13 June 2016
Lucy Wallwork, CRRC Azerbaijan 2016 Fellow
The multiple visions and interpretations of gender equality across cultural, geographic and policy
domains have long been noted by scholars. Since gaining independence in 1991, Azerbaijan has
shown a notably ambiguous attitude towards the contested concept of gender equality, a term
which still holds taboo status for the most part of society.
While the goal of achieving gender equality has been enshrined into the legislation of independent
Azerbaijani since 1991 due to obligations before international conventions, data from a 2012 CRRC
survey illustrates how far local sentiment lags behind these officially expressed objectives.
However the most interesting takeaway from the data is the apparent 'cognitive dissonance'
resounding in attitudes towards domestic violence and gender equality. How can we explain that
out of the 64% of Azerbaijanis surveyed who believe that gender equality has been “mostly
achieved” in the country, 28% simultaneously agree that “a woman sometimes deserves to be
beaten”? This is what I try to explore by looking at Azerbaijan's wavering experience with the
“woman question” since the early 20
century, discovering that – for many Azerbaijans – such
issues of the private domain should remain private, and do not warrant policy attention.
Essentially, “the personal is not political”.
The ADR: early progress
Azerbaijan made several promising developments on gender equality during the First Oil Boom era
of the early 20
century. The short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) extended suffrage to
women in 1920, a full 51 years before Switzerland got round to it. The unveiling of women was also
energetically debated long before the Soviet Union-imposed dictats from above came to dominate
the discourse. In tandem with modernisation and industrialisation, the “question” of Azeri women
first became something to grapple with by ardent supporters, both male and female (Tohidi, 1996).
Unfortunately the invasion of the Soviet Red Army in 1920 meant that women never had the chance
to exercise that vote. The early grass-roots female emancipation movements promoted by figures
such as Zeynalabdin Taghiev and Hamida Javanshir were replaced with a top-down Soviet-style
forced emancipation aimed at addressing the position of the women on the Soviet Union's
'backward and benighted' eastern flanks. While the tone of public discourse on gender equality
shifted radically, the Soviet emancipatory experiment experienced a number of failures in
penetrating the domestic domain, notoriously its failure to eliminate the 'second shift' worked in
the home by women with professional jobs (see Corrin, 1992).
Limited Gender Mainstreaming since 1991
Azerbaijan's independence in 1991 allowed it to pick up where it left off with promotion of gender
relations on its own terms once more.
Newly independent Azerbaijan signed up to a series of supranational initiatives and policy tools to
tackle gender equality, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1995, and its Optional Protocol in 2000. More recently,
the country has explicitly criminalised marital rape – a rare move in the region
- and there is a now
a specialised procedure for domestic violence cases in Azerbaijan, unlike in neighbouring Armenia,
Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan and Uzbekistan (World Bank, 2016) However on a societal level, a
combination of economic crisis, war and the re-casting of women as 'mothers of the nation' during
the fledgling nation-building process, has led to the reemergence of traditional attitudes toward
the place of women in public and private life (Heyat, 2002).
According to World Bank data from 2016, Kazakhstan, Krygyz Rebublic, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and
Uzbekistan are yet to criminalise marital rape. In Tajikistan, the husband is exempt from faciNG criminal penalities
for rape (the 'marital rape exemption).
Over the years Azerbaijan has developed its own
distinctive 'brand' of gender equality which lies
somewhere between these two competing visions. Indeed
Tohidi notes that despite the predominant narrative of
emancipation, the overall status of women following
independence remained 'flawed with contradictions and
duality' (Tohidi, 1996).
On the one hand Azeris now proudly list their
achievements regarding the emancipation of women,
particularly when compared to neighbours like Iran and
Turkey, where the chador and veil are common sights.
Prominent monuments such as that to the 'unveiled
woman' in central Baku describe a visible narrative of
proudly emancipated women. But this narrative is in
conflict with opinions expressed in survey data
concerning the autonomy of women, particularly when it
comes to decision-making capacity. In 2012, for example,
79% of Azerbaijanis (including 69% of women) agreed
that “men should have the final word about decisions in
Gender equality and the framing of
However in Azerbaijan the most striking case of this
cognitive dissonance is found in attitudes toward
domestic violence documented by the CRRC survey of
CRRC data from 2012 shows that 64 % of all men and
women (72% of men and 56% of women) agree that
“gender equality in Azerbaijan has already been achieved
for the most part” (the lingering Soviet narrative of female
emancipation, along with an official narrative of
non-discrimination in the public domain, presumably lies
behind this sentiment). However the paradox becomes
clear when we see that of those 638 respondents who