Before departing from Baku, I met with Sabina, a Project Management Assistant at the Women’s Association for Rational Development (WARD) to talk about women’s issues and the feminist activism in Azerbaijan. Working at an organization dealing with women’s issues, Sabina offered not only an insider’s perspective but also an analytical understanding of what is going on with gender equality in Azerbaijan.
Coming into this interview, I already had my own ideas on what the main issues are, I had even written an article about what I saw as one of the main problems (see: http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67929). My discussion with Sabina showed me that I had barely scratched the surface. The patriarchal system that drives the rampant street harassment also breeds domestic violence, and hinders women from accessing higher education, gaining meaningful employment, and participating in public discourse.
Thus, half of the population is not equally able to partake in important debates over national security, war and peace, and other political issues.
I was also surprised to learn about the role foreigners can play in promoting equality. Sabina talked about foreign women as role models, and I realized how by doing something as simple as being opinionated we could empower local women to do the same. Retrospectively, I noticed that after I openly opposed male students in class discussion my female students followed suit, just as Sabina indicated. By living life as independent “badasses” (as Sabina put it), foreign women serve as a positive role model to their Azerbaijani counterparts and thus promote equality without ever disrupting or slighting the local culture.
Sabina also gave me a lot of hope. She herself, as a self-sufficient young professional, is an example that Azerbaijani women can alter their own reality. WARD, in its continued struggle for equality, also inspires optimism. Finally, Azerbaijanis’ openness to new ideas is the most encouraging fact that came out of this interview, since it signals a brighter future is dawning.
Q: What does WARD’s work focus on and what is your role within the organization?
Sabina: WARD was established twelve years ago by a group of women who were recent university graduates at the time. The organization has programs in four areas: peacebuilding, gender equality, economic development, and health. I have been working at WARD for over a year now, where I am a Project Management Assistant, so my role entails all aspects of project implementations such as research, data entry, interviews, public outreach, filing official governments, and writing reports. I also assist with managing the organization’s communications.
Q: Could you tell me about some of the projects WARD has implemented over the years?
S: WARD managed many programs designed to improve women’s lives and help them attain equality. For example, WARD established the first maternity school in Azerbaijan. We also initiated trainings as part of the health and economic development programs, such as a training program for women on how to start a business. Additionally, WARD released videos and developed campaigns to raise awareness about some of the problems women face today in Azerbaijan.
Q: Can you give an example of a project you worked on and explain how, in your opinion, it benefitted women in Azerbaijan?
S: For the past few months I have been working with a team on a peacebuilding project, alongside a group from Armenia (Note: Azerbaijan and Armenia have been locked in conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked territorial enclave in north-western Azerbaijan. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia claimed Karabakh as its own, instigating an armed conflict with Azerbaijan. The war ended in 1992, with Armenia controlling the contested territory and additional surrounding lands, which the international community considers illegally occupied. While the war is over, the situation may boil over at any time, as there has been no resolution of the core issues.) We researched the current peace process by talking to Azerbaijani stakeholders, including government officials, media people, donors, and NGO leaders, as well as members of international organizations. Our Armenian counterparts did the same work in their home country. We then compiled the data to create a toolkit for stakeholders (i.e. peace activists and anyone involved in peacemaking). The main questions we were asking in doing this research were why are women not engaged in the peace process? And, how can we get women to be more active in this regard? We answered these and recommended ways to get women to participate in the conversation about peace.
Q: So what were the conclusions you reached? Why aren’t women involved in this issue?
S: In general, women in Azerbaijan face deep-seated, negative stereotypes. The negative stereotypes- women are less smart than men, weak, and bad decision-makers- stifle their ability to participate in politics or important social movements. Additionally, women do not have equal access to education and career development. Even the ones who earn degrees often end up not using them and raising families instead. Because women either don’t access higher education or don’t focus on professional development, they remain dependent on their families and husbands throughout their lives. Being always dependent on others, and sort of expected to get married and focus on having a family, inhibits women from critical thinking and community involvement. This is a problem in all aspects of social life, including the peace process.
Q: Are there other issues Azerbaijani women deal with?
S: Yes. Domestic violence, for example, is a big problem. I don’t know the exact statistics, but it happens a lot and there is a problem with definition- what is domestic violence? Many women experience it but do not realize they are abuse victims or do not define their male relatives’ behavior as abuse. For example, a girl being dragged home by her brother who is humiliating her in public… most people do not see that as abuse, so there is a conceptualization problem. Same with street harassment- people consider it normal and do not understand it’s wrong, even women. See, women here grow up in a male-dominated society and that is why they don’t recognize these behaviors as problematic, they just don’t know any better.
Q: What does your organization do to address these issues?
S: We do not yet have any campaigns about street harassment, but some of WARD’s awareness campaigns were about domestic violence and forced marriages. We designed brochures and videos, and disseminated information about these issues, and did advocacy for victims. I hope to do something related to street harassment soon, as well.
Q: Do you ever see resistance to your work on the grassroots level?
S: In general the answer is no. However, these ideas are new to people so sometimes they struggle to understand our work. When I worked in community development, before I started working at WARD, I encountered similar lack of understanding, but openness to new ideas and change.
Q: Lastly, do you think the international community has any role in promoting equality in Azerbaijan? If so- what kind of role?
S: Absolutely. By simply being here and interacting with people, foreigners bring new perspectives and ways of thinking that help bring about change. Some can also be role models to women, showing them that there is another way. In my town (Khachmaz) we had a female Peace Corps Volunteer; people, women, saw her living independently, working, traveling, doing sports and generally being badass… she was a real role model.
Note: the views in this article are Sabina’s and do not reflect WARD’s official policy.