Teahouses – chai-khana – have long played a fundamental role in Azerbaijani society. For centuries, men have gathered at their neighborhood teahouse to drink, eat and talk.
While women are slowly being admitted to the teahouse tradition, they are subjected to several "unwritten rules" that range from where they can sit to where female staff should wash the dishes.
First and foremost, a woman who respects herself will not sit in a chai-khana, a place where lots of men gather. But, if she decides to come to a chai-khana, she must sit in a corner or behind closed doors. A chai-khana must, however, employ women to wash dishes. Preferably, however, she does her job out of sight. Finally, no respectable woman will work in a chai-khana as a waitress and openly serve men.
But male-dominated teahouses are slowly losing ground to women-friendly coffeehouses in capital Baku as the city becomes more cosmopolitan. The shift reflects cultural and economic changes in the country, according to gender activist Vahid Ali. He notes that both men and women are free to go to coffeehouses, no extra rules required. And coffeehouses have embraced modern design and marketing, unlike traditional teahouses, which remain firmly entrenched in Soviet-era decor.
Vahid Ali also notes there is a strong economic divide between traditional teahouses and new coffeehouses.
“Feminine places like coffeehouses are in the heart of the city, while men-only teahouses are not located on central streets. Traditions are dominant at the chai-khana, while coffeehouses are defined by modern culture and tastes.”
Also, teahouses are cheaper than coffeehouses: a pot of tea in a chai-khana is just one or two manats, compared to five manats (at least) at modern cafes.
Ali notes that traditional teahouse culture fosters separation in society: men separated from women, the rich separated from the poor. He adds that, thanks to urbanisation and other social changes in the country, it is likely that the number of male-dominated places in Azerbaijan will decrease.