Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Traditional Values in a Modern Setting

The sexologist Dr Marty Klein has been travelling in Azerbaijan, where he has observed the return of religion in its most conservative forms. It is, he notes, "the kind of religion that survives underground during times of oppression, and that’s the kind that’s most attractive when religion is reintroduced." He pays a "disconcerting" visit to the only surviving Jewish village in the area, where the men in the synagogue take pride in being "more strict than the Jews in Israel." Being strict, naturally, means banning women from the building. Klein comments that tradition is "not a very good reason for separating family members during times of prayer and socializing."

Then he has a chat with two traditionally-minded, but far from extremist, Muslims, one of them a woman.

Two hours later, having left Krasnaya Sloboda, I sat at dinner with my guide and driver, she a college-educated world traveller and he a normal kind of high-school graduate, both in their late 40s. In response to a few questions back and forth, they proceeded to jointly lecture me on the finer points of their culture–mandatory female virginity before marriage, the unimportance of sex in women’s lives, the need for men to have regular “sexual release,” the complete inappropriateness of female infidelity, and the occasional necessity for honor killings—of daughters or wives who have strayed.

Yes, these two people who own cell phones, drive, and use the internet believe that the hymen is so important that a girl should be killed if she can’t present it to her future husband. And they believe that, although male infidelity is “only normal,” a wife who strays deserves to be killed; an enlightened man would only beat and abandon her. Yes, my guide Azzia would kill her own daughter if she betrayed her family’s dreams of a virgin bride—although “this would never happen, because we train her every day since she is little.”

Klein notes that for all its strategic importance, simply having a lot of oil "doesn’t make Azerbaijan rich; its religious tradition of denigrating women, fearing sexuality, and preventing intimacy makes it very, very poor." But as his friend Azzia shows, misogyny is not just something that men do to women.