In Azerbaijan gender-based restrictions and discrimination against women are deeply rooted in patriarchal attitudes, social norms and strict gender roles and stereotypes. Establishment of Islam as the majority religion even more embedded traditional gender norms in social organization and public life.
With the global shift towards recognition of women’s rights, Azerbaijani political elites of the early 20th century went as far as discussing equality of men and women in the first session of the Parliament in 1918 and made Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) the first majority Muslim country to give women voting rights. Although Soviet years are rarely praised for a progressive life, that period in country’s history coincided with eradication of female illiteracy. Under these changes, women gained new economic roles, but kept the primary responsibility for domestic tasks and family matters. Declaratory recognition of women’s equality did not necessarily translate into their representation at senior decision-making levels. The trend remained unchanged in the post-Soviet Union period, with labor market transitions causing women to even further shift away from the production economy and concentrating on domestic tasks along with maintaining a part-time engagement in the predominantly “female” professions, such as teaching or medicine.
Understandably, women’s dual roles for domestic and paid work had an impact on the economic situation of the families and their overall well-being. While men have accepted the need for women to work, they did not feel like sharing more domestic responsibilities as women undertook jobs outside the house. Yet, this biased attitude toward household responsibilities became a key factor leading to divorces. Statistics for divorces illustrate this shift increasing by 1.6% during 2010–2018 with the number of marriages in general reducing by 1.3% for the same period of time.
Azerbaijani women even today are defined by their domestic roles and remain less prominent in public life. However, the new millennium saw this situation slightly changing for younger generation with men more likely to accept shared roles, more so in the urban settings as opposed to very conservative rural areas. Contemporary Azerbaijanis still uphold rigid notions of gender specific roles and gender equality, deeply entrenched in the minds of both men and women. However, men in Azerbaijan are more likely to report agreeing with those traditional notions of gender compared to women. Masculinity in particular is strongly associated with a man’s ability to financially support his family. Whereas, women mainly perform tasks related to the physical care of the child. Even tasks related to spending time with the child are rarely shared equally or done together. New generation of men is relatively more inclined to sharing the housework and providing day-to-day care for children, finding it as important as delivering financially.
Nevertheless, men continue to hold decision-making power in family affairs, including in intimate relationships. For example, decisions in sexual and reproductive health matters are usually taken by men and very rarely are appear to be joint decisions. In general, attitude towards health also differ based on gender attributions: men also need, but do not often seek physical and mental health services. Men are less likely than women to report ever seeking psychological health services, including preventative care. Such gap in health-seeking behavior widen with age.
Women also rarely come forward to complain about sexual harassment in the workplace. Cultural stereotypes inhibit women from going to the courts and sharing information about their sexual harassment experience, which risk damaging their reputations.
Since the early 1990s in Azerbaijan, as in the rest of the South Caucasus, the proportion of newborn boys to girls has steadily risen. There were several contributing factors, such as economic downturn and conflict in the South Caucasus countries that led families to restrict the number of children they had. Given the traditional patriarchal values and a strong son preference, as well as abortion as the most common family planning instrument and the increased availability of ultrasound technology during the 1990s, people chose to restrict family size while ensuring they had at least one son.
According to the ADB Country Gender Assessment report of 2019, Azerbaijan is the lowest-ranked country, after Armenia and the People’s Republic of China, in terms of failing the gender parity on sex ratio at birth. With such statistics, the Council of Europe passed Resolution 1829 (2011) condemning sex-selective abortion and calling on member states (including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) to prohibit prenatal sex selection. Men are a strong driving force behind son preference in Azerbaijan due to the inheritance of name or lineage, while both men and women consider daughters to be a burden. Often, sons are viewed as assets and pillars of the household, whereas daughters are often considered liabilities.
However, attitudes toward the overriding importance of sons are shifting, more quickly in urban areas, and to a greater extent among women. At the same time, exposure to Internet, media discussions, and travel mean that except in very isolated rural communities, there is considerable shift towards gender parity. Even though young men often express more conservative views than young women, women increasingly speak out about belittling of women.
The discourse of gender equality in Azerbaijan since gaining independence in 1991 has shown a notably ambiguous attitude of the officially expressed objective and the local sentiment. There is an apparent “cognitive dissonance” explaining the general response of 64% believing in gender equality, while 28% of them simultaneously agreeing that “a woman sometimes deserve to be beaten”. This is often also explained that incidents of domestic violence are issues of private/personal nature, rather than political or public matters.
The gendered character of domestic violence remains a pressing issue in Azerbaijan as generally it is the case in the rest of the region of South Caucasus. Rare surveys conducted on the subject matter provide an alarming background to the discourse on domestic violence. For example, about 40 % respondents to the Caucasus Resource and Research Center (CRRC) survey of 2012 thought that women should tolerate domestic violence in order to keep their family together and about 22% of them believed that there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.
Such attitudes slightly change when moving from rural settlements to the capital with less urban population believing that women deserve to be beaten or that women should tolerate violence.
The numbers also conditionally change with economic situation or level of education. Third of the self-identified underprivileged respondents believe that there are times when women deserve to be beaten. Half of them believe that women should tolerate violence. Similarly, people with higher education are less inclined to believe that women deserve to be beaten or that they should tolerate violence, compared to those with lower indicators for education.
Intimate partner violence is one of the most extreme manifestations of power inequality in relationships backed by impunity. An estimated 14% of Azerbaijani women between 15 and 49 years of age experience intimate partner violence (physical and/or sexual) at least once in their lifetime. One-third of men and nearly one-quarter of women reported witnessing their mother being beaten by her husband or partner, which increases the likelihood of perpetrating violence.
As evident from the section above, the origin of domestic violence against women in Azerbaijan can be traced back to a psychological abuse happening at the moment of the birth of a daughter. Following the centuries of a tradition and expecting a male heir is the phenomenon still alive in the country. According to a well-known writer, a victim of domestic violence and mother to another victim, “domestic violence in Azerbaijan is often passed down from generation to generation with a considerable share of “victim blaming” when it comes to domestic violence or sexual harassment at work place”.
Domestic violence in Azerbaijan, in particular physical and psychological violence against women, had gradually turned into a norm of behavior. Customs, attitudes and values of the family, especially those associated with the so-called “mentality” are deeply rooted in the society.
The patriarchy is imposed with the references to the so-called “national values, mentality, family values”. These values are referenced in the media and, interestingly enough, are upheld on different ends of the political spectrum: both by the government and opposition groups. For example, on November 27, 2019, during the 100-year anniversary of Baku State University, the President of the country also reiterated that men and women cannot be equal because the nation follows traditional values.
In the families, women, wives and daughters, face limitations of their rights first by their father, then by the brothers, and after marriage, the husbands, fathers-in-law, brothers-in-law, and even the sons. All of their rights, including the right to education, choosing a profession, and very often when and with whom to build a family are often regulated by the male members of the family.
Some women are not allowed to go out without permission of the male family member. In the most patriarchal families attempts to protest lead to even more pressure and humiliation. As confessed by the interviewee, “often times, the underlying cause of domestic violence is the matter of economic nature: income generated by women is snatched from women, if they found a job without the permission of a husband. Those who object face the consequences: they are either beaten or even killed for demanding their rights”. Physical violence is practiced so widely that it has been reduced to the standard of a "family matter". Publicizing the incidents causes even greater public condemnation.
A large number of housewives who face violence endure the abusers because they have no financial independence to look after themselves or their children. Some of these are not viewed as violence not only by the general public, but even by women themselves. This also applies to the matters of sexual harassment or marital rape, leaving the topic a taboo. Women are still stigmatized and even harassed if they are divorced. The interview shares that “divorced women or those seeking employment in the “unsuitable” sector, such as restaurants, resorts and etc., especially if the work required late hours of working, are instantly labeled and stigmatized and become objects of rumors generated often by the relatives, social groups and neighbors.”
A divorced woman often becomes an object of affection and harassment, and in case if she rejects the unwanted attention, she turns into an object of slander. Attempts of divorced women to be remarried are also met with social stigma.
Women often are revictimized after disclosing to public information about violence they have experienced at home. For example, on September 19, 2019, the daughter of one of the opposition party leaders, after publicizing information about the physical and psychological abuse she, her sister and mother suffered for years, became an object of a lot of criticism and even bullying.
Usually, the main argument of the critics is that such incidents happen in every family, the family matters should not be exposed to public, that women should be patient. Sadly enough, women also play a role in such campaign using the same arguments and messages to attack a victim of domestic violence, who publicized the family abuse in social media. Obviously, the social stigma makes it difficult for the victims to come forward and publicize the cases of violence.