If you walk around the suburbs of the Azerbaijani capital Baku, you might spot men playing with pigeons on the rooftops.
The hobby of raising birds is a famous pastime in Azerbaijan, especially on the rooftops of Baku.
Traditionally, it is the men of Baku who raise doves on the city's rooftops. From father to son, grandfather to grandson, the art of calling the birds home has been passed from generation to generation for centuries.
The hobby is dying as the face of the city changes, however. In addition, the tradition is falling out of favor as today men prefer to watch TV or surf the Internet in their spare time. But as young men are losing interest, a few women have started picking up the hobby, sparking a debate about who has the right to raise pigeons.
Sociologist Humay Akhundzade thinks raising pigeons became a male hobby largely because men had the free time to pursue it.
“Traditional gender roles generally do not give women the space for leisure. [Traditionally] men have set schedules to work for a certain amount of time, after that they can rest and have time to develop hobbies like bird keeping,” explains Akhundzade, an associate researcher at European University at Saint Petersburg. “However, women lack this luxury. Women, in fact, are busy with housework constantly.”
While it is not clear if women today in Azerbaijan have more leisure time, they are more interested in caring for pigeons. And that is raising some fears among the men who cherish the tradition.
Two cousins, Hafiz and Ramiz Aliyev, spend their mornings as their ancestors did: watching the sunrise as they free their birds from cages in Baku's Keshla neighborhood.
At age 50, both men are passionate about maintaining the tradition, even as their sons shun the work required to raise pigeons. But while Hafiz is happy for his wife to help maintain the flock, Ramiz believes the art of caring for birds requires a male touch.
Hafiz learned to love birds as a school boy, when he would run home to join his grandfather on the roof. Today he has around 30 pigeons but his two sons, aged 20 and 24, are not interested in the hobby. Therefore, when he is at work, his wife Khanim takes care of the birds.
But for Ramiz, that is not acceptable. “We always quarrel when Hafiz asks his wife to deal with the birds. I think a woman should only do women’s work. Keeping birds is a man’s job,” says Ramiz.
Ramiz's anxiety arises, in part, from the fact that his wife has shown a bit of interest in his birds.
“At times I have felt that my wife has become curious about bird keeping; I thought she might climb to the roof and I’d be disgraced. Therefore I bought home two parrots in a cage to keep her busy,” Ramiz laughs.
He says Azerbaijani mentality does not accept the idea of a woman climbing to the roof to whistle for birds.
“There was a woman, Khalida, who took care of birds after her husband passed away; she is now labelled ‘bird-fancier Khalida’. When ‘bird fancier’ is tagged on to a woman’s name, it doesn’t sound serious, she becomes the target of mockery, laughter,” Ramiz argues.
“My honor cannot accept that someone could say something inappropriate about my wife. First, society should change its views on bird keeping, and then I can let my wife whistle and call birds down from the sky. That is still a man's job,” he says.
But there are signs that attitudes are shifting, in part because there are fewer men willing to care for the birds.
“Before, there used to be at least two bird keepers in each small neighborhood. If you had asked around at that time, you would have learned that seven generations before people had also been bird keepers,” Hafiz notes.
He adds that today the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of bird keepers are demolishing pigeon lofts so they can build garages.
Hafiz adds that in his family, too, the birds have had to sacrifice some space and comfort so the family could survive.
“As the financial situation worsened, it impacted the birds first. I had to move them out of their hen-coop in the yard to a smaller place on the roof. To help my family, I had to remodel where the birds lived and convert it into a small grocery store. So, it is hard to find me on the ground; everybody looks for me at the top of the house,” he laughs.
When Hafiz is in a hurry to go to his job at a construction site, his wife will climb to the roof to care for the birds. “When I’m in a rush to get to work, Khanim gathers birds to the nest. I made a ladder for her to climb to the rooftop and call them down and feed them,” he says.
What is important is that the birds are cared for, he says. “You get used to them so much that you protect them like your children.”
Vagif Jafarov, another bird fancier in the neighborhood, agrees it does not matter who cares for the birds.
“How come a woman is allowed to keep chickens but not pigeons? Why is it normal to take care of a rabbit, parrot but not a pigeon? What’s wrong about doing this? No one can blame her [for caring about birds].”