What is wrong with Azerbaijan’s mentality towards its women

Image by Ulviyya Ali, used with permission.

Some weeks ago, I received a disturbing message from an Azerbaijani activist telling me that a woman was being targeted on social media. As a result, her family was after her, and the woman was looking for help. The incident reminded me of countless other instances, where a woman was harassed, abused, and physically targeted simply because she was a woman. But also because, Azerbaijan's mentality when it comes to women, their bodies, and their worth is pre-defined, and pre-determined within traditionally dominant values and backward assumptions.

Why did I decide to write about this? Because it's March. Just three weeks ago, women across the world, including in Azerbaijan, marked International Women’s Day (IWD), and despite all the struggles over the decades, women continue to face inequality, harassment, and abuse. Regardless of age, profession, or status, a woman’s life is narrowed down to her body, its worth, and its shape. Her dignity and privacy are disrespected and Azerbaijan’s patriarchal, macho mentality supports this.

Azerbaijani men consider it their duty, to put a woman in her place, by shaming her offline, and online. The Azerbaijani mentality supports the traditional narrative that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, within the confines of the house where often, women face violence and abuse, and are exploited because they are a cheap labor force. No, in fact, their lives are cheap, and for those who follow this narrative, what needs can a woman have, anyway? Her sole purpose is to care for, provide for, and raise children. Children who will likely grow into women shaped by the stories of their abused and silenced mothers, carrying the trauma on to the next generation. Over and over again.

In Azerbaijan, this narrow-minded mentality cares more about a woman’s underwear, her body and her intimate life, than about her successes, achievements, and her mind.

Sadly, this is not only common among regular men but also the government of Azerbaijan, which very often considers women as a tool — whether to threaten a politically active, often male, family member; to intimidate and silence women themselves, when women are themselves politically active, or journalists, or rights defenders, or even to stuff ballot boxes.

When the government wanted to intimidate a political leader, Jamil Hasanli, it used his daughter, Gunel Hasanli, threatening the political leader to disseminate intimate videos of his daughter that were filmed in secret at his daughter’s home.

For those familiar with the Azerbaijani state’s blackmail campaign targeting critics, the story of one specific journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, being blackmailed this way, comes to mind.

A similar method of intimidation was used to target an exiled blogger, Mahammad Mirzali, whose sister was the target of an online harassment campaign.

Azerbaijan’s legislation does not contain any punitive measures for physical or online abuse and harassment against women.

In March 2021, multiple Telegram groups shared sex tapes and nude photographs of Azerbaijani women, among them journalists, like Fatima Movlamli, and civic activists, like Narmin Shahmarzade.

In a recent interview with Voice of America, Shahmarzade explained how women’s underwear has been a useful tool during elections. “During elections, bras come in handy for ballot stuffing,” she explained. She was referring to a common election fraud mechanism used in Azerbaijan where election commission representatives stuff pre-registered ballots into their bras or under their clothes, which they then use to stuff the ballot boxes. “And when [the government] goes after a political opponent it resorts to methods like exposing a woman’s privacy, including what she does in her bedroom.” This shows that “they [the authorities] knowingly put the lives of women in danger,” said Shahmarzade.

Another feminist activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva told Voice of America in an interview ahead of the International Women's Day march, “In every house, a woman manages the household economics. She is the one who decides how the salary the husband brings home should be spent. And when she fails, she often faces violence. And so, poverty affects women.”

In addition to poverty, there is also a significant gap in employment opportunities. According to a recent report by the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial, an organization that focuses on “protecting the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups and opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in the former Soviet Union,” Azerbaijan, is the leader on the “list of restrictions on women’s labor in the region since 1999 – 678 types of work in 38 industries are prohibited there.”

Despite the ban from local authorities and the heavy police presence, the feminist movement collective, went ahead with the annual march under the banner “We want to live.”

The collective and the participants of the march wanted to shed light on the daily challenges women face in Azerbaijan as well as the violence. This was reflected in their statement. According to the statement, in February 2023 alone, at least 11 women were killed as a result of violence and abuse. “Women are also systematically subjected to other forms of violence by patriarchal institutions — the state, the family, and the society. Often the violence occurs in front of young children, moreover, they themselves turn into objects of violence,” read the statement.

“We want to live without fear of murder and violence, without living in poverty, without becoming an instrument of political revenge,” the statement added.

The government of Azerbaijan, however, refutes any claims that the country lacks gender equality, and argues that women's rights are protected. The country has not signed up to the Istanbul Convention, which is something the feminist activists have been advocating the state do in recent years. The nation's existing legislation also does not provide sufficient protection mechanisms for victims of abuse, harassment, and violence. The state is yet to take any significant measures to combat the divisive and thriving mentality towards women.

The feminist collective has been organizing actively since 2019. That year, the group organized the first International Women’s Day March on March 8. Since then, they have held rallies and protests calling for accountability, justice, and better protection for women. Other campaigns organized by feminists demand thorough investigations of crimes committed against women. In February 2021, several activists organized a protest with the theme “Femicide is political.” The protest was staged outside a government building and called for an investigation into the cases of brutally killed women and denounced the country's State Committee on Family, Women, and Children for its inaction. Police intervened, preventing feminists from gathering in the area.

All of this leaves me thinking about what authority men have over women, not just in Azerbaijan and all over the world, where women are often silenced, sidelined, and left to their own devices when faced with inequality and other problems? I have not yet found the answer. But I am in awe of all the women out there, fighting despite it all, and forcing others to start changing their perceptions of women, their role and place in society.

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