discussion, even online, just yet. Let’s see…

  • HansG

    thanks for the thoughtful post. As for these attitudes, it might indeed be interesting to dig deeper. We plan to do so, in various ways and will let people know.

  • reader

    interestingly,”technical glitches” often happen on brainstorming sites and swallow such comments as a result, hmm…

  • http://www.women-forum.net Natalia

    Dear Onnik,

    Thank you for this article. I just wanted to provide some clarifications about the Women’s Forum. We are doing all we can to get a full Azeri version of the web site online ASAP. Our goal is to attract as many women as possible and avoid any kind of exclusivity labels. On a small scale we already started to provide financial rewards for contributions to women from vulnerable segments who have to “justify” their time.

    In the next two months we are planning to transition to a proper content management system. This will help prevent any “technical glitches”, like the one that caused all the comments on Micael’s article to disappear. Of course it’s more romantic to say that the site was attacked, sabotaged, or something along those lines. But the reality is that we are doing something new, it’s exciting, and there’s a big learning curve. I hope our readers will see us through to a better, richer and more interactive site.

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  • Arslan

    Look at Europe and North America – do you really think that sexual freedom brings happiness? No, no, no… It doens’t and never will. No intimate relationship for girls before marriage, be it kissing, mutual touching, let alone sex, should be accepted. No boyfriends, no girlfriends. Let’s stick to our Caucasian tradition, let’s have chaste and devoted girls, whom our men would treat as princesses, let’s appreciate the worth of female chastity. Let’s have courageous males and untouched girls and then – strong families. Let’s be different. No “21th Century Europe” where gender roles are ruined and family neary doesn’t exist.

  • http://terry_luce@yahoo.com/B0N0B0USA terry

    You can learn a lot about a culture by learning its language. Back in 2003, I was surprised during one of my first Peace Corps Training classes to find that there is no word for “date” in the Azerbaijani language. After class, I pulled my young modern language teacher aside to clarify. I figured she’d give it to me straight. “Was there really no such thing as dating in Azerbaijan?” Her response was a surprise to me.

    She detailed the custom of dating as a furtive awkward attempt for two people to get to know each other through secretive phone calls and quick exchanges in parks or on the street. To be alone in a room with a person of the opposite sex without a marriage license was strictly forbidden. If word got out that such a thing was happening the girl would be labeled a whore and the boy scolded. Boys will be boys – it’s the girl who was to blame.

    Frankly, I was shocked. […] Sitting out on the balcony of our tiny two bedroom apartment zdanie we’d watch young girls walking by. “That’s Aysel. She’s a whore,” my host sister Layla would say. “She meets with Ferid in the park in the center of the city and everyone knows it. Everyone knows that Ferid loves Sevinj and he would never take Aysel as a bride. Aysel is just a whore.”

    • http://terry_luce@yahoo.com/B0N0B0USA terry

      I thought this was a great comment and worth repeating. NO REALLY!

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