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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Testing New Waters in Azeri Popular Culture

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Azerbaijan may be a secular Muslim country, but morally it is still a distinctly conservative kind of place. That is why it has been both thrilled and scandalized by the libertine lifestyle and provocative posturing of Roya Ayxan, an Azeri pop princess with the shock value of a feisty young Madonna.

Why all the fuss over Roya?

Well, she has been known to swear like a drunken sailor on live television. And she thinks little of stripping off and flashing her breasts. "Her attitude is basically punk," commented a colleague, after Roya breezed into our Baku office in designer sunglasses, killer heels and an electroshock hairstyle, leaving a trail of expensive perfume and turning heads at every corner.

Some people have speculated that Roya represents a new, liberated generation of Azeri youth, those who have grown up during the post-communist oil boom. Others say she is just a nasty slut who should get the hell off stage before she corrupts any more young minds. And yet she insists her act is not meant to scandalize. "When I leave the house, I'm thinking, 'I will go and sing and then come back home and say nothing,'" she explains. "But it's impossible. When I go out on stage, I could take off some of my clothes or I could swear. It's impossible to change me. And I don't want to change because I like it." Then she laughs -- a dirty, loud laugh that fills the room.

But Roya goes on to admit that there are some things she still feels she cannot do because of the constraints of Azerbaijan's traditionalist culture, although she insists that this is slowly changing. "At the moment it's still too early," she says. "In five years it will be OK for our people to understand."

Nevertheless, she decided to send her younger brothers away to Turkey in case they were victimized over the outrageous antics of their celebrity sister. "If my brothers lived here, someone would definitely tell them, 'Hey, your sister did or said something wrong on stage.' They would have problems in their lives because of me, so I got some money together and sent them to live in Turkey."

Although some Azeri singers have condemned Roya's behavior, others have copied her flamboyant style. While the local imam would probably disagree, Roya sees herself as a role model for teenagers because she does what she wants to do, whatever people think of her. "I want even little girls to be like me," she insists. "I want them to be normal, open people like me -- people with principles."

Roya may have principles, but in Azerbaijan, she is anything but normal.

Matthew Collin is a Tbilisi-based journalist.