Gender as an Issue of Academic Discourse in Azerbaijan

On 27 September 2011, the Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus Regional Office organized the public debate in Baku. The topic of the discussion was: “Gender as an issue of academic discourse in Azerbaijan”. As a rule, HBF discussions raise critical issues and actual problems facing the Azerbaijani society. This debate was not an exception from the rule, as it was devoted to the issue of gender equality and the contribution, the Azerbaijani academic community and researchers can make towards the goal of achieving gender equality. Traditionally, participants included not only academics, but also civil society and media representatives, as well as prominent Azerbaijani experts who work on and research gender-related issues.

Ali Abasov, the head of the Department for Modern Philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy, Sociology and Law at the National Academy of Science of Azerbaijan has been leading the department of gender studies since 1998.  In his view, a number of researches carried out by his institute demonstrate that the school of gender studies is developed in Azerbaijan.  According to Abasov, social gender roles are determined by the socio-cultural values of the society. According to him, modern gender culture of Azerbaijan is a result of complex interplay of various historical events, putting a trace in the culture of the nation and stereotypes established as a result of such developments. 

According to the speaker, gender relations have a number of specific features in Azerbaijan. This is due to the mass emigration of working-age men from the country. This affects not only the reproductive situation of the republic, but also leads to strengthening of women’s roles.  In the modern Azerbaijani society, more and more women occupy social positions that traditionally belonged to men and dominate education and health care systems; women who are occupied in trade, social services, culture and science have considerably increased. The female population began to occupy purely “male” spheres of activity; they are well represented in political parties, public organizations and associations. There are forty-two registered women’s non-governmental organizations working in Azerbaijan. These trends of course lead to an entirely new situation in Azerbaijan concerning gender that has to be properly studied. 

Studies conducted by the specialists and researchers of the Academy of Sciences with the participation of Ali Abasov, allow him to assert that in Azerbaijan, discrimination against women is often caused not so much from the pressure of men but mostly from women’s own willingness to conform to norms of relations that have traditionally dominated a family, relations among relatives and friends and social environment. Behavior of both sexes is determined by stereotypes ingrained in the very early stages of life. Impressions from early childhood become a model of behavior in adulthood regulating attitudes of men and women. Abasov concluded that currently there are intensive and successful academic researches carried out in Azerbaijan on gender research.

Yulia Gureyeva (Aliyeva), the gender studies specialist and independent expert argued that gender studies have easily and relatively quickly become a part of formal academic discourse in Azerbaijan. Training programs on gender are approved by the Ministry of Education and students can choose their diploma work in gender studies. In addition, university lecturers organize numerous intra and inter-university workshops, trainings and conferences on the topic.

However, according to Gureyeva, a question has to be asked whether an import of the new “gender” terminology resulted in an evident shift of paradigm in social sciences, or only a modern fancy term for the reproduction of traditional gender stereotypes and gender asymmetry has been recreated.

In her speech, Gureyeva highlighted an actual problem of disregarding critical approaches and functions of gender studies in Azerbaijan for the sake of protecting national consciousness and mentality. In her view, there are the following questions to be raised: what are discursive practices that define and form the shape and content of gender studies as a “local product”? What are sources of “true” discourse? Explicit and latent meanings they contain, who are the authors and how well are they promoted, the audience for which these issues are designed to address? According to her, in the process of searching for a new national identity, when aspirations to join “civilized models” of the Western World as quickly as possible are strong, our state confronts Azerbaijani intellectuals with the challenge to create a new “synthetic model” that will combine “Western import” with “national peculiarities.” This desire to join Europe, while maintaining cultural identity is beneficial to the local political authorities and is expressed in everything, starting from the interpretation of democracy and the civil society, as well as in approaches to gender studies.

In recent years, it became increasingly popular to claim that all modern concepts, including “gender” are formed in the Western academic discourse and later are offered to the rest of the world ready to use as an established structure. Difficulties arise in translation and re-learning of these structures, there is a sense of imposing these structures by the “other,” a sense of intellectual inequality within the academic frames, where some produce and some consume the designed structure. The feeling of the cultural colonization felt by the intellectual elite is not only a characteristic feature for Azerbaijan, but is visible in all modernizing countries.

Zardusht Alizadeh, director of the School of Journalism, in turn, was critical in assessing the gender-related academic research practice in Azerbaijan. In his opinion, a question should be asked whether or not academic discourse is able to embrace the complexity of the gender situation in Azerbaijan. He spoke about changes in the practices and rules of gender relations in Azerbaijan during the XIX-XX centuries. According to him, in the modern Azerbaijani society several types of families coexist (from patriarchal to egalitarian). As he said, Azerbaijan can observe a strong erosion of traditional moral and behavioral standards. Moreover, this process should not be regarded as natural.  The moral degradation of the society meets the political and economic interests of the ruling elites. From here emerges aggression in TV, brainwashing, "planting" stereotypes among the population, habits and tastes of the masses. Women in Azerbaijan, alongside with men, experience material, spiritual, moral and physical losses. Exhaustion of the political and social attitudes affects quality of relations in the society. In his opinion, the following questions arise: can the Azerbaijani academic community answer questions posed by the society? Are there resources for practical research and theoretical analyzes of the data? Given the direct interest of the government to replace the reality with the myth, we should recognize that the Azerbaijani scientific community should not expect support of the government in the process of studying and understanding these problems, thus, we should not expect the successful gender studies from the academic community, concludes the expert.

Overall, the keynote speeches contained different viewpoints, which correspond to the traditions of the public debates organized by the Heinrich Boell Foundation. Debates have become a traditional platform where one can freely exchange views, communicate with different groups and sectors of the society, and analyze problems and find possible solutions. Different presentations provoked lively debates and created an atmosphere where it was possible to freely and critically exchange views – the situation that is so much lacking in today's Azerbaijan.