March in the Caucasus: how not to celebrate International Women’s Day in Azerbaijan3 min read

 In Caucasus, Civil Society, Editorial
On March 8, Baku police handed out bouquets of flowers to Azerbaijani women drivers. Elsewhere in the city, police were quashing women’s rights demonstrations.

Dispersing feminist protests has quickly become an annual tradition for Baku police on International Women’s Day. Activists wishing to march and denounce violence against women try to secure the right to hold demonstrations on March 8 and then the government promptly denies the right to march so that the police may aggressively prevent these illegal gatherings. March 8 2021 followed this pattern, with demonstrators met by inordinate force and with some protestors violently detained.

Azerbaijani feminists had a slate of legitimate grievances to air at this year’s planned protest. After a year of the pandemic, isolation and financial difficulties have contributed to a spike in reported incidents of domestic violence. In February alone, three young women committed suicide, including a prominent feminist Sevil Atakishieva. Another two womens’ attempted suicides were prevented. No substantive measures have been taken to respond to this ongoing crisis. 

Women’s rights activists are regularly targeted by hacking and character assassinations. In the weeks preceding the March 8 protests, Gulnara Mehdiyeva became the target of a defamation campaign, reportedly state-sponsored, after protesting the brutal murder of Banu Maharramova, a 32-year-old woman whose body was found dismembered in bags and thrown inside a trash bin. After the events of March 8, the intimate images of  a dissident blogger’s sister and an activist detained while protesting were leaked online. 

In total, over 20 protestors were detained by the police even as Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs insisted no one had been detained. As with any other pressing social issue, the Azerbaijani government will continue to sweep the problems facing Azerbaijani women and girls under the rug. If it cannot be seen, then it does not exist. If it tries to make itself seen, then the police will use brute force to crush dissenting voices and the state apparatus will censor activists. 

Fighting back

Azerbaijan has strict laws regarding the formation and operation of non-governmental organizations. Those that organize face fierce criticism from society and pressure from the regime. Despite this pressure on independent voices, 2021 saw the first-ever feminist music concert take place in Baku. The organizer, Fem-Utopia, serves as a platform for Azerbaijani activists to advocate for ending inequality and creates feminist educational videos in the Azerbaijani language.  

To draw attention to issues faced by Azerbaijani women and to condemn gender-based violence, the collective put on this concert ahead of International Women’s Day. Several artists performed, singing in protest, “Do not tolerate violence, do not be silent to violence, let’s be united.” 

Indeed, as silence reigns, the situation for women and girls continues to degrade. On March 9, two high school-age girls committed suicide by jumping from the roof of a nine story building. While the cause of the suicide is unknown, a criminal case has been opened as the girls are thought to have been driven to suicide. With the Azerbajani government’s lax attitude to domestic abuse, lack of social support for vulnerable women, active engagement in the harassment of feminists, and treatment of activists as fifth columnists, sadly these stories of death and violence will continue to be commonplace. 

International Women’s Day is not a holiday for gifting flowers and giving empty congratulations, nor should it be an occasion for police to brutalize women. While activists are being persecuted, systemic violence remains shrouded from the public eye as those who condemn inequality and dehumanization are forcibly silenced.

Featured image: International Women’s Day on Twitter / Arzu Geybulla
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