Azerbaijan's Cultural Taboos and Religious Customs
Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, has a tumultuous political history. Having established the first Muslim parliamentary republic in 1918, a mere two years later the country was attacked by Soviet Russia and was absorbed into what became the Soviet Union, only reclaiming independence in 1991. During the Soviet rule, lack of education about religion and prohibition of religious practices led to the decline of participation in religious events, which has seen a resurgence since Azerbaijan's independence.
1 Customary Greetings
Between men, a handshake and a kiss on the cheek is a customary greeting whereas between women, a hug and a kiss on the left cheek is expected. When greeting a woman, a man should not offer his hand, but should wait for her to extend her hand and then shake it lightly. Very religious women will not offer their hands. If talking to an acquaintance or friend, you may go on a first name basis and it's polite to ask about family, health and business. If you do not know the person well, you may use the respectful title “hanum” for women and “bey” for men. If involved in business negotiations, make eye contact as Azeris distrust people who avoid eye contact.
2 Gift-Giving Norms
If you are invited into someone's home, remove your shoes before entering. If bringing a gift, fruit, pastries or flowers in odd numbers (flowers in even numbers for funerals) are good choices. Giving alcohol as a gift could offend your host unless you know for sure the recipient will enjoy it. If someone offers you a gift, it's polite to refuse it twice and then accept it on the third offering. Likewise, when offering a gift, offer it three times.
The religious holiday Ashura which honors Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson who was martyred in AD 680, is the most celebrated religious holiday in Azerbaijan. A ritual in which men whip their backs with chains is practiced in communities across the country. In the late 1990s, a community in the capital Baku began a movement to donate blood as a way to commemorate the holiday, instead of whipping backs to draw blood. Today, the custom has spread to many other communities where spiritual leaders help organize blood drives.
4 Restrictions on Islamic Resurgence
During Soviet rule, Azeris were restricted from participating in Hajj, the pilgrimage Muslims make to Mecca. In 1991, 200 Azeris made the pilgrimage, but by 2007 that number rose to 5,700. The recent enforcement of secularism by the Azeri government has led to conflict between the surging population of practicing Muslims and the state. As Muslims take steps towards reclaiming Islam by returning to worship in mosques and participating in holidays such as Ramadan, the state has responded with restrictions on the expressions of religious customs by closing mosques, enacting a ban on religious symbols in public buildings, and most recently, banning girls from wearing the hijab, a traditional head covering for women in public schools in Baku, the capital.