Women, Democratization, and Islam in Post- Soviet Azerbaijan

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The process of post-Soviet democratization in the Azerbaijan Republic has been undermined by several domestic, regional, and international factors. In addition to economic deterioration and poverty for the majority of people, rampant corruption in and out of government, persistence of mafia-like patron-cliental relations, and regionalism, a bloody armed conflict with neighboring Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh has resulted in costly and demoralizing human casualties and territorial loss. As a result, national security concerns, the urgency of defending the homeland, and responding to the immediate needs of refugees and the internally displaced population (which constitutes one out of every seven Azerbaijanis) have absorbed most available resources, overshadowing concerns for and efforts toward democratization and civil society building, subduing the opposition, and encroaching on civil rights. An international factor that has further limited the resources available to support economic and political development in Azerbaijan is related to sanctions (Freedom Act 907) driven by the Armenian lobby in the U.S. In effect from the early 1990s until early 2002, this sanction prevented any U.S. aid to Azerbaijan.


In Azerbaijan, as in other post-Soviet republics, the adverse aspects of transition have affected women the hardest. The primacy of the need for security and stability has kept a rather authoritarian government in place with a low (and decreasing) level of women's representation in leading political positions. Due to certain dynamics of the free market, privatization, and structural adjustment programs, many women have lost state employment and state-provided services in areas such as education and health care.

Moreover, ethnocentric nationalism, the revival of local conservative traditions and customs, and the growing influence of patriarchal versions of Islam (both Shii and Sunni Wahhabi Islamisms), have placed equal rights and equitable citizenship of men and especially women in jeopardy.


Retrogressive change in gender roles and gender relations has been central to all religious fundamentalisms, including Islamism. For example, the existing civil and egalitarian family law in Azerbaijan is being undermined by the push for practice of nikah (marriage) based on Sharia (Islamic Divine law) instead of or parallel to the civil code. This growing practice is creating a parallel (informal and unregistered) marriage pattern that renders women more vulnerable and deprives them of the formal (civil) egalitarian legal protections concerning polygamy, divorce, child custody, and alimony payment.


The scope of policy recommendations offered in this brief is limited to specific aspects of democratization in Azerbaijan. In the aftermath of September 11, its main concern is the regressive implications of the post-Soviet upsurge of traditionalism and Islamism for democratization, civil rights, especially women's equal rights. These recommendations are suggestive of three inter-related requirements:


  1. Women's empowerment through a gender-sensitive development strategy;

  2. Preventive measures with regard to the factors that contribute to the growth of a male-supremacist Islamism at local and regional levels; and

  3. Modification in America's foreign policy and assistance programs aimed at building a cultural bridge and changing the mutually negative stereotypes.



Medium and Short-Term Recommendations:


  1. Establishing a stronger and more democratic link between the third sector (women's groups and NGOs) and government agencies (the National Committee on Women's Issues, for example) is necessary for bottom-up as well as top-down effective strategies toward women's empowerment.

  2. Beware of the vacuum created by the retreat of the state (usually under IMF-directed structural adjustment programs), especially in the areas of education and health. Anti-democratic groups and regressive Islamists can fill such a vacuum.

  3. Like other world religions, Islam is not monolithic or static. We need to make a distinction between various tendencies among Muslims, especially the following three trends/views within the post-Soviet Islamic revival: a.) modern, liberal, and democratic voices of Islam (rooted in the Jadid [modern] tradition in the region) that are supportive of equal rights for women; b.) traditional and conservative views/groups who are rather apolitical, but supportive of a return to the old patriarchal norms and strong authoritarian state; and c.) radical revolutionary Islamists ("fundamentalists") who are very political, seek state power, and are supportive of women's sociopolitical activism but only under a neo-patriarchal segregated gender regime.

  4. We should help foster religious sensibility and knowledge among women and raise women's awareness of and contact with the modern liberal ulema (Islamic clergy or scholars) and egalitarian (feminist) interpretations of Islam and the growing number of Islamic feminist activists and scholars among Muslim women in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Morocco, and the Muslim communities in the USA, Canada, and Europe. Such modern religious knowledge and interpretive (ijtihad) skills will equip women against the influence of regressive traditionalists or Islamists ("fundamentalists").

  5. The success of U.S. policy in Azerbaijan, as in other Muslim societies, is contingent upon building a cultural bridge as well as offering economic, technological, and military assistance. To alter distrust, negative stereotypes, and cultural misunderstanding on both sides, we need a sustained and serious engagement in the realms of ideas, values, and beliefs through cross-country institutional and university linkages, student and faculty exchanges in fields such as Gender and Women's Studies, American Studies, Islamic Studies, Eurasian Studies, and Journalism as well as Business and Law.

  6. We can help to change the image of Western/American donors as anti-Islam and self-interested intruders by funding new community-driven development projects geared toward poverty eradication, improvement of health, education, and the environment. Such assistance programs take the needs and perspective of "the ordinary person on the street" into consideration, reflect local knowledge, and avoid Western-based or Western-imposed priorities.

  7. In funding various projects, we should reach out beyond the elite, Westernized, and English-speaking women (and men) and include women of other social groups (who may wear head-scarves or appear more traditional). Women who work at the grassroots level may do effective and important work (in their neighborhood, at rural or provincial as well as urban levels) in areas such as income generation, healthcare, birth control, domestic violence prevention, and political campaigns.

  8. We should implement income generation projects and capacity building among the increasing number of women who have fallen victim to poverty, or have resorted to prostitution and drug trafficking as the only available sources of income. Islamists tend to highlight such social ills as recent "Western-imported decadence" to discredit secular and liberal norms, especially women's freedom.

  9. Support should be offered for projects on educational reform, reinforcement of critical thinking, tolerant, non-sexist, and non-dogmatic pluralistic attitudes via the media as well as school and college curriculum.

  10. We should reinforce efforts towards reformation in Islam. It is important to help those engaged in organizing effective training programs, conferences, and public debates on modern democratic interpretations of Islam and those individuals or NGOs that are involved in translation, production and publication of curricula, literature, audio/video cassettes, speeches, and films dealing with reform movements in Islam while exposing the failure of extremist alternatives in countries like Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan.

  11. We should encourage dialogue with moderate Islamic political groups and incorporation of them, especially their women members in electoral politics. This policy may result in the moderation of many Islamists while isolating and delegitimizing the extremist and violent elements. The experience of Tajikistan in Central Asia and Jordan in the Middle East are cases in point.



In short, since gender relations and women are among the primary targets of Islamists, empowerment of women through gender-sensitive development projects accompanied by a gender-inclusive democratization is the best strategy to prevent socio-economic and political polarization that feeds extremist tendencies. Women's active and conscious participation in economic and political development (at both formal "high" and informal "low" levels) and in civil society building, strengthening of pluralism and observation of equal human rights can provide the best guarantor of security and the best antidote to retrogressive ethno-nationalism and religious extremism.

Long-Term Recommendations to Local Authorities and International Donors

  • Studies show that extremist Islamists have gained popularity only under authoritarian, repressive, and illegitimate regimes. Islamism is more than religious fundamentalism; it is a political alternative that becomes appealing only in the face of the failure of secular nationalism, socialism, and liberalism. To win the war against terrorism and Islamist extremism, therefore, we need more than military might. Armed actions against armed terrorist Islamists in the region cannot be effective if not accompanied by a strategy for democratization and comprehensive gender-sensitive development in each country.

  • We should not let security, terrorism concerns, and interests in the Caspian energy resources eclipse democratization, civil society building, and human/women's rights.
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