Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Women Search for Rights

In a traditionally male-dominated society, many women can expect little help – except from other women.
By Tahmine Tagiyeva

Covering her face with one hand, Esmer pushed the mirror off the table with the other. “This is never going to show me young and beautiful again,” she said.

During her eight years of marriage, 23-year-old Esmer was often blamed by her husband Hagani and his relatives for her failure to produce a child. At times she endured humiliations and beatings. And now, in addition to this, she is tormented by terrible pains all over her body – the result of incorrect medical treatment.

According to Esmer, who did not want to give her family name, her husband forced her to take various medications, including hormones, over a period of three years. She now suffers aches in her bones, an ailment that has partly crippled her and which doctors have so far failed to find an effective treatment for. Hagani has left her.

“When we had only just married, Hagani suffered a severe stomach illness. Many people advised me to divorce him but I cared for him for so many years. Now he is healthier than I am. When Hagani used to humiliate me for our lack of children I myself wanted to get a divorce, but at that time he wouldn't let me go. When I needed help, he sent me away to his father's house, kicked me out of my own home,” Esmer said.

Natella Mamedova, head of the Women's Rehabilitation Centre in Ganja, Azerbaijan’s second city, told IWPR that nearly all those who approach her for help complain of domestic violence. She blamed the phenomenon on resistance to changes in Azerbaijan’s traditional, male-dominated society.

“Domestic violence towards women has already reached large-scale proportions. The more our women try to integrate themselves into society, the more pressure they come under. These obstacles are created mainly by men … because men continue to look on women in terms of stereotypes,” she said.

Fifty per cent of divorces processed in Ganja’s City Court cite domestic violence, said Gulnara Gasanova, head of the non-governmental organisation Women in Civil Society. Other common reasons for marriages breaking up, she said, are adultery, failure to produce children, sexual discomfort and husbands ceasing to provide for their families after leaving to find work elsewhere.

Nor is life outside the home always simple for women in modern Azerbaijan, with employers exploiting women and barring their way to advancement.

Many, for example, only take on women under 30-years-old, said Djeihun Gasanzade, a lawyer and regional coordinator of the Society of Social Development Programmes, ELIM. This particular problem, he said, is mainly associated with private employers and foreign firms.

But senior employment inspector Akber Nasirli told IWPR, “There is no institution in Ganja where women’s work rights are not being infringed.” While some employers do so unintentionally, Nasirli said, this is certainly not always the case.

“The complaints are mainly connected with the recruitment of women to work in illegal fields, the failure to sign contracts upon taking up work, excessive working hours, infringement of the right to holidays, and so on,” he explained.

And while Azerbaijan has signed international conventions and passed a number of laws protecting women’s rights, he said, few of these rules are respected outside the capital Baku.

In other ways, pressure on women in Azerbaijan begins even before birth.

Rena Bagirova, head doctor at Ganja's maternity clinic, said there has been a major increase in requests for abortions of female foetuses over the past 20 years.

“It is very rare that women expecting a girl will themselves go for an abortion,” Bagirova said. “Usually the reason for an abortion is the unwillingness for a second girl in the family, the husband and the in-laws often do not want a second daughter. There are even cases where the first pregnancy is terminated.

“Abortions do not pass without side-effects for the woman: tomorrow this woman will also be unable to produce the desired son. Such abnormal cases can be considered the beginning of a global problem – not only for one family, but for the whole nation and society.”

According to Nushaba Mamedova, editor of the newspaper Ganjabasar and president of the Society of Mothers, known as Tomris, women’s best hope in Azerbaijan’s regions is other women.

“True, I have met with some obstacles,” she told IWPR, “but the company of brave women … together with the support and faith of my family have helped me to become more obstinate.”

She also expressed pride in her traditional role, explaining that being a mother and housewife is even closer to her heart than the job she values and in which she has enjoyed success.

To stand up and see off a visitor, Esmer had to reach out to her sister Sevindzha’s shoulder for support. The support of such family members is clearly her only source of hope.

“Sometimes it seems to me that all of this happened to me because I was born a woman,” she said. “Despite the fact that God has not given me children… even if I had them, I wouldn't want to have a daughter.”

Tahmine Tagiyeva is a correspondent for Ganjabasar newspaper in Ganja, Azerbaijan.