What is the situation with equal rights in the most patriarchal country of the South Caucasus?
A wish for seven sons
At traditional Azerbaijani weddings, the groom’s best man ties a red band around the bride’s waist and makes a wish: ‘I want seven sons and just one daughter.’ This ritual illustrates the expectations and gender roles that prevail in Azerbaijani society until today. According to the latest data from the Azerbaijan State Statistics Committee, 112 boys are born for every 100 newborn girls, whereas the norm is 105 girls per 107 boys. One of the main reasons for the mismatch are selective abortions. Across the world, Azerbaijan holds the second-highest rank for number of selective abortions – only China has more.
As soon as girls mature, they become a target for discrimination. In the regions, child labor is still an acute problem, as girls who have barely learnt how to read and write are taken out of school to help their parents around the house.
Another challenge is the practice of early marriage. According to official statistics alone, 400 to 600 minor girls – usually between the age of 15 and 17 – are married off every year. While such marriages are criminally punishable, there have been no legal proceedings so far.
Eldar Zeynalov, the director of the Azerbaijani Human Rights Center, says that the traditional idea of a ‘real woman’ in Azerbaijan is a modest housewife, not too educated, who ‘sits at home’ and raises children.
‘There are no regulations in the country that prevent girls from going to school’, he explains. ‘But [in conservative circles] education has stopped being valued and is even an impediment.’
An official report published by the Ministry of Health found that approximately 35 percent of women in Azerbaijan were victims of domestic violence in 2017. Current legislation does not consider early marriage as a form of domestic violence, as is the case in some other countries.
In January 2018, Azerbaijan did not sign the Istanbul convention of the Council of Europe on the fight against violence against women, which obligates signatory governments to take action in combating violence against women.
A law on the prevention of domestic violence is in place, but it does not work.
On the 2017 Global Gender Gap Index, published annually by the World Economic Forum, Azerbaijan ranked 98th out of 144 countries. In the recently published 2018 report, it ranked 97th out of 149 countries.
Rights activist and member of the LGBT alliance Nefes Gulnara Mehdiyeva believes that inequality is linked to the overall weakening of democratic institutions in the country.
During the last decade, the civil society sector in Azerbaijan has shrunk noticeably. Due to the constant persecution of rights groups and activists, the number of NGOs working in Azerbaijan has fallen from 200 to 50. And for those which remain, it’s hard to operate, according to Avaz Hasanov, director of the Non-Governmental Union for Humanitarian Research.
Nevertheless, there are still active voices in society that advocate for gender equality.
‘The influence of feminism will eventually be felt in Azerbaijan as well’, Gulnara Mehdiyeva, expert on gender-related issues, says. ‘Even the term ‘gender’ as such has taken root. For now, however, reactions are negative, but the topic as such generates great interest.’
Unfortunately, ‘great interest’ may mean open aggression against those women who found the courage to voice their opinions.
Without family permission
‘We live in a patriarchal country, in which society dictates a woman’s every step – what she should do at a certain age and how she should behave in certain places’, she says. ‘Even how and with whom a woman should travel is determined by an unwritten code of rules. But I want to show that women are independent and free, at least when traveling.’
Fidan’s way of campaigning for gender equality is fairly uncommon – she travels the world. To make her ideas heard by as many people as possible, she travels by hitchhiking, which is, from the point of view of traditional Azerbaijani society, the most extreme form of traveling.
‘I want to show that a woman can be independent. This includes her right to live outside her homes and her ability to hitchhike, if she wants to. And she does not have to ask her father or brother for permission,’ Fidan defiantly says.
Hitchhiking can be unsafe though, particularly for women.
‘You get in the car of someone you see for the first and last time in your life,’ the activist says. ‘Anything can happen of course.’ She says that she has experienced very dangerous situations several times and was at risk of getting raped twice.
On social media, Fidan shares the experience she accumulated in the course of five years of intensive travels. She shares stories about how to protect oneself in dangerous places and situations, she answers questions, and gives advice to other travelers.
‘When I decided to go on my first trip, no one could give me advice because there were just no woman travelers. And the men simply told me to take a pepper spray with me. But then I found out that these sprays are actually banned in some countries.’
‘Awaited’ back at home
Women usually follow the updates on Fidan’s Facebook page with interest and are grateful for the information she shares. Many men, however, see her behavior and the beliefs she promotes as a threat.
‘People regularly threaten or scold me. I have not been home for a long time, but I know from the text messages I receive on Facebook that those who write them are ‘waiting for me’ in Azerbaijan. That’s certainly unpleasant, but my response is to just ignore it.’
‘Hitchhiking takes confidence and bravery. The road will teach you how to act,’ Fidan believes.
She says that it’s on the road where people will feel really free: ‘In life, you come across bans and rules all the time. On the road, however, you will not see a single traffic sign from ‘women can’t do it’ category.’
Body and dignity
The issue of dignity: how the severe nurture methods hinder women throughout their lives
“I had a strange attitude towards sex, I considered it wrong. This idea has been in my mind since I was a kid, that I could not pass this barrier even after getting married. I was thinking if I do this I may perform something wrong.”
Gular Hasanova (name and surname are conditional) married the guy she loved when she was 22. Two years later, the family broke up because the couple could not have sex at all during these two years. Gular was diagnosed with vaginismus – difficulty in women to experience penetration by means of reflectoral contraction of the muscles of the vagina. A young woman cannot overcome the fear and shame in her sexual relationship, even being in a legal marriage with her loved one.
As per Gular, the reasons are in the severe nurture and defining conversations about sexuality as taboo in houses. «There were no discussions on this topic in our house; sex issues have always been taboo in our family.»
“Girl should not bounce and fall”
The conversations about sex are strongly prohibited in families in Azerbaijan. Talking about it, especially with girls, can hardly be the case. In the country where the virginity cult is hegemony, the main task of girls is to preserve their virginity until marriage. Girls should protect their bodies from strangers’ eyes, not have sex under any circumstances, and generally, behave “decently”. Anything can be considered “indecent”, for example, for a girl to be involved in sports.
“My father never let us attend sports classes. He said a girl should not bounce and fall. We had to run, jump and wear sports uniforms for the sports classes. My father bribed his acquaintance – a doctor – and received a document saying we had heart issues. My sister and I were out of the sports classes,” says feminist activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva.
Girls should learn how to behave themselves in their infancy, so that strangers cannot see “some parts” of their.
“My father believed that we should wear larger clothes. He was telling us to wear balaq (traditional cloth worn as trousers) as our grandmothers did. Our skirts should definitely be below the knee,” says Gulnara.
In most conservative families, girls are not allowed to have tattoos, to remove unwanted eyebrows and even unwanted body hair, because all these have been considered as symbols of a woman’s virginity and innocence since ancient times. Older family members pay attention to these issues.
“I didn’t want anything no more”
When Guler spoke of the reason for her divorce, her parents could never understand why she had not fulfilled her “marriage duty” and “did not preserve her family.”
“My parents blamed me for not telling them the reason on time. For some reason, they were thinking that they could have helped me and my family would not break up then.”
During two years, Gular has been trying to adjust her sexual relationships with her husband. But when she went to the doctor and heard the diagnosis of vaginismus, she lost all the strength even to try.
“It was a time when I didn’t want anything no more. Every time you try, you get nothing. When I was visiting the doctor, I only wanted no one to touch me again,” tells Gular.
After divorce, Gular has long been unable to think of sex or any sexual intimacy with men. Recognising her own body and the concept of sexuality has been a long and difficult process for her.
“Even after the divorce, for a long time, when I walked on the streets and got on the bus, I was thinking that everyone is doing it. Even the woman and the man sitting in front of me do this, they seem so modest and decent, but everybody does.”
Guler married for the second time, 7 years after her first marriage, and now she is happy with her family life.
Patriarchy on TV
Not only families, but television also promotes the idea of “dignity” and severe nurture for girls. According to film critic Aygun Aslanli, after the collapse of the USSR, the national cinema is in the process of “going back to itself.” During the Soviet times women were represented in various roles in national cinema, literature and art, however, now many patriarchal and traditional values are being emphasised. «Now, as a rule, commercial serials are being produced. In order to get a bigger audience, they talk mostly about the lives of the average people, and show the society as it is. Thus, they are unknowingly promoting patriarchy.»
Feminist men in Azerbaijan
What it’s like to be a supporter of gender equality in a patriarchal country
Up until recently in Azerbaijan, it was believed to be very inappropriate for one to publicly express having feminist views. The very definition of “feminism” triggered aggression. Even today, many Azerbaijanis tend to think that “a feminist woman” is a woman who has failed to be happy in her personal life, a “spinster”, while “feminism” is considered a marginal and malicious movement.
It is all the more surprising that the feminist movement has started to gain momentum in Azerbaijan. In recent years, several feminist organisations have been established and even feminist men have appeared who are not ashamed to say it publicly.
We spoke to two feminist men about feminism in Azerbaijan.
“Formerly, I did not know what gender equality was about”
Elvin Jabizade is 28. He is a film director and blogger and engaged to a female journalist. He often ends up having arguments with opponents of feminism on social media and on his blog. Elvin supports ideas of gender equality in his personal life; he does not divide housework into things that only men do or only women do. He says he does not think that cooking, doing the laundry, or cleaning are ignominious or dishonorable things for him to do at all. However, that is not how it has always been.
“We are three brothers in our family; we do not have a sister. Therefore, we had to help our mother with her work around the house and to do ‘women’s’ work ever since we were kids. When somebody unexpectedly visited us, I was ashamed of it and tried to quickly hide the cloth or the mop so they did not see me do ‘unmanly work’. However, when I familiarised myself with the theory of feminism, I realised that I had not been doing anything shameful or dishonorable. That is exactly the right thing to do,” Elvin says. Elvin also says that he had actually never been against gender equality, but he had simply not known what it was about previously.
In fact, in feminism there are many things that are advantageous for women as well, for example: “If you perceive a woman as someone who is equal to you, that frees you from responsibility for her. You do not feel obligated to take care of her,” Elvin believes.
People around Elvin think the same way. All of his friends and acquaintances accept gender equality and therefore none of them are surprised or disturbed by Elvin’s feminist views.
“I said – my wife will do what I will tell her to do”
Zaur Gurbanli is a lawyer by training, is married, and has a son. Like Elvin, Zaur also perceives feminism not only as an ideology but also as a lifestyle. He splits all responsibilities regarding housework and looking after their child with his wife. Zaur perceives gender equality as being indisputable, and he believes that the expression “to give women freedom” is erroneous: “A woman is born free. A man cannot give her freedom. All that a man can do is not impede her freedom.”
However, Zaur did not become a feminist overnight. As a teenager, Zaur held patriarchal views: “When I was 13 or 14 and my relatives asked me questions that boys usually get asked in our society – ‘Will you act like a man when you grow up and get married, will you have a final say in your house?’ – I replied – yes, it will be as I say, my wife will do what I will tell her to do.”
At age 18, after going to university and starting to study law, Zaur changed his views: “It was then that I realised that human rights and freedoms that I read about in books did not match our way of thinking or our attitude to women in any way. I realised that there was no such thing as men’s rights or women’s rights, but that there were human rights,” he says.
Like Elvin, Zaur also sees obvious positive sides to being a feminist:
“For example, supporting my family is not on me in my capacity as a man. My wife also works and earns money and I work, too. We have split all household commitments in half. In my view, men often do not accept feminism just to free themselves from housework. They do not want to do the tidying in the house, or to cook or to look after their kid. However, personally for me the tranquillity of my conscience is more important in this regard. So, one night it is my wife who checks on our son and the next night it is me.”
Zaur also gives his assurances that people around him are fine about his feminism. However, he acknowledges that outside of his circle of friends he may face a completely different attitude:
“You often hear people say things that are completely unfounded scientifically, such as that women’s brains are smaller than men’s. Or else, people sometimes tell me that I cannot change traditions that are thousands of years old and that it should be done gradually. For example, today we will allow a woman to get a page on Facebook and some time later we will allow her to share her photos on there. I argue with people and try to explain as a lawyer that there can be no talk of giving freedom or permission, those are all unconditional rights of women.”
“I opened up a new reality to myself in which men and women are equal.”
Zaur and Elvin are not the only feminist men in Azerbaijan. Several years ago, Azerbaijani politician Nahid Jafarov publicly announced that he was a feminist and expressed complete support towards gender equality.
Nevertheless, Nahid confesses that he has not always been a feminist either: “I grew up in the province. When I was a teenager, I treated my sisters the way that society required. However, when I was studying in Europe I learnt to analyse and critique everything, including our attitude to women, their role in local society and related stereotypes. I sort of opened up a new reality to myself in which men and women are equal.”
Nahid also explains that, after making this statement, he was met with a lack of understanding and a large number of insults from his audience and like-minded people, and as a result he lost a large part of his following. However, Nahid asserts that the “losses” do not sadden him because he believes in recognizing the rights of all people and leading those who understand.
“Our government is anti-feminist, too”
As for the future of feminism in the country, Elvin believes that it should not be a women’s movement only: “Problems regarding gender equality can only be resolved when feminism becomes a universal movement. To this end, along with women, it should be joined by men as well.”
Conversely, Zaur believes that there is a different solution to the problem of gender inequality: “The thing is that our government is anti-feminist, too. If democratic elections are held, the population, of which 51 per cent are women, will elect for themselves a government that supports feminist views.”
Environmentalism is in fashion – more and more famous brands are marketing recycled clothing. This saves natural resources and offers new opportunities for creativity.
Designer and environmentalist Renara Shamsiyeva, is trying to make recycled clothes fashionable in Azerbaijan. Renara takes old clothes and materials from her friends and textile producers and sews new clothes, proving convincingly that they can be fashionable.
In Renara’s collection there is a lot of denim, because denim manufacturing is particularly harmful for the environment: “Around the world every year over two million pairs of jeans are produced, and on that alone over four thousand liters of water is required,” Renara says.
Like any other designer, Renara shares photos and sketches of the clothes she produces on social media and tells her followers about the latest trends in the world of fashion. She also talks about how clothing is manufactured and the harm that this can cause for the environment.
Renara patiently explains to her subscribers the advantages of recycling clothes – instead of rotting in a dump, taking up space and poisoning the air and soil, old clothes can find new uses. It is relatively inexpensive to make new clothes out of old, because unlike the manufacture of new clothes, you do not need huge amounts of water, electricity, or dyes.
Demand for Renara’s clothes has grown substantially in the past year: “At first I sewed mostly for young women, but now my customers are women of all ages who like to dress with style and who care about environmental issues,” the designer says.
There will never be two identical items in Renara’s collection, simply because the raw materials that she uses are unique every time.
“Of course it’s not easy when your design depends entirely on what material you have, but that’s exactly what interests me,” Renara says.
Renara’s activities are not limited to making clothes. She is the leader of a group of fashion designers, mostly women, who favor the ecodesign. In doing so, Renara promotes both women’s financial independence and women’s attempts for solutions to environmental problems.
Breaking Barriers: Women in the country Working ‘Unwomanly’ Jobs
Nushaba Agayeva received medical training in Russia. She was married. Her father supports and pays for the education of her two children – a son and a daughter – who study in the UK. Five years ago, after her divorce, Nushaba became a car mechanic. She used to fix engines; however, over the past three years she’s been working on transmissions. Although the work is physically demanding, Nushaba says that modern technology makes it possible for her to overcome the difficulties and refute the stereotype that “a woman is frail and there are some things of which she is incapable…”
Nushaba has been interested in cars since childhood. She was taught to fix transmissions by a specialist named Sardar. They work together even now: “One of the most complex operations in our work is to remove the gearbox”, explains Nushaba.
When clients come to Sardar for such services, he sends them to Nushaba: “When clients see me, a woman, they are either embarrassed or feel awkward, as if to say, how will we speak to one another?”
Sometimes, when it’s the case that Nushaba is recommended as a good master of her craft, the client calls, but… “Upon hearing a woman’s voice, they apologize, they say I’m sorry, we were mistaken, and hang up. People are surprised when I say that I am the mechanic.”
Nushaba admits that male clients’ attitudes are varied but some treat her with respect, saying: “here is a woman who pursued such hard work.”
Still, the opposite also happens, they act inappropriately or question her capabilities: “What can you do, everyone’s different…”
On the other hand, some people feel more comfortable with a woman mechanic. A woman comes with her husband or with one of her male relatives because they think there will be an unfamiliar man in the shop. However, upon seeing that a woman is working there, they relax and then start coming by themselves.
In the society of the Caucasus, it’s customary to defer to women and forgive them for mistakes even on the job, but Nushaba doesn’t need or want such a patronizing attitude, she says:
“Of course, I also sometimes make mistakes. But people don’t defer to me just because I’m a woman – impeccable work is demanded of us all. And I myself don’t think in such situations that I am a woman. What has that got to do with it? A client comes along, they should receive good service.”
The team is male, but our heroine says that work with men has taught her a lot:
“I began to learn from them how to be precise, how to keep my word, speak concretely, and, what can you do, I learned vulgarities… I myself feel that I’ve become more vulgar… but this is comfortable for me, there is something masculine in my character as well, and because of this there is no discomfort.”
At the same time, Nushaba remains a woman – she cares about her haircut, her face and sets aside time for herself. Her hands are the only problem:
“Nothing works, neither a manicure nor any other means help. The gasoline and oil get into the skin. But all the same I look after my hair and face, try to look attractive.”
«Agh zolag» (White Stripe)
Domestic violence is one of the most painful things for Azerbaijani women. In a country where patriarchy prevails, to make complaints to the police about domestic violence is met with confusion and aggression by the public. As a result, the vast majority of women who have been abused by their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons are silent. In 2019, more than 200 domestic violence cases were reported in the country and about 90 of these cases resulted in deaths of women. However, human rights defenders assume that there are more casualties than the reports indicate.
The factor that pushes women to remain silent and endure abuse is not just mentality. Material dependence on the males in the family, psychological barriers and lack of legal aids are also important factors. There are only two shelters in the country that help women to overcome these problems, and evidently, the possibilities of these two shelters are not enough to help all victims of domestic violence.
Launched a year ago by feminist Azerbaijani women living primarily in Europe, the Agh Zolag movement aims to provide financial, legal and psychological support to victims of domestic violence. Members of the movement donate their contributions from around the world to support women who face domestic violence.
What is next?
With the rise of internet and social networks in Azerbaijan (there are more than two million Facebook users in the country), trends and movements around the world have also become available for active people of the country. Especially for women. Women representing different classes and different professions started to associate and share information with each other through social networks. Social networks have become an environment where women have created their own tribunes, organised protests, marches, and movie nights on feminism, freedom and books discussions. Thus, in recent years, a strong feminist movement in the country has begun, with its representatives already taking part in politics.
Recently, a feminist – Vafa Naghi was elected as the first feminist municipality member in the country. Like-minded feminists, Rabiyya Mammadova and Nurlana Jalil, are also participating in the parliamentary elections.
Last year, on March 8, 2019, the first feminist march in the country took place. Currently, the feminist movement is getting ready for the next feminist march on March 8.
Gunel Movlud (Azerbaijani, translated to Norwegian) was born in 1981 in Azerbaijan. As a pursued Azeri journalist, translator, and poet, she has been living in Norway as an ICORN writer since 2016, where she has won the “Words on Borders” poetry prize in 2017. In 2019, she was published in Aschehoug anthology of refugee poets, To kiss a desert. To kiss a wall. Gunel is a women’s rights activist and writes against violence, oppression, and injustice.