Fighting for Women’s Rights in Azerbaijan

Equality legislation is not matched by social attitudes – or state support.

Fighting for Women’s Rights in Azerbaijan

Equality legislation is not matched by social attitudes – or state support.

Narmin Shahmarzadeh, a psychologist and activist, at a women's rights rally in Azerbaijan.
Narmin Shahmarzadeh, a psychologist and activist, at a women's rights rally in Azerbaijan. © N. Shahmarzade

Activists in Azerbaijan’s nascent feminist movement warn that they face harassment from the government, alongside discrimination from the wider society.

“Everyone who is active in Azerbaijan in any field is a target of the government," said psychologist Narmin Shahmarzadeh, one of the organisers of the March 8 rally to mark International Women’s Day held in Baku this year.

The event, only the second time it has been held in Azerbaijan, saw a backlash from authorities with protestors beaten and arrested. Shahmarzadeh said that she had been personally targeted as a result of her feminist activism.

Her social media accounts had been hacked on the morning of the rally, and the next day personal content was shared online.

“I told journalists and made it public… my private photos were published on the page, and sexually explicit videos and audio recordings were edited and posted on my behalf,” she said. “I sued the mobile operators. I complained to the interior ministry. In addition, a lawsuit was filed for intrusion into private life.”

Shahmarzadeh said that this was an example of the tactics officials used to discredit feminist activists – also familiar from attacks on the political opposition - but insisted this would not deter her work.

“These stages occur in all beginning movements. We will get through it. We are also developing our relationship with our target audience. On social networks, men especially curse our members, so it’s not just the government that’s aggressive.”

The Feminist Women's Movement was officially established in Azerbaijan in 2012. At present, the movement is chaired by Gulnara Mehdiyeva, who said that the group had grown in strength and number over the last three years.

“Since then, feminists have organised better, fought for a common goal and moved feminism from the social to the political level,” she said. “Feminists are seen as a serious and accountable force. Although there are many campaigns to discredit us, patriarchy itself ensures our existence. There are many issues that we are trying to raise awareness about: domestic imprisonment of housewives, selective abortion, bodyshaming, sexual harassment and LGBTQ+ rights. For all of this, we use the internet and social media to spread our message.”

Legally, women have numerous protections in Azerbaijan. If an adult woman is forced into marriage, for instance, the crime is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment or a fine of 2,000-3,000 manat (2,500-3,800 US dollars), penalties nearly doubled if the individual concerned is under 18.

“Feminism exists in Azerbaijan - legally,” said Mehriban Zeynalova, head of the Women's and Children's Shelter Centre.

Legislation, however, does not match the reality on the ground. Local human rights groups report high levels of early marriage, with rates increasing every year. Although there is an absence of formal data, other figures such as low rates of education past primary school for girls and the fact that most women are already married by early adulthood show that the issue is far more common that statistics may show.

Similarly, while the latest figures released by the State Statistics Committee show that 1,038 women were abused in 2019, Zeynalova said that due to under-reporting the real figures for harassment and violence would be much higher.

Economic and social discrimination also continue, with surveys showing that women carry out the vast majority of daily household chores’, including care for the sick and elderly. According to UNDP, in 2015 women’s earnings were 50 per cent of those of men.

Film director Elvin Jabiyev, a rare example of male solidarity within the feminist movement, said that the wider society simply did not understand the concept of women’s rights. This lack of awareness made it hard to even discuss the subject let alone campaign on policy.

“For example, accession to the Istanbul Convention [on the rights of women] has been discussed for a long time, but there are very few opinion polls and social studies, and there are no specific sources for reference to take steps based on a real, transparent picture,” he said. “In addition, there is a shortage of resources, which hinders the effective functioning of the feminist movement.”

“Although legal equality is guaranteed, there is discrimination against women born of society’s mental values,” agreed feminist writer Aysel Alizadeh. However, she said that the movement should adapt itself to these local sensitivities if it wanted to achieve real impact.

“When speaking about it in conservative groups, women's rights activists, and the feminist community have reacted too sharply,” she continued. “It would be better if we promote the ideas themselves rather than feminism. It is impossible to create a new image of women by immediately destroying everything. In Azerbaijan, the process is very radical, which has a negative effect. I am not a supporter of radicalism.”

But in comparison to other countries, feminists in Azerbaijan were still at an early stage of fighting for basic rights, according to activist and journalist Tahmina Tagizade, a member of the Swiss movement for several years.

Although Switzerland had given women the right to vote later than Azerbaijan, she said that awareness had progressed to the extent that ordinary problems were discussed, not just extreme crimes.

“I am in the feminist group in Bern, Switzerland,” she explained. “Feminists are very active, we discuss the problems of women, even the simplest problems. But in Azerbaijan, feminists talk more about crimes, violence and domestic condemnation, not all problems.”

Nurlana Celil, a doctoral student in feminist political science at the University of Marburg in Germany, is conducting a study into Azerbaijani feminism.

“It is still trying to form as a movement,” she said. “Ideologically, it does not fully correspond to any feminist currents. The demands of the newly formed feminist group have so far focused only on legislative amendments, that is they focused only on the Istanbul Convention against crimes against women.”

But Cecil said that there were numerous possibilities to develop the movement in Azerbaijan, especially as one linked to the wider campaign for human rights. In

“If done well, the potential is great, because the most important thing in Azerbaijan now is for women to establish their own destiny,” she said. “Without the emancipation of women, there can be no talk of building a democratic society in Azerbaijan.”

Zeynalova agreed that the future looked encouraging for the women’s movement.

“Although there are obstacles in Azerbaijan, the process is ongoing,” she said. “It's painful, but if you put up with it, the way ahead is open.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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