Before I left America to spend three years in rural Azerbaijan as a Peace Corps volunteer, I spoke with a woman who had worked in several Middle Eastern countries. She told me, “There are three genders: men, local women, and foreign women. You will be viewed differently.” I took it as I did every other piece of advice I received before leaving; I made a mental note, but I didn’t fully understand it until I experienced it first-hand.
Gender roles in a lot of these countries are backward to us as Americans. Azerbaijan, for example, is a Post-Soviet Muslim Republic (try to wrap your mind around that). Basically, this means that, thanks to the Russians, this tiny country has some infrastructure and a whole lot of oil, allowing it to conduct business with major global economies. However, because of traditional religious beliefs, corruption, and the paranoia that has run rampant since the Soviet occupation, Azerbaijan is stuck in the 1950s in many ways—most notably the way men and women are viewed in society.
Women in Azerbaijan don’t leave the house after dark, often marry upon graduating high school (assuming they are lucky enough to wait that long), and aren’t allowed to do anything without the permission of their fathers, brothers, or husbands. Alcohol is completely prohibited for women, and they are not allowed alone in public. Most of them spend too much time in the kitchen to have any time to go out anyway—by the time they’ve finished cleaning up one meal, it is time to start cooking the next.
Men, on the other hand, do the business. They handle the money and make all the decisions, even the unimportant ones, like what to buy at the grocery store. They go to work, and when they’re done they stay out, walking around parks, playing games in tea houses, and frequenting other “unsavory” establishments.
So what about me? I wasn’t a married Azerbaijani woman, and hiding inside and cleaning the house was not what I signed up for when I joined the Peace Corps looking for a life of adventure. I wanted to continue to go out on my own, do my own grocery shopping, and visit peoples’ homes.
My attitude about gender roles, along with my fair complexion and bizarre height (at 5’9,” I was taller than many men), made me an obvious anomaly in my tiny new village. Clearly not a man (thank you very much), and refusing to play by the same rules my female counterparts did, I defied convention—and everything that the locals around me had grown up knowing.
So, how did that work out? Well, in the first few months, I know for certain many people came to the natural conclusion that I was a prostitute. Twice, I was propositioned by men while walking home after dark. Once, when I was with an American male colleague, he was summoned by a local man who pointed to me and asked, “How much?” implying that I was a commodity to be purchased. I am fortunate to say that this was never a true threat to me. Like having pebbles thrown my way, it was annoying and stung a little, but I never felt unsafe.
While this early negative attention certainly shook me, I didn’t let it stop me. It was difficult at first—I spent many nights crying in my apartment—but eventually, I grew a thick skin and these encounters started to bounce off of me. This newfound strength brought with it the urge to fight back with nasty comments, but I knew that I was on thin ice. As an outsider, engaging the offender would only escalate the encounter and wouldn’t buy me any friends.
Instead, I channeled that anger into bolstering my reputation within the community. I continued to pursue any and all professional and social opportunities that came my way, making strategic decisions to network with influential individuals in the community. I built relationships with teachers, government workers, and respected elders who have the power to influence those who look up to them. When I was able to gain their approval, I gained their protection, and slowly but surely, I was accepted by the community as a whole.
When I eventually scored a dinner invitation to the house of the head honcho at the Department of Education, things started looking up. Instead of being glared at by women who distrusted me or checked out by men who didn’t know me, I could hardly walk down the street without greeting someone I knew, kissing the cheek of a woman who had invited me into her home the night before, or shaking the hand of a gentleman with whom I was collaborating. I stopped being held to local standards, but I was still taken into the community. I found I was able to have substantive relationships with both men and women, and I was able to write a new set of rules against which I was to be measured.
I can’t begin to describe how lucky I was in Azerbaijan. I was placed in a community that was eager for progress, but didn’t know how to get there. Some countries, and even other communities within Azerbaijan, are not prepared for—or even interested in—a new way of thinking about gender roles, even for foreign women. In fact, when one of my fellow volunteers pushed the societal limits in the conservative region she was placed in, her community pushed back and never really took her in. Men were truly threatening, and women remained suspicious and refused to offer assistance.
If you’re traveling or working abroad in a similar situation, you must read the community to figure out exactly how much freedom you have. Before departing, talk with other foreigners who have lived in the region, and ask them for tips on everything from what to wear to how to speak about controversial political topics. In the beginning, err on the conservative side; I often wore skirts that were a few inches longer and heels that were a bit shorter than those of my Azeri counterparts, and I regularly declined alcohol (even though I wanted some). But these early concessions solidified my reputation as someone of good character, and allowed me to forge relationships with prominent members of the community. These relationships demonstrated that I was worthy of a certain level of respect.
From there, I was able to expand my boundaries, and with that, the minds of some of my community counterparts. In these countries, it is much easier to start by asking permission instead of forgiveness, with the goal that, one day, you can stop asking and start showing.
But if at any point you feel in your gut that something isn’t working, listen to that. Pushing against cultural norms won’t fare as well in every situation. Don’t be too stubborn to put your safety ahead of your beliefs, because sometimes bad things do happen.
I am happy to say that nothing bad befell me during my time in Azerbaijan, and my little town there is my second home, where I have a mother, sisters, brothers, and many great friends. My femininity was at times limiting. But at others, I found it to be quite liberating.