Protesting domestic violence, Azerbaijani women take to the streets and social networks

Women protest against domestic abuse in central Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo by Najaf Ruslanoglu, used with permission.

On September 19, 18-year-old Seljan Yagmur logged onto Facebook and told the world about her father's domestic violence. In her post, she publicly shamed her father for his violent behaviour towards her, her sister, and their mother. The post was widely noticed: Seljan's father Fuad Gahramanli happens to be a prominent opposition activist and the deputy chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front party. Half of those who left comments under Seljan's Facebook post believed she did the right thing, while others suggested she was mentally ill for calling out her father's behaviour.

Members of her father's political party tended to see Gahramanli as the victim.

This is because in conservative Azerbaijan, domestic violence is seen as a strictly private concern — by no means should it leave the household, no matter the cost. With her post, Seljan had broken several stereotypes: a daughter had gone against her father, spoke of those who told her mother to keep it quiet and shamed the leader of her father's party for not publicly addressing the matter. In this case, not only did the victim raise the subject openly but sparked a nationwide conversation.

In a rare case of victory, Gahramanli has since resigned as deputy chairman of the party — though he has not yet publicly apologized for his behaviour towards his family. But the post did more than just that: it prompted a larger conversation about violence against women in Azerbaijan and how it is perceived.

Over a month after Seljan's post, multiple reports of cases of domestic violence have started making headlines in Azerbaijan. Over the space of just five days in early October, Azerbaijani media reported on 12 separate cases of domestic abuse against women, each citing a police report. Four women died in these cases. Furthermore, the independent news outlet Mikroskop reported that from January to September 2019 alone, 118 cases of violence and abuse against women have been reported by Azerbaijani media; 33 of the victims died as a result of sustained injuries, while the rest were hospitalised from their injuries. Stabbing is the leading cause of injury.

Azerbaijanis are now speaking out about domestic violence online and in the media. Women are sharing their stories under the hashtags #‎qadınaşiddətəson‬ (“end violence against women”) ‪and #‎Leylaüçünsusma (“don't stay silent for Leyla” a reference to a recent case where a woman in Baku was stabbed more than a dozen times.)‬ And they're also taking to the streets. On October 20, a group of civil society activists organised a public demonstration in Azerbaijan's capital Baku under the slogan “Don't tolerate it! March!” (#DözməYürüşEt). In its description, the group wrote:

Son günlər Azərbaycanda qadınlara qarşı saysız-hesabsız zorakılıq halları və qətllər baş verməkdədir. Ailəsi tərəfindən döyülən, öldürülən, intihara sürüklənən qadınlar, maşın yolunda öldürülən süpürgəçi qadınlar barədə hər gün xəbərlər oxuyuruq. Baş verən bu vəhşiliklərə qarşı gəlmək üçün, qadınlara qarşı zorakılığa yox demək üçün, ictimaiyyətin və dövlətin bu problemə diqqətini cəlb etmək üçün biz […] Xurşudbanu Natəvan heykəlinin […] doğru yürüş keçiririk. Yürüşün sonunda bəyanat səsləndiriləcəkdir. Yürüş bu problemlərə biganə qalmayan hər kəs üçün açıqdır.

Recently, countless cases of domestic violence and murders of women have been noted in Azerbaijan. We've read stories of women who are beaten, killed or forced to commit suicide by their family members, or run over by cars. Therefore, we will be marching from the statue of [the Azerbaijani poet and daughter of the Khan of Karabakh] Khurshudbanu Natavan […] to raise our voices against this atrocity, to say no to violence against women, and to draw the attention of society and the state towards these problems. At the end of the march, we will make a statement on the issue. The march is open to all who are not indifferent. One of the main slogans of the march will be “don't be silent against violence, don't tolerate violence!

This was not the country's first progressive protest march this year on women's rights. The first was held on International Women's Day on March 8 and raised awareness on violence against women, underage marriages, and sex-selective abortions in Azerbaijan.

But when a small group of Azerbaijani women and some men marched and called for an end to violence against women on October 20, they were themselves met with police violence. Some of these scenes can be seen in the following video report by the BBC's Azerbaijani service:

The sad irony was not lost on protesters:

Here I am, learning to fly on Torgovaya Street [where the arrests took place]

No comment

Participants in the protest also demanded that Azerbaijan sign the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Azerbaijan has not yet signed the convention, which calls on governments to protect women from all forms of violence, combat domestic violence, and proactively promote equality between women and men. It also obliges them to design a comprehensive framework and policies to assist the victims of gender-based violence and engage in international cooperation to that end.

But the protest has changed something. One day later, possibly due to the harsh public criticism of the aggressive police response, the Azerbaijani government's Committee for Family, Women, and Children's announced that they had submitted a proposal on the Istanbul Convention to parliament. However, the committee did not specify exactly when they had made the proposal, nor what exactly it contained. The committee also claims, despite not having ratified the Istanbul Convention, that they are actively working to promote women's rights alongside other governmental institutions.

But is it enough? It is worth bearing in mind that although Azerbaijan's law on domestic violence, adopted in 2010, mandates the government to fund and create shelters for victims, that has still not happened. In fact, the women's shelters that do operate in the country at present are established and run by various NGOs. The spokesman of the government committee told Mikroskop that the main reason for the lack of state-funded shelters is a lack of resources.

Ultimately, while signing the Istanbul Convention would be a step in the right direction, it will not be enough to end domestic violence by itself. Entrenched social norms and gender stereotypes will also have to change. As Michelle Milford Morse, Vice President of the UN Foundation's Girls and Women Strategy, said in a recent interview: “Violence against girls and women occurs because of long-standing, systemic gender inequality in countries all over the world. It’s rooted in discrimination, power differentials, and harmful social norms. And that’s why it continues today.”

Azerbaijan is no exception. The disturbing numbers reported by Mikroskop are just the tip of the iceberg. It is very likely that there are many, many more crimes committed against women which we do not yet know about — in Azerbaijan, women are often encouraged to keep silent and never report any instances of domestic abuse. According to the aforementioned committee's records, there are at least 800 cases of various violent “crimes and administrative offenses” every year, but they fear that even these numbers do not reflect the real situation, nor what proportion of them are incidents of domestic violence.

And yet, in a country where violence against women is such an acute issue, a march to raise awareness to the problem is subject to aggressive police crackdown. Perhaps that answers the question as to why victims are afraid of going to the police in the first place.

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