Women in Politics in Azerbaijan

A short article I wrote on women in politics in Azerbaijan has been published in the March edition of the Caucasus Analytical Digest. When I say “short,” I mean 2,500 words…all of which can be downloaded on this page of the Centre for Security Studies/ETH Zurich website. Or, if you want the 1,000 word version, read on!

The title of the article is: “Representation, Reform and Resistance: Broadening Our Understanding of Women in Politics in Azerbaijan.” What that’s meant to convey is that no matter what country we’re talking about, women’s political empowerment cannot be measured by looking solely at formal political structures. Only by looking at what women are doing both inside and outside of the system do you get a full sense of the various roles women are playing in society and how this is (re)shaping gender ideology.

Azerbaijan makes an interesting case study, because of all the smoke and mirrors that go on around gender. The prominent role of the First Lady and her daughters suggests that women can certainly be recognised as political actors – and they really do give quite a performance. Large, showy conferences have been held on women’s rights issues, and Azerbaijan knows how to talk the talk when it comes to international gender discourse (as far as I know, the word gender is still relatively fashionable in Azerbaijan, as opposed to Armenia, where it’s become increasingly taboo). Yet at the same time, not a single cabinet minister is a woman. Out of 42 persons of ministerial rank (these include ministers and heads of various state committees), only one, Hijran Huseynova, is a woman. She’s – you guessed it – head of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs.

First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva: President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, UNESCO and ISESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Member of Parliament, and Deputy Chair of the New Azerbaijan Party.

First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva: President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, UNESCO and ISESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Member of Parliament, and a Deputy Chair of the New Azerbaijan Party.

In parliament, women are a small but notable force (16%). In other countries, that might lead to the formation of a women’s inter-party caucus, but since the Milli Meclis is dominated by the New Azerbaijan Party, it’s hard to know who would join it. Women also performed extremely well in the most recent municipal elections, and now hold 35% of municipal posts. This appears to follow on from a directive from the New Azerbaijan Party, though women’s organisations arguably laid the groundwork by advocating for women’s increased participation at the municipal level for several years.

One of the more interesting things I came across when researching this article was the presentation by Hijran Huseynova to the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The review took place the same week in February I was writing the article, and it was the only mention I could find of a possible 40% quota for female candidates in the parliamentary elections next November. This would be an interesting development, but it raises some big questions: would a quota for female candidates help to narrow the gap in terms of the outcome of elections? Moreover, is it really an achievement for women/feminists if a party that has consolidated total rule over the state simply enforces a gender quota? Or is it more of a throwback to the not-so-far-distant communist past, when women also enjoyed the benefits of a quota system – only to find themselves stripped of representation overnight when the quotas were dropped as part of so-called democratic reforms?

The question that most occupies my mind right now is: what does it mean for women’s civil society organisations if a government whose democratic credentials are under severe suspicion appears to be championing women’s rights? That’s what I’m getting at in the second part of the article, where I talk about reform and resistance. While a lot of women are putting their energies into advocacy and lobbying – around gender quotas and a whole range of other legislative issues, with moderate success – others have become more involved in raising issues around human rights, democracy and political prisoners. In fact, two women, Leyla Yunus and Khadija Ismayil, are perhaps the best-known political prisoners in the country right now (at least, if you take into account the view from outside Azerbaijan). This isn’t simply because as women, they stir more sympathy. It’s because of the work that they have done and the contacts they have built up in international civil society – and the diplomatic community – for decades.

The politics of civil society in Azerbaijan is a murky, messy area, with no angels (though possibly a few devils), and in a way I’m not sorry that I only got to touch on it slightly. There were two other areas I would have loved to write about, but I would have had to write a whole other thesis just to access the information. One is the role of women in the Presidential Administration (which, I learned, does contain women, though I have no idea what they actually do), and the other is the role of women in the economic elites. I did read a number of newspaper articles that referred tantalisingly to the wives and daughters of male oligarchs, but refused to print their names (in some cases there are even photographs, which are lazily captioned “so-and-so with his wife,” no name given). How much power do these women have? How much agency? And there is a third area that I would love someone else to research, which is women’s religious agency.

That’s really everything in a nutshell – you can read the full article (here’s that link again) if you want some more detail on the political system or women in civil society. There are also some not-to-be-missed articles on Georgia by Karolina O’Beacháin Stefanczak (who edited the entire volume) and on Armenia by Gohar Shahnazaryan (who under another hat is a co-founder of the Women’s Resource Centre of Armenia). One thing that this edition definitely made clear to me – there’s enough intellectual puzzlement around women in the Caucasus to warrant a whole separate journal. The Caucasus Women’s Analytical Digest, anyone?

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