In Azerbaijani culture, it is very important to greet people you know. I talked a little bit about greeting someone in one of my other posts. How people greet each other is a representation of cultural expectations. The same underlining cultural behaviors that influence how people greet one another also guide relationships between men and women. In other words, cultural expectations make dating so difficult!

When I see someone I know or go to someone’s house, I greet the women with a kiss on the cheek. Women kiss women on the cheek; men do the same thing! Men give a kiss on the cheek to other men. Unless they are family, men and women rarely kiss each other on the cheek. Instead they just say “Salam”. Why it may sound weird that men kiss other men on the cheek, it’s completely normal here and is nothing other than a greeting. Boys also walk down the street arm-in-arm with other boys as girls do with girls (it’s a sign of trust). Boys put their arms around other boys when sitting next to each other, and if they are good friends, they even rub each other’s ears. NEVER do girls and boys make contact in the same way.

Expectations for boys and girls go even further than not being allowed to kiss each other on the cheek. Boys and girls aren’t really friends here. Girls and boys do not hug; they do not hold hands; they do not visit each other. It is not appropriate for girls and boys to hang out together like we do in America. Boys and girls do go to school together and talk to each other. I sometimes see them gathered in groups in the parks or walking down the street. But out of school, girls and boys rarely hang out together in public or at each other’s houses. My host sisters never had boys come over the house nor did they go over boys’ houses that were not family. Boys can hang out together; girls can hang out together.

Since boys and girls do not hang out, they do not date either. Dating is a completely new concept. Most of the time a girl or boy’s family will find them someone to marry. In the capital—Baku—girls and boys have started dating! Not everyone’s parents allow them to date, though. In the regions (what the rest of Azerbaijan is called—not Baku), dating isn’t widely accepted. However, boys and girls want to date and get to know each other before their wedding, so girls and boys have started going on secret dates. I’ve observed this kind of secret Azeri date. Is consists of 2 or 3 girls walking arm-in-arm while 2 or 3 boys walk about 5 feet behind them. The girls turn their heads to talk to the boys and laugh, but never do they girls and boys walk side by side.

I think the reason why boys and girls are not friends here is because they have different functions in society. Girls are not allowed to stay out past dark, hang out in the streets, or play sports. Boys can do all those things. Boys do not wash dishes, clean the house, or cook. Girls are expected to do those things. Plus, there are not many opportunities for girls and boys to hang out outside of school. There are even fewer opportunities for girls to participate in activities outside of school and home. That’s one of the main things people like me, Peace Corps volunteers, are working to improve. We want there to be plenty of opportunities for girls to use their creativity and be leaders. One way we do this is my holding summer camps like GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), or for boys there is ABLE (Azerbaijani Boys Leadership Experience). We also want boys and girls to work with each other and understand each other more. One way we get them working together is through softball. Volunteers have made softball teams where girls and boys play on the same team, and we have competitions with other teams all across Azerbaijan.

In development, it’s the small steps that count. While joining a summer camp may not seem like much, it is to these girls. It’s a way to get out of their house, be creative, learn, connect with other people, and travel (many Azeri’s do not travel to other towns nor do they go exploring in those towns or even their own; while some girls may have been to the capital city, they probably stayed inside most of the time at a relative’s house). After attending the camp, they have the knowledge and tools to be leaders and start their own community activities. It’s really the simple ways you can empower individuals that can change the way people think. Who knew that by creating a co-ed sports team that boys can begin to see women, their abilities, and their potential in a new light.

It’s very encouraging to me as a development volunteer. Little changes are easier to make. Those little changes can have a great impact over time.