The contrast between the Azerbaijani government’s secular orientation and the country’s increasingly pious population is coming into sharp focus in a seaside town about an hour’s drive from the Iranian border.
Länkäran, a town of about 80,000 situated along the Caspian Sea, has gained a reputation over the past few decades as a bastion of piety. It also has an array of beguiling beaches.
Most local women, in keeping with traditional Shia Islamic beliefs, are wary of men seeing them in a swimsuit. Thus, many females in Länkäran tend to shun the sun and surf.
“Although I know the sun is good for my health, I would never go,” said 28-year-old business school student Nigar Heydarli, a local believer. “I consider this immoral. Satan is everywhere.”
One Länkäran schoolteacher in her early 40s agreed. “Showing your body to men is against our belief and we prefer not to go swimming to stay away from sinning,” she explained.
Looking forward, a 33-year-old Lankaran lawyer, Sadraddin Kazimov, aired an idea in early August that aimed to satisfy local preferences while enabling women to relax on the beach: he called for the construction of “a high fence” on public beaches to segregate men from women.
“This is our religion and this is our right to follow religious rules,” he wrote on August 1 on his Facebook page. “Suntanning is good for our health. It is the responsibility of the government to take care of our health and rights.”
Kazimov’s post has attracted robust interest in the Azeri-language media, and generated vigorous debate on Facebook. Kazimov is now considering setting up a formal organization to lobby on behalf of the beach fence plan.
Azerbaijani government officials in Baku have not publically commented on Kazimov’s idea. The deputy head of Länkäran’s executive committee, Mohubbet Babayev, told EurasiaNet.org that his office would consider the proposal for segregated beaches when it is submitted. Azerbaijan will serve as host of the international Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017.
Informally, some elected officials seen as sympathetic to President Ilham Aliyev’s administration express a dim view of the idea, suggesting that implementing such a plan would damage the country’s secular image.
“Azerbaijani women have always been leaders of the Islamic and Turkish world in the West,” said Asim Mollazade, an MP and head of the Azerbaijan Democratic Reforms Party, which calls itself “constructive opposition.” “Covering them in [veils], restricting them with closed beaches is not good.”
Kazimov stressed that segregating beaches does not mean that he and his supporters want to emulate an Iranian system. “All we want is an opportunity [for women] to relax during the summer.”
Prominent theologian Elshad Miri, the owner of two religious bi-weeklies in the capital, Baku, called the idea of separate public beaches for men and women “positive discrimination.”
“Men and women play soccer separately, boxing tournaments for men and women are separate,” Miri said. “There always should be alternatives. This is a right of religious people that needs to be respected.”
In keeping with that view, many Länkäran women “also want a separate café, teahouse for women where they would feel more comfortable,” said Esmira Turhida, the female director of the city’s Southern Resources Center for Human Rights. “That does not mean people in our region are not modern. No. We just have our own culture and moral values that we want to preserve.”
Public campaigns in the past for broader freedom of religious expression have met with stout government opposition. In 2011, for example, demonstrations in Baku in favor of allowing women to wear hijabs in state-run schools faded after a police crackdown.
Though the number of Azerbaijani women wearing hijabs has increased in recent years, no store in Azerbaijan appears to sell so-called Islamic swimwear, often dubbed a “burkini” — a hooded, long-sleeve, knee-length shirt over leggings of similar material.
But Kazimov does not see such attire as a solution. “There is no guarantee that women, away from the shore, underwater, will not be attacked by men.”
Apparently, he is not alone with such concerns. The lack of Muslim-friendly beaches in Azerbaijan, theologian Miri added, prompts some wealthy Azerbaijani believers to head to Arab countries for summer vacations at hotels with female-only beaches and pools.
Mustajab Mammadov, a 64-year-old local journalist, said the beach-fence debate is a natural outgrowth of deeply held religious beliefs held by most area residents, and should not be seen as a sign of proliferation of radical ideas. In some area villages, he added, men and women already go to the beach at different times of the day to avoid seeing each other in swimsuits.
“People [in Länkäran] have always lived a religious life,” even when atheism was promoted during the Soviet era, he recalled.
Originally published by EurasiaNet.org.