Frequently I have had such limited internet access. But for most Azerbaijanis, the use of the computer and the internet are just not practical things in life. In my host family, the father wanted to try out my lap-top, and had great difficulty figuring out how to control the curser/mouse. He had never tried nor seen a computer before in person. Many schools in Azerbaijan do not make use of computers or have internet connections. And given that our training school in Masazir does not have reliable heat or indoor lavoratories, there are more basic school priorities. Actually the school here does have some computers, but they are in a room locked away and not used. In many regions outside of Baku, most people do not have computer access and are not taught to use them.
There are, however, the internet cafes/clubs. Initially we could not understand why these were only places for young men and teenaged boys, but now we realize that these are places for them to hang out and play video games!! These internet cafes are usually just small establishments, dark and uninviting, where doing research or searching the internet and/or checking email is not their primary purpose. Though many college-aged Azerbaijanis do have good computer and internet skills, with Facebook accounts, etc., most of the population does not. So, it is assumed by the average family (especially in the regions, outside of Baku) that no respectable girl or young woman would go to a place where young men and boys just hang out to play violent video games. It is not that women are not allowed in internet cafes per se, but for the most part it is considered culturally inappropriate. However, our training group was able to make some connections with local internet café operators, explaining that we Americans (women included) need internet access to conduct business, check mail, and access information for our jobs. We are now graciously welcomed, and they double-check frequently to make sure things are operating well. Of course, with the frequent power outages, and with the fact that the closest such internet cafe is in the next town, we still have limited access and opportunity, especially since we have language classes and technical training sessions that last all day, and for safety and security reasons, we are not allowed to travel after dark. (Best chance to use internet is at the P.C office in Xirdalan, which we all try to make use of--see photos)
The use of internet cafes is yet another example of the importance of maintaining a good reputation here. Women and girls never go to such establishments, because (except for us American Peace Corps volunteers) the internet cafes’ image is one of simply a place for video-game playing. It would raise questions and cause unwanted gossip if an Azerbaijani girl (with no computer knowledge, skills, or interest) would go into this teen-aged male domain. No family would want to dare ruin a girl’s reputation. And no self-respecting girl would want to risk her reputation either, nor that of her family, by going to a place normally frequented only by men. This attitude holds true also for the ubiquitous tea-houses (çayxana)—a woman does not go to them, for then she might be subjected to unwanted attention and harassment. Those tea-houses that women can and do go to, often have small rooms or closed off alcoves, where women can comfortably sit without unwanted attention. Unwanted harassment results because men and women alike know and expect to follow certain social rules—and stepping out of bounds is considered so unacceptable, that it basically invites and compounds additional rude and unacceptable behavior. Once you understand the reasoning, it is easier to accept, adapt to, and figure out ways to manage around the social rules that are different from what we are used to at home.
There are definite gender role differences here. It is a male-dominated society, and yet there are signs that things are changing—especially in cosmopolitan Baku, but these changes are not always welcomed out in the “regions” which is how the rest of Azerbaijan is referred to. In my host family, the mother certainly manages and takes care of the house-hold, while the father works outside the home and earns the money for the family. Nonetheless, I was surprised to see him vacuuming the house, and even washing the dishes. This is not the norm, I expect. Many of the local young women who work for the Peace Corps are single, and not interested in marrying a man their parents may chose for them—they readily admit this is not easy, since family bonds and loyalty to parents are very strong, yet they want to pursue careers, too. Usually by the time a young woman has reached her mid-twenties, she is considered “old” for marriage, and there can be a lot of family pressure put on her to marry—and on men, too, though it is expected that the male be somewhat older. One day, while showing my host family some of my things, I showed them my driver’s license: “You know how to drive a car???!!!” they exclaimed. Outside of Baku, I have yet to see any woman behind the wheel of a car—and perhaps this explains the wild and crazy driving here!! Another male dominated aspect of this society! When she rides in a car, the woman is always expected to sit in the back, and interestingly the word for “driver” is ‘shofer’—like chauffeur. Perhaps the father in my host family is more docile than the drivers on the roads and a man with domestic instincts, because like many Azerbaijani families, my host family has no car.
An excellent insight into Azerbaijan and its culture is found in the book “Culture Smart! Azerbaijan” by Nikki Kazimova, www.culturesmart.co.uk.