Protest Ignorance: Remembering Aytac Babayeva

One week ago, a 17 year old schoolgirl called Aytac Babayeva was stabbed eight times on a street in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Her assailant – the man who murdered her – was 20 year old Izzat Huseynov. Police and local media called it a crime of passion, saying that Huseynov acted out of jealousy. Aytac – who was in the eleventh grade – had previously rejected the young man’s interest in her, and now he had killed her, brutally.

The story spread very quickly through social media, accompanied by pictures of Aytac. The most shared is the one you see below, but an image of Aytac lying on the street, a huge bloodstain around her head, was also being circulated. These were tagged with slogans such as (in Azeri) “say no to violence against women” and (in English) “protest ignorance”. Several people used a hashtag saying “first Özgecan now Aytac”, in reference to Özgecan Aslan, the 20 year old Turkish woman killed on February 11th while resisting a rape attack in the southern city of Mersin. Her body, which had been stabbed, beaten, burnt and mutilated, was found in a river two days later. Mass protests took place across Turkey in the week that followed.

aytac babayeva

Don’t be a victim of ignorance

While relatives of Aytac staged a small protest outside the Nizami District Court on May 2nd, demanding a fair investigation into her murder, there have been no mass protests or rallies in Azerbaijan. Instead, people have been finding ways to express their solidarity online, making outspoken statements about physical and structural violence against women. Both women and men have been posting photographs of themselves holding signs that say things like “don’t be a victim of ignorance”. Most of these appear to have been taken at home or at work, but I have seen others defiantly held in public places – in the metro, or on Fountain Square, right in the city centre. At least some of these signs seem to appeal to women themselves to stand up against the rigid social expectations that teach girls not to have a life outside home or school, that they should marry the first man who comes along and have his children – preferably his sons – and that physical or psychological abuse from a husband or mother-in-law is somehow their own fault.

These sentiments echo many of the things I heard during my six months in Azerbaijan. Whenever I spoke to seasoned women’s rights advocates, they would reel off a litany of women’s rights violations they were working on: early (i.e. underage) marriages, domestic violence, lack of access to birth control, lack of economic empowerment, maternal health, forced abortion and sex-selective abortion. However, when I asked young women, especially undergraduate students, about the problems they had in their own lives, the most common answer was “our boys”. “Azeri boys are very jealous,” they would say, telling me how their boyfriends had made them shut down their Facebook page, demanded access to their passwords, and deleted contacts in their phonebooks. I was told that girls often comply with this, as it makes them feel loved. It sounded almost childish, yet as the horrific death of Aytac Babayeva shows, jealously can mean obsession, a poisonous possessiveness leading to violent, even murderous masculinity.

For women who, like me, were in their mid-twenties and had avoided the trap of marriage, there were two problems. One was managing their parents’ expectations, and the other was navigating the sexual double standards of society in Baku. Most of these women lived at home, and were expected to do so until marriage. Yet once past the age of 25 or 26, they were already considered old maids, without marriage prospects. Gradually, the teasing of their families – who often supported their daughters through masters degrees at home or abroad – turned into a more serious kind of pressure. Women fought to have their curfews extended – from 10, to 11, to 12pm. However, it wasn’t just the lack of personal space that prevented them from exercising their freedom. They were also worried about their reputation in society. It was alright for a man to have several sexual partners – and increasingly, men seemed to expect sex from their girlfriends – but a woman who had sex with just one person outside marriage was suddenly seen as sexually available. Virginity, one woman told me, was the last great taboo – the only one she felt she couldn’t break.

Can feminism flourish in Azerbaijan?

Feminism in Azerbaijan is still widely associated with a radical, woman-only position, and only a handful of the women I interviewed identified as feminist. As I saw it, many of these women seemed to strive for a kind of national feminism – compatible with both Azerbaijani and Islamic culture – that was more focused on women’s participation in public life, than on their sexual empowerment. Yet the two are interlinked. Creating safe spaces for women and girls to come together, discuss their problems and learn new skills, is a step on the road to being able to safely protest against social conventions that stifle female sexuality. Giving women a place to go that is neither school nor home is a challenging feat, especially outside of the capital. The centre for girl groups that operates in Ahmedli, on the outskirts of Baku, or the women-only café that was opened in the city of Sheki, are examples of significant interventions into a sexist social fabric, however small they might seem. They are already pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable.

The viral responses to the death of Aytac Babayeva reflect a growing awareness that there is something deeply wrong in a society that provides a context for the brutal killing of a teenager “for love”. However, it worries me that there has not been a mass march or public vigil in the wake of her murder, such as the ones that took place in Turkey after the death of Özgecan Aslan (or in Germany after the death of Tuğçe Albayrak). Perhaps Azeri feminists and their allies think it would be too risky, in view of what happened after the spontaneous protests against soldier deaths in January and March 2013. It is hard to imagine a feminist movement that can grow without being fuelled by public demonstrations – and yet I am sure that feminists in Azerbaijan right now are thinking of ways to spread their message without incurring a repressive response. They are continuing to plant seeds in all sorts of unlikely places – and waiting to see what will grow.