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8 March 2022

The “Unexpected Gift” of March 8 - a Surprise for Ex-pats in Baku  

If you have female colleagues based in the Caspian Region, don’t forget flowers or gifts for them on March 8 – International Women’s Day. Mark Elliott tells the story of one ex-pat in Azerbaijan who made that mistake once, and never made it again.

The “Unexpected Gift” of March 8 - a Surprise for Ex-pats in Baku  

In the post-Soviet world, International Women’s Day is a very big deal. Forget the day, and you may as well have forgot your wedding anniversary. Stay vigilant. Image: Jakub Stolarski/Shutterstock 

Years ago, while living in Baku, I received a worried message from a charming Azerbaijani lady - let’s call her Farida. I had met Farida fairly often, as she was dating, and is now very happily married to, a British friend who we’ll call John. On that day back in March 1999, they were still in their first year of courtship. Farida had found John to be attentive, warm and educated, and she believed he felt strongly about her too – until now. Suddenly, all her hopes seemed dashed. Had John abruptly gone off her? Was there another woman? Something had gone so badly wrong that she needed to talk to me urgently. I was baffled. As far as I knew, John was completely besotted with her. I agreed to talk to her and see if I could mediate.   

Farida initially edged uncomfortably around the subject at the core of the problem. Eventually, it became clear. John had omitted to buy her a present. He hadn’t even bought her flowers which, by her expression, she would have expected as a bare minimum. Didn’t he know what day it was?    

“Is it your birthday?” I asked innocently.   

She looked at me aghast.  Seemingly it wasn’t her birthday.   

“You don’t know…” she ventured, “what day today is?”   

I didn’t.   

“March 8!”   

She pronounced this with a kind of verbal drum roll as though now all was revealed.  

But I was none the wiser.   

“Don’t…. don’t you know?” she asked incredulously   

“It’s International Women’s Day.”   

My blank looks said it all. I had never heard of the day. And it hardly sounded relevant or important to John.   

Farida’s demeanour relaxed just a notch. “Don’t you have this in England?” she demanded. “It’s INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day, after all. Surely you have it in your country too!”   

I assured her that, if we did, I had never been well enough acquainted with the feminist movement to be aware of it.   

“So you don’t buy presents for your wife on March 8?”   

“Well, no. Should I?”   

Here was the problem. Apparently, it was unthinkable in Azerbaijan – and indeed throughout most of the ex-USSR – for a man not to buy a present for his girlfriend on March 8.   

I later read that the day was founded before WWI as a socialist-led fight for female suffrage. The day later became a national holiday in the USSR and was officially recognized by the UN in the 1970s. Of course, like Santa taking centre stage at modern-day Christmas celebrations, the fine ideals underpinning International Women’s Day have now become somewhat shrouded in consumerism. Real equality would be vastly preferable to a token floral tribute once a year. But that doesn’t undermine the significance of those flowers to ladies who feel forgotten when the blooms don’t turn up.   

Fortunately for John, I could heartily reassure Farida that there was no snub intended. He would have had no idea whatever that a present was expected on March 8. But woe betide him should he forget next year!   

Meanwhile, beware that March 8’s gift-giving is not limited to romantic relationships. Bouquets or small tokens are expected from bosses to female staff, between colleagues and classmates and within families.   

Sarah, a Canadian ex-pat working in Baku, relates her experiences: “On March 8, they gather the whole office together for a special meeting. The first time, I was sure it was one of the lady’s birthdays, but no. There was cake and tea, and then they started handing out gifts and flowers to all us women. The first year I received some fancy plates, the second - a set of tea glasses, the third – some picture frames. I receive dozens of texts from people close to me and those I barely know. Some of my friends, so upset because a love interest didn’t bring them anything, cut off communication, and blocked them from their social media. The seriousness of March 8 always takes me by surprise.”