The issue of women’s rights in Azerbaijani society is often discussed in superlatives, whether by the government or the local media almost uniformly under their control. Pro-government women’s rights organisations often pat themselves and the national leadership on the back for the enormous strides women have purportedly made in the 28 years of independence.
Almost all groups in society have adopted the national narrative, claiming that women in Azerbaijan have achieved the highest level of recognition and equality. This message is targeted at both domestic and international audiences. For instance, no government official, nor GONGO worker, would overlook the opportunity to mention to a western visitor the short-lived Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, which granted women political rights in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.
This narrative is often supplanted with outward-facing visuals, such as the fact that Mehriban Aliyeva, President Ilham Aliyev’s wife, was recently appointed vice president, the second highest position in the country’s leadership. This appointment was spun not as a consolidation of power in the hands of Azerbaijan’s ruling family, but as some sort of achievement for women — a sign that gender equality was being implemented.
But from time to time, Azerbaijani society is jolted back to reality by press reports about troubling cases of sexual assault against young women. Unlike the West, gender-relations issues are often discouraged and shunned in public discussions in Azerbaijan.
No allies after the “kidnapping”
The very fact that cases of sexual assault do find their way to the public conscience shows that this problem is much more severe than we can imagine, says Shahla Ismayil, attorney and Chairwoman of the Women's Association for Rational Development (WARD). A shocking case in point comes from November last year, when an Azeri middle-school student tried to take her own life live on Instagram after being sexually assaulted.
When these discussions become inevitable, people often come up with various euphemisms for sexual situations (from the benign to the more grave, such as rape or sexual assault). The issue of rape or sexual assault against women when they are kidnapped, as the definition implies, against their will and then may or may not be sexually assaulted, is often described as something more benign: the “kidnapping” of a young woman by a man.
This term implies in some, but not all cases, complicity on behalf of the woman, who is suspected of voluntarily taking part in the process. It always presupposes that a sexual act took place, and the woman’s reputation was irreparably damaged.
The lack of free and independent professional media in Azerbaijan does not provide a conducive environment for a well-rounded, balanced coverage of “kidnappings” of young women, as well as sexual assault and rape that takes place, and their true scale. Instead, “kidnapping” is thrust to the top of the public agenda when rare and horrific cases seep into the media. Even then, media coverage sensationalises the incidents with scant regard for the women who suffered, in a format that contributes little to nothing to informed and sustained public discourse.
“Of course, there are exceptions, but as a rule, the families’ reaction is try to cover it up,” says Shahla Ismayil , commenting on what happens after these incidents. “Very rarely do the families allow the information to become public. It may happen by accident, for instance, if there is a leaked video or photo.”
Ismayil adds that families usually do their best to hide and destroy sources of information, denying that anything happened.
In the aftermath of sexual assault, the woman ends up being married off to the perpetrator — in almost all cases, against her will. These occurrences force public discussion, however indirect, in a society that puts a premium on understatement in all issues related to sex and sexual acts.
Unfortunately, these topics are closed not only to public discussion, but are also discouraged within families.
Culture of silence and “blame the victim” mentality
“There is this idiotic notion of ‘preserving the curtain’ that is in line with the majority of the Azerbaijani families’ perception of morality and traditions,” says Gulnara Mehdiyeva, a women’s and LGBT rights activist.
By the “curtain”, Mehdiyeva refers to yet another euphemism used to describe family relationships when certain things are not discussed, or swept under the rug, especially between parents and their children. In her view, this approach is far from innocuous: “This leads to situations when a girl is embarrassed to tell her parents about incidents of verbal or physical harassment, the ones that didn’t rise to the level of rape. They don’t feel comfortable sharing these kinds of things with their parents.”
As a result, Mehdiyeva says, children and youth do their best to conceal incidents from their parents for as long as possible. “Parents find out only when it is already too late, for instance, when a girl is pregnant, and it becomes impossible to hide the signs of pregnancy, or when there are physical injuries that cannot be concealed.” So, she says, parents only find out when the situation is already critical, when it is too late for them to help, or it is already impossible. In addition, parental reactions can be quite different — from total support for their daughters to blaming them for the incidents. “Blaming the victim is quite a popular occurrence in Azerbaijan,” Mehdiyeva adds.
Mehdiyeva describes a recent incident in the region of Beylaqan that provoked a widespread public discussion after the video of the incident found its way to social media:
“A school student, a 10th-grader was kidnapped by a father of two, an adult man. Her father went to the police, but since the police chief is related to the alleged kidnapper, the police didn’t pay attention. Also, the teachers from the school [the young woman attended] went to complain, and the school principal pressured them into silence.”
The reaction of the school administration in Beylaqan is not at all atypical, says Kamala Agazade, director of the Azerbaijani Children Union's Children’s Shelter and Reintegration Center. “Education facilities do not try to help children. They do their best to make sure that the name of the school is not mentioned anywhere.”
Agazade also says that education facilities often adopt “blame the victim” approach when it comes to sexual assault. In her words: “Their usual reaction is: a good girl would not allow such things to happen.”
She also laments the fact that no one takes into account the fact that “girls are defenseless or weak in these situations.”
Of the case in Beylaqan, she says: “The school principal shamelessly denied that the video in question [of a girl being raped] was filmed inside the school. Indeed, it was filmed there. The girl became the center of attention, everyone shamed her, she became the object of round condemnation. Only her mother stood by her. I spoke to her father, and he said to me: ‘A girl like that better die. What do I need her for? I am dishonored, because her videos are online.’”
Agazade finds the fact that the father did not demand justice for his daughter, and did not call for perpetrators to be punished, bewildering. “This is the attitude,” she says with the notes of bitterness in her voice.
Forgotten by law
If there is a role for Azerbaijani law enforcement to play in these situations, those interviewed for this article inside the country uniformly note that the police prefer to leave these issues to families.
“Law enforcement has people who think the same way,” Kamala Agazade says, “that the girl’s reputation is soiled. They say, let’s reach an agreement, let’s come to some terms.” Here, Agazade makes a hand gesture that indicates money, implying bribes and payments. “This kind of an agreement,” she adds, saying there are some cases when perpetrators are punished.
Azerbaijan does not have “marry your rapist laws” like some of its neighbours in the region and beyond that indemnify the man who “kidnaps,” rapes, or sexually assaults a woman from criminal prosecution if he eventually marries her. But women are often coerced by their own families to marry the men in order to avoid public stigma and shame on the family, as evidenced by sporadic media reports and activists on the ground.
“Often what will happen in these kinds of cases is that the victim’s family will either agree to have her marry him, or maybe even want to have her marry him because of this issue of honour. This traditionally has been very common in the Middle East, although, several countries have recently repealed these laws,” says Hillary Margolis, a researcher at the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The lack of statistics exacerbates the problem. “Understanding the scope of the problem of violence against women in Azerbaijan is rather difficult. We do not have a database [on violence], despite the fact this was one of the CEDAW recommendations for the country,” says Ismayil, referring to the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Azerbaijan ratified the convention in 1995.
Kamala Agazade estimates that in 80 percent of cases of sexual assault in Azerbaijan, young women are married off to the men who raped them. A veteran employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Agazade says she is well-positioned to piece together and estimate these figures based on experience, partial statistics she had seen, and anecdotal evidence she had come across in her 10-year experience with the police ministry.
Shahla Ismayil also laments the lack of reliable statistical data available to the public: “It is quite possible that the fact that women are married off to those who perpetrated sexual violence against them is a very widespread practice, but we have absolutely no instrument in our possession to measure its scope.”
She blames all parties involved. “There are definite attempts to cover up this information by all parties – the family, the local executive authorities, police,” says Ismayil. “We find out only if cases reach the courts, which they do in the rarest of instances. In general, cases are usually covered up.”
The fact that Azerbaijan is a country where both women and men are pressured into marrying at a young age by their families only exacerbates the issue: a large number of these “kidnapped” women are underage. Full data on the age of Azerbaijani citizens when they get married is unavailable, or has to be gleaned from a cross-section of other information (data on child births by mothers who have not reached legal age, for instance).
According to statistics supplied by Agazade (which are based on official information), in 2017, in Baku and other large cities, a total of 8,167 children were born to underage mothers. In rural areas, their number was 14,629. Among the mothers aged 15 to 17 who gave birth, 840 of them lived in the capital Baku, or other large cities. Of these women, 671 had their first child, 65 had their second, three had their third, and one had her fourth child.
According to Azerbaijani law, in some exceptional cases, official recognition of marriage may be granted to persons one year below the age of 18. But data shows that, in 2017, 240 children were born to mothers aged 15-17 in officially recognised marriages.
“Most likely, in these cases we are talking about girls ages 16-17,” explains Agazade. “There are some cases where families have a parent that is gravely ill, and it is their wish to marry off their daughter before they die. These are exceptional cases.”
Hillary Margolis has no doubt that coercing a young woman into marrying a man who had sexually assaulted her is a violation of her human rights: “This is absolutely a violation, there is no question. There are several different aspects of this that are clear rights violations that are, according to international treaties, including the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, very clearly stated to be violations.”
What can be done?
In a country whose culture deeply discourages discourse on sensitive issues such as relations between sexes, anything related to sex itself, or even early marriage, what can be done to address a stigmatised problem such as “bride kidnappings” and bring about change?
Agazade sees the answer in enforcing the already-existing laws: “Our legislation [protecting the rights of women] is perfect on paper, but the [enforcement] mechanisms are very weak. The men who perpetrate these crimes try to cite so-called traditions, saying, my grandmother was married off at a young age too.”
When it comes to the parallel universe of enthusiastic pronouncements by the Azerbaijani government, glamourous lifestyle magazines and smiling faces of the women in the country’s First Family, dressed in haute couture and posing for pictures with celebrities, there is a clear contradiction with the everyday life of an average Azerbaijani woman. “I would say that [violations of women’s rights] really is at odds with any government claims that it is pro-women’s rights, that it supports equality and non-discrimination.” says Margolis.
An important aspect of beginning to address the problem, according to Margolis, is making support services available and creating shelters for women.
Kamala Agazade happens to be running one such shelter in the capital, Baku. Behind the statistics, she sees faces of girls and boys who have come through her shelter in the five years of its existence.
“A few years ago, we had a girl placed here from one of the regions. She was the victim of sexual assault by several men. We worked with her for two years. Afterwards, she continued her education, and three months ago she sent me pictures of a wonderful family that she has now. She promised to come visit us next week together with her husband,” Agazade adds, smiling for the first time in the interview.