Gender and Ideology: Social Change and Islam in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Scholars from various disciplines have devoted extensive attention to issues related to gender and Islam in diverse regions of the world from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. In contrast, relatively less attention has been paid to gender and to Islam in nations in Eurasia and Central Asia that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. (1) This article expands my previous research on social historical and contemporary issues pertaining to gender in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, as it focuses on social and ideological change related to Azerbaijani women and Islam. Azerbaijan is situated between Russia to the north and Iran to the south, and various social and ideological changes have altered women's roles and women's identity in Azerbaijani society from the Czarist period of the 1800s and early 1900s, through the Soviet period of 1920-1991, and into the period of independence from 1991 to present.

Azerbaijan is a unique and timely setting in which to conduct my research so as to develop a deeper understanding of the interaction of religion with other cultural and sociopolitical elements. Indeed, throughout Azerbaijan's history, religious influences have persevered as central threads within the fabric of Azerbaijani culture, as Islam has been interwoven with other cultural elements, including those of patriarchy. Yet, Azerbaijan, with a population now exceeding nine million, has been--and continues to be--both a Muslim and a secular nation.

RESEARCH FOCUS AND METHODS

The present research explores this blend of secularism and Islam in post-Soviet Azerbaijan and is guided by several broad questions. First, what is the role of Islam in the everyday lives of Azerbaijani women? Second, how do Azerbaijani women view the resurgence of Islam in present-day Azerbaijan? Third, is Islam relevant in shaping Azerbaijani women's identity in post-Soviet Azerbaijan?

As in my prior research in Azerbaijan, in-depth, open-ended discussions and dialogues with women were conducted in the capital city of Baku and in surrounding areas. Qualitative interdisciplinary humanistic methodologies were used to address my research questions, and research focused on interpretive analysis with a comparative historical emphasis. Therefore, rather than using formal surveys or questionnaires, in-depth, open-ended discussions and dialogues with women, individually and in small groups, were conducted. These discussions, which took place in Azeri, were digitally recorded and subsequently translated them into English. This project occurred during a three-month period in 2010 with follow-up contacts with key individuals and organizations in Azerbaijan in 2011. As such, this project is one component of my broader research agenda on gender issues, which has included various extended periods of fieldwork in Azerbaijan during the past nine years.

Through the use of referrals and quota sampling, dialogues were engaged in and narratives compiled with a diversity of women by age, marital status, education, occupation, and region. Although the nature of methods and data preclude generalizing findings to all Azerbaijani women, these dialogues and narratives do provide a much deeper and richer understanding of the processes and the dynamics of gender and Islam in Azerbaijan. And in this article, the words of Azerbaijani women are incorporated to illustrate specific points of analysis. These dialogues provide Azerbaijani women a "voice" and a mechanism to reflect on and to discuss their own personal experiences, their perspectives on Islam, and the role of religion in their everyday lives.

In the following, the historical context for my research, from the 1800s to independence in 1991, is provided first. Next, gender, secularism, and the resurgence of Islam in the post-Soviet era are explored within the context of Azerbaijan as an independent secular state. Then, elaborate factors that have contributed to the resurfacing of Islam from the private realm to the public realm within Azerbaijan are examined. …