By Paul Goble
Azerbaijan is a Muslim country that is proud of its secular traditions, but maintaining that balance is anything but easy as ever more tourists from Iran and other Muslim countries visit Baku and as ever more Azerbaijani women choose to wear the hijab – and on occasion say they face discrimination in the workplace.
This problem is detailed in articles in the Azerbaijani media (jam-news.net/hijab-or-work-muslim-azerbaijani-women-forced-to-choose/) and now in a new article by Eurasianet journalist Austin Clayton (russian.eurasianet.org/азербайджан-женщин-в-хиджабах-становится-больше-но-они-жалуются-что-не-могут-найти-работу).
More than 95 percent of Azerbaijanis identify as Muslims but in the past and even now relatively few of them have been strictly observant. However, in recent years, the number who are has increased and one of the indications of this is that the number of Azerbaijani women choosing to wear the hijab has gone up as well.
Clayton has interviewed several who say they have been subjected to discrimination when trying to obtain jobs, a problem that Azerbaijani government officials say they have not year of, perhaps at least in part because those who have been victimized doubt that complaining to them would do any good.
There is also the problem that while the Azerbaijani constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it also imposes certain qualifications on it that may open the door for discrimination. Specifically, the country’s basic law says that religious rites may be practice freely “if this does not violate public order or contradict public morality.”
Eight years ago, Clayton notes, Baku banned hijabs among school pupils, an action that provoked protests but that has not been reversed, a reflection of the still uneasy balance in Azerbaijan between secularism and Islamic faith (eurasianet.org/azerbaijan-hijab-ban-in-schools-fuels-debate-in-baku-on-role-of-islam).
As Azerbaijani poet Rasim Garadzha has written, “Baku is the only Muslim city nt eh world in which there is a moment portraying a woman throwing of the veil. The significant of this monument is something everyone needs to understand. For me it is one of the key symbols of our country” (en.qantara.de/content/azerbaijans-enlightenment-a-nation-at-odds-with-itself).
(Garadzha and Clayton who quotes him don’t mention it, but when Iran opened its bank in Baku in the 1990s, the Azerbaijani authorities rented it a building facing that monument, something that, as the author of these lines can attest from his time in Baku, is a source of continuing amusement among Azerbaijanis.)
Clayton reports that many young Azerbaijani women who choose to wear the hijab face problems in gaining employment with state institutions or those private ones that deal with the government on a regular basis. Instead, they find positions in stores and especially those with Muslim owners.
One such Azerbaijani woman said that as a clerk, she faced few problems although some strange looks, especially when “certain customers don’t know how to interact with [her] when they are purchasing alcohol,” something most traditional Muslims wouldn’t be engaged in selling but that Azerbaijani Muslims generally have little aversion to doing.
What remains to be seen is whether those Azerbaijani women who do choose to wear the hijab will remain the predominantly secularized Muslims or whether they will become radicalized when they are discriminated against. On the answer to that question the future stability of Azerbaijan may very well rest.