Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Azerbaijan

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In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Azerbaijan, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Azerbaijan.

Outside of Azerbaijan’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Azerbaijan are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Azerbaijan, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers will not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

The Peace Corps staff in Azerbaijan recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Although Azerbaijan’s culture is more secular than that of most Muslim countries, it remains largely patriarchal. Men are accorded more leeway than women in most supervisory and leadership roles. In schools, however, most language teachers are women. Volunteers find that, while on the surface

Azerbaijani culture seems to give women more freedom (in dress and some careers), women are carefully “protected” in that they don’t go out alone and don’t go to many places in town (e.g., teahouses, cafes, and certain parts of the baazar). This often appears restrictive to Americans entering the culture.

Female Volunteers may find that Azerbaijanis think it is strange for a single woman to live alone. They will receive more unwanted and inappropriate attention from men than they do in the United States. Female Volunteers will not be able to have male visitors in their home-stay rooms or apartments in villages. They may have to work harder than male Volunteers to gain the respect of Azerbaijani counterparts in the workplace. And they will need to keep a low social profile and practice discretion in public (i.e., not smoke in public or drink in public) to avoid developing an undesirable reputation in the community.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

Azerbaijan has an ethnically diverse population and a long history of interaction with peoples of Central Asia.

Still, a person of color may be the only minority trainee or Volunteer in a particular program. You may work and live with individuals with no experience or understanding of your culture. You may not receive, or be able to receive, the necessary personal support from other Volunteers and may be questioned about socializing exclusively with other minority Volunteers. Finally, you may not find minority role models among the local Peace Corps staff.

African-American Volunteers may be evaluated as less professionally competent than nonblack Volunteers. They may be called “Negroes,” not necessarily in a derogatory sense but as the local word used to describe black people. They may be the focus of staring, pointing, or comments. Hispanic American Volunteers may not be perceived as being American or may be the subject of stereotyped perceptions of Hispanic cultures other than their own. Asian-American Volunteers may be the subject of stereotyped perceptions based on behavior observed in films. Like all Volunteers of color, they may be identified more by their cultural heritage than by their American citizenship.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

Respect comes with age in Azerbaijan. Younger Volunteers may have to work harder than their older colleagues to be accepted as professionals. Older Volunteers may feel isolated within the Peace Corps community in Azerbaijan because the majority of Volunteers are in their 20s. In training, seniors may encounter frustration in not having their needs met for an effective learning environment in areas such as timing, presentation, and style. They may need to be assertive in developing an effective individual approach to language learning. During their service, seniors may work and live with individuals who have little understanding of, or respect for, the lives and experiences of senior Americans. Older Volunteers may find that younger Volunteers look to them for advice and support. While some seniors find this to be very enjoyable, others choose not to fill this role.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

In Azerbaijan, homosexuality is generally considered immoral for religious and cultural reasons. There are certainly homosexuals in Azerbaijan, but their level of acceptance is very low. While there is some evidence of gay culture in Baku, it is quite discreet and underground. However, in the regions where you will be placed, homosexuality is definitely not accepted. Even certain styles of hair and clothes, earrings on men, and certain mannerisms that are accepted in the United States may be viewed with suspicion or disdain in your community. Your basic civil liberties may be ignored, or you may be hassled in bars or on the street.

You may not find the support you desire within the Peace Corps community in Azerbaijan. Homosexual or bisexual Volunteers may serve for two years without meeting another homosexual or bisexual Volunteer. Relationships with homosexual host country nationals can happen, but as with all cross-cultural relationships, they are not likely to be easy.

Lesbians, like all women, may have to deal with constant questions about boyfriends, marriage, and sex. Wearing an “engagement ring” may help. Gay men, like all men, may have to deal with machismo: talk of conquests, girl watching, and dirty jokes.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Azerbaijanis frequently ask Volunteers about their religious affiliation, but this is more out of curiosity than out of any challenge. Ninety-three percent of Azerbaijanis are Muslim, and mosque attendance and other religious observances are generally greater in rural areas. If you wish to visit a mosque, ask your host family or counterpart first, and be guided by their response. Azerbaijan has a long tradition of tolerance toward and coexistence with other faiths, with the exception of Armenian Orthodoxy, an outgrowth of the ongoing tensions between Azerbaijan and its western neighbor. Proselytizing of any kind by Volunteers is prohibited.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

As a disabled Volunteer in Azerbaijan, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. In Azerbaijan, as in other parts of the world, some people hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. Some people may mistake you for a war veteran at first. In addition, there is very little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States.

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps’ Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable of performing a full tour of Volunteer service in Azerbaijan without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service. Peace Corps/ Azerbaijan staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations in training, housing, job sites, and other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers[edit]

Azerbaijanis welcome married couples, so being married per se should not cause any problems. Difficulties for married Volunteers do sometimes arise, however, in the areas of language training, living with a host family, and placement.

If one spouse has superior language learning skills, the other spouse may not work as hard at learning the language or come to rely on his or her partner’s language skills. But to integrate into the host community it is essential that both learn Azerbaijani. Furthermore, everyone must successfully meet minimum language requirements to complete training and become a Volunteer.

Couples may find that the privacy they have become accustomed to is in short supply when living with an Azerbaijani family. You will be expected to participate in the family’s life, especially during and after dinners. Arranging for private time and space in a culturally acceptable manner may require some sensitivity and flexibility on your part.

Spouses should expect to be separated during pre-service training, especially if spouses are placed in different programmatic sectors.