A Visit to the Middle Ages, Central Asia-Style

I continued my trip to Azerbaijan by visiting medieval times twice, from two entirely different—yet oddly related—directions.

Today I went to Krasnaya Sloboda, a small town in the foothills near Russia that is experiencing a religious revival. In fact, it now has the only actual Jewish culture in Azerbaijan. The rest was wiped out by the Soviets in the general anti-religion frenzy of the Stalin era, enhanced by the standard Russian and Central Asian anti-semitism.

Religion has been making an enormous comeback in all the former Soviet republics since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, not surprisingly, it’s been the orthodox strains that have been most energetic. After all, that’s the kind of religion that survives underground during times of oppression, and that’s the kind that’s most attractive when religion is reintroduced.

So although Judaism has been considered a relatively progressive religion for 1,000 years, the Judaism I found in Krasnaya Sloboda was pretty disconcerting. Not only are women not allowed to pray next to men, they aren’t allowed to pray at all. The men in the synagogue were quite proud that “we are more strict than the Jews in Israel.” They gave the usual spiel about women having a privileged role in transmitting the culture through the home. I suggested that they were being deprived of the beauties of the Torah (such as they are), and of the comforts of worshipping god (such as he/she/it is). They shrugged, saying this is “tradition,” which of course is both nonsense and not a very good reason for separating family members during times of prayer and socializing.

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.” I noted the tremendous responsibility young daughters have: you wouldn’t trust a 14-year-old with your best camera, watch, or family china, but something far more precious—the family’s reputation and dreams—are carried on her shoulders every day. How anxiety-provoking this must be for the family. Azzia didn’t quite get my astute, western analysis.

I asked if this were an Azeri belief or a Muslim belief, and she said “Muslim, definitely.” Trying hard to contain my disdain, I said, “This is how you lived 1,300 years ago, and this is how you live now.” She agreed, without a trace of irony.

Of course, the ultra-orthodox Jewish system, repressive as it is, is far more benign than the Muslim one. Jews haven’t had anything like honor killings since they left their desert tents. Nor do Jews abort fetuses simply for being female, nor do they abandon newborn babies who make the stupid choice to come into the world as girls.

But both systems devalue femaleness, and in doing so leave both men and women isolated and incomplete. the “otherness” men and women experience of women and men is so profound, there can be no intimacy. The lack of trust is so profound there can be no intimacy.

When hymens are more important than humans, when female sexuality is dismissed as myth, when male bullying is considered evolutionarily, spiritually, and physically “normal,” and when men and women are prevented from praying together, god feels shame at god’s creation. If god has tears, god weeps.

Azerbaijan is sitting on much of the oil left in the world. This makes Azerbaijan important—for a very short while. But it doesn’t make Azerbaijan rich; its religious tradition of denigrating women, fearing sexuality, and preventing intimacy makes it very, very poor.

When the oil is used up in just a few years, Azerbaijan won’t be important anymore–and it will still be poor.

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