In Azerbaijan, one young queer activist is defying boundaries

Image by Alvi, courtesy of Alex Shah

Alex Shah (pronouns they/them, o in Azerbaijani), a 16-year-old queer activist from Azerbaijan, is on a mission to break down deeply entrenched prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community at their school. It has been a bumpy road, but they are prepared for a long journey toward LGBTQ+ equality.

A colorful childhood

One of Alex’s distinct childhood memories is a dress-up show they would organize when they were just a few years old. Everyone in the house was to dress up as a woman, and the upstairs neighbor would rank everyone based on their style. “I would always score the highest points,” recalled Alex in one of their personal essays published in July 2023 in Minority Magazine, Azerbaijan's first online LGBTI+ magazine.

However, it was only a matter of time before getting dressed up or trying their mother’s lipstick and makeup would earn them mockery and humiliation.

At home, their father would beat their mother for Alex’s increasingly feminine disposition, and at school, Alex became a laughing stock among peers, who did not shy away from humiliating them, calling them names, bullying them, and physically abusing them.

“I've been bullied since third grade. I always stood out. Once, I was peed on in the boy’s bathroom in school because of how I behaved at school. It was the last time I ever used a public bathroom,” recalls Alex in an interview with Global Voices.

The humiliation and bullying continued over the years, despite Alex complaining to the teachers and the headmaster. Instead, teachers also bullied Alex. “If I am constantly bullied both by students and the teachers, how should I expect a solution from the school management? The system is homophobic,” said Alex.

Bullying is a persistent problem in Azerbaijan. There is no official documentation about the rate of bullying, though a 2019 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted, “in Baku (Azerbaijan), 36 percent of students reported being bullied at least a few times a month, compared to 23 percent on average across OECD countries.”

Azerbaijan does not have any anti-bullying laws. In 2019, the story of Elina Hajiyeva, a teen who died from suicide after jumping from the third floor of her school building, shocked Azerbaijani society. It also sparked a social media campaign against bullying in a country where the topic is rarely discussed. In Elina's case, despite numerous complaints to the school principal, no action was taken about the bullying.

At the time of Elina Hajiyeva's suicide, recommendations to develop an anti-bullying bill fell through. Instead, some schools started removing window handles and installing metal bars on windows to prevent their students from similar attempts.

But can the system be changed? In April 2023, Alex had enough with bullying at his school. “During Geography class test, my teacher scolded me yet again, telling me that I should be like the rest of the boys in the classroom. One of the boys said, those like me are cursed in Islam and should be murdered. I started shaking and crying. My teacher told me to stop behaving like a girl,” recalls Alex.

Alex, with the help of their mother, sought help at the local police station, but they only faced further humiliation. They then wrote a complaint letter to the Ministry of Education. “I explained in the letter that because I was feminine, I was subject to bullying. In their response, the Ministry of Education told me I was bullied because I was a feminist and that, as a student, I had no right to propagate an ideology. Even though I have done no such thing.”

Alex was then invited to the prosecutor’s office. The office offered to investigate and advised against filing an official statement. “I wrote the statement anyway. They asked me to leave the room because they wanted to speak to my mother alone. Whatever they told her there caused her a mental breakdown.”

“It is as if they [the state institutions] are trying to kill your will to fight,” explained Alex after yet another meeting, this time at the local administrative office.

It was not until Alex sought help from the LGBTQ+ community and their case was covered by the local media that there was finally change. The Geography teacher was reprimanded over her actions, and the classmate who said people like Alex should be killed received a warning.

There have been previous cases where queer students spoke out about the abuse and humiliation they faced at their schools. In 2021, then-senior high school student Ali Malikov (pronouns they/them) decided to boycott their school after years of bullying over their physical appearance and lack of action from the school administration and the Ministry of Education.

In a testimony on their personal Facebook profile, Malikov detailed the harassment and abuse they faced at the hands of his classmates and teachers.

“It was in eighth grade when somehow students in my school learned about my sexual orientation. They would call me names in the hallways of the school. Later, someone shared pictures of me wearing makeup on social media, revealing my home address and the school I was studying at. I was receiving threats. I spent my time at school in constant fear.”

Now an outspoken queer activist, Malikov helps others like Alex. It was Malikov who helped Alex publicize their story about the bullying.

In August 2023, Alex wrote a letter to their school administration asking for permission to organize a week of “Awareness against harassment” in October. In the letter, Alex shared a list of activities they wanted to plan: the distribution of material that would help students and teachers understand concepts like gender equality and inclusion, consequences of bullying, physical and emotional harassment, and other forms of discrimination. Their proposal was rejected.

Lacking legislation

Existing legislation in Azerbaijan does not address hate crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation. According to a report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Azerbaijan does not have national policies protecting LGBTQ+ rights. There are also no specific institutions fighting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In 2021, the state failed to take any measures against blogger Sevinc Huseynova, who openly targeted members of the LGBTQ+ community. In her defense, the blogger justified her actions as an attempt “to end this shame.” Although Azerbaijan may not have legislation on bullying, it does have laws against incitement to violence. According to the Code of Administrative Offenses, if found guilty of inciting hatred and enmity in the media on ethnic, religious, racial, or social grounds, the perpetrator may face a fine ranging between AZN 8,000–12,000 (USD 4,700–7,060), correctional labor for up to two years, or imprisonment up to four years. In cases where these crimes are committed using violence or with threats of violence, the perpetrator can face imprisonment for up to five years.

Blogger Huseynova was never reprimanded.

This year, Azerbaijani lawmakers have also voiced support for a proposed homophobic law akin to the one adopted in Russia in December 2022. The law in Russia “prohibits the spread of ‘propaganda’ (which in this version of the law also includes simple ‘demonstration’) of LGBTQ+ relations and gender change among both minors and adults.”

Even if Azerbaijan does not adopt such a restrictive law, in practice, it already exists, noted LGBTQ+ activist Miray Daniz in an interview with Chaikhana Media. “The non-approval of the law is merely to preserve [Azerbaijan's] image abroad,” said Daniz, adding, “We live as if this law exists. We are always under surveillance by the police and other government agencies. We are always under pressure. There is almost no state institution that we can feel safe with, that protects us and thinks about us.”

In the absence of such basic protections, the work carried out by LGBTQ+ activists like Alex and Malikov is limited in scope and impact, given the political and social environment. This leaves all LGBTQ+ people open to abuse and harassment.

But Alex is determined. They want to study journalism and become the voice of those silenced and marginalized. “I want to be the kind of journalist that can make an impact. I think my country really needs this right now.”

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