In socially conservative Azerbaijan, most families prefer that their mothers, wives and daughters seek medical care from female gynecologists.
The Hasanov family in the northern city of Mingecevir is a typical example. The couple is currently expecting their third child and are looking for a doctor. Husband Bahruz (31) will not consider any male gynecologists, however.
“Since our marriage, there have always been dark curtains on the windows. Intimate things should stay inside,” he says.
His wife, who refused to give her name, notes that Bahruz even underscores the need for a female doctor when he calls for an ambulance.
Sociologist Lala Mahmudova says this mentality is based on generations of traditions – as well as some teachings of the Islamic faith.
“Many religions, including Islam, oppose the idea that the female body can be visible to the public and strange men. According to this mentality, it is not acceptable to go to a male gynecologist for the treatment of a woman's sexual organs. Religious beliefs even emphasize that in the case of other illnesses women may be treated by male doctors only if there is no female doctor, or if the female doctor is less experienced,” Mahmudova, MA graduate of Loyola University Chicago`s Women`s Studies and Gender Studies, explains.
The stereotype runs both ways, she adds: men are discouraged from specializing in gynecology because “real men” should deal with serious issues, not childbirth and other “female issues”.
“According to the traditional gender roles, women are more likely to be more caring and compassionate, while men are expected to engage in more authoritative tasks. Therefore, choosing a profession related to female sexual organs, the birth process, and so on -- tasks that deal exclusively with a woman's body feminizes a man, according to society. It reduces his image as a stern figure and distorts the image of a traditional man,” Mahmudova says.
The Azerbaijan's official state statistics body does not keep data on the number of men specializing in gynecology (total number of gynecologists is 1,762). But male gynecologists believe the number is growing – and they are becoming more accepted.
Dr. Islam Mahalov, one of the first male gynecologists in the country, says more male doctors are opting to specialize in the field.
Dr. Mahalov decided to become a gynecologist when he was in a residency program in Germany. One of just three students to be sent to the program from the Azerbaijan Medical University in 1995, he became interested in the field when he saw male gynecologists in Germany.
“At that time, there were no men working in this field in Azerbaijan. Of course, it was not accepted normal, especially by old doctors and by the midwives. Even when we were students attending a birth, the midwives would said, ‘Look at the men with their mustaches and beards; is this a profession you would choose?!'” he recalls.
He has built a successful practice, however – even delivering his youngest daughter when his wife needed a cesarean operation.
Today Dr. Mahalov sees more men choosing gynecology. “The number of male gynecologists has increased, even in the regions. In Ganja, in Lankaran [a conservative area in southern Azerbaijan],” he says, adding that the majority of the students he lectures at the medical university want to specialize in gynecology.
Dr. Mahalov adds, however, that he takes special measures to make sure his patients are comfortable. For instance, he is never alone with a patient when he examines her. One of his female colleagues is always with them in the room.
Dr. Gair Isayev (37) also had to make a special effort to be accepted when he took a job as a gynecologist at the Perinatal Center at Lankaran City Hospital in 2012.
The area – located in southern Azerbaijan – is known for its conservative values and the strong influence of religion.
Dr. Isayev says he was warned that he would not be accepted, and even told that his practice would not last more than a couple of years.
“At that time I was told it would last a maximum of three years, but it is my seventh year,” he says.
Dr. Isayev was born in Sumgait, was educated in Baku and, following university, worked in Ukraine. But he decided to become a gynecologist while he was a student at Azerbaijan Medical University. In particular, he says, Associate Professor Zemfira Topchubashova inspired him to specialize in gynecology.
His urban background and experience did not immediately help him once he started working in rural Lankaran, however.
“The conservative region -- traditions, and the religious issues – were initially a challenge for me. The first two years were difficult; I didn’t have any patient to take care. I was not allowed to attend births but midwives were," Dr. Isayev says, noting that there is a fundamental difference between midwives and doctors and women's lives could have been at risk.
But he notes that the mentality was not just an issue in rural communities. “In Baku male gynecologists were not easily accepted before, either,” Dr. Isayev recalls.
The Perinatal Center serves seven neighboring districts as well: patients from Lankaran, Bilasuvar, Lerik, Masalli, Jalilabad, Yardimli and Astara regions are brought to the hospital if they need special care.
He says in the beginning he was only given the most difficult cases. But while that might have started as “anti-PR, it became PR for me,” Dr. Isayev says with a smile.
Today he says his patients include some very conservative Muslims, but they value his professionalism and ability above his gender, according to the doctor.
“The majority of the women come with their husbands. When we prepare a woman in the ninth month of pregnancy, I ask her 'Do you want me to participate in your birth?' If they do not, they choose the doctor themselves.”
In Baku, Dr. Mahalov agrees the most important thing for patients is a doctor's ability and his professionalism – not gender.
“Whoever you are,” he says, "the main thing is to be good at your job.”