Novella Jafaroglu-Appelbaum

BAKU, Azerbaijan (WOMENSENEWS)–“I’m bad. Very bad.”

That’s the blunt answer Novella Jafaroglu-Appelbaum gives to the question of how she’s doing.

Jafaroglu-Appelbaum is one of Azerbaijan’s leading human rights activists and co-founder and director of the Association for the Protection of Women’s Rights, the country’s first nongovernmental organization, founded in 1989.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for Nov. 6 in this former Soviet republic just north of Iran, Jafaroglu-Appelbaum’s organization has set up a hotline in its office to monitor the campaign. This is why her mood is gloomy.

She says she is getting daily calls about irregularities on the campaign trail and violations of election rules by the governing New Azerbaijan Party.

“I just got a call about an opposition candidate being beaten up,” she says, throwing her hands up in the air.

Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, oil-rich Azerbaijan has suffered through a string of fraudulent elections and the autocratic rule of former Soviet strongman Heidar Aliyev and now his son, President Ilham Aliyev.

Jafaroglu-Appelbaum is even more despairing when the subject turns to women in Azeri politics.

Of the nearly 2,000 candidates running for Parliament, a scant 11 percent are women, most of whom are running as underfunded independents, she says. Twelve percent of the current Parliament’s members are women, compared to 39 percent during the Soviet period.

Azerbaijan’s constitution guarantees equal rights for women. Still, activists say, the divide between men and women, especially in the political realm, continues to grow.

“Today, unfortunately, the opposition leaders and the government don’t create opportunities where women can run for office or advance their issues,” Jafaroglu-Appelbaum says. “I can assure you that if we even had a minimum of democracy–not the maximum but the minimum–women would advance. But we are very skeptical about these upcoming elections.”

Women Face Double Struggle

As election day approaches, leaders of Azerbaijan’s small women’s movement say the country’s women face a double struggle.

While they are joining the effort to establish democratic rule in the country, they are also fighting to earn a place inside a political culture that–ruling party and opposition alike–is trying to shut them out.

 Helena Kasumova

“Our men are trying to push women out of political life,” says Helena Kasumova, chief coordinator of the Azerbaijan Gender Information Center, a resource center on women’s issues in the capital city of Baku.

Baton-wielding policemen have broken up unauthorized opposition rallies in recent weeks, and scores of opposition members have been arrested in an election in which the opposition has been significantly more energized and organized than in previous years.

Many in the country attribute that to the encouraging effect of recent successful revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, other former Soviet republics that suffered through fraudulent elections and repressive regimes.

The three main opposition parties have for the first time united under one bloc in this campaign, choosing as their symbols the color orange, after Ukraine’s “orange revolution,” and a carnation, a nod to Georgia’s “rose revolution.”

Few Women Involved in Politics

But still mostly missing in all of this pre-election activity are women, be it as demonstrators or as activists.

Kasumova says a type of macho ethos has taken over Azeri politics, one that leaves little room for most women. “If you want to be political, you have to be very strong and have a lot of money,” she says.

For many women, meanwhile, political activity–at least with the opposition–can have significant ramifications, says Jafaroglu-Appelbaum.

“Basically, women are afraid of being in the front rows of the opposition movement because they could lose their job, because there are no democratic standards in Azerbaijan, because they are afraid for their families,” she says.

“Even women in the governing party are not advanced; they are somehow kept out,” she said. “We currently only have one woman in the executive branch.”

Lynn Sferrazza, director of the Baku office of the American Bar Association’s Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, says that the laws Azerbaijan has in place to ensure equality for women frequently bump up against ingrained cultural perceptions of what a woman’s traditional role should be, making it difficult for women to advance in Azeri society.

“You don’t see women in business; women in law,” she says. “There aren’t many women judges, women lawyers. If you go to a ministry, the women are serving tea and the men are in charge.”

Important Issues Ignored

 Nabat Gamiyeva

Nabat Gamiyeva, 49, is one of the few women campaigning for parliament, running as an independent on a shoestring budget. She too says women’s issues are being ignored.

“For example, there is a lot of discrimination against women who want to be entrepreneurs in the business sphere,” she says. “The constitution guarantees equal rights, but in reality women don’t get equal rights in business.”

Many veteran activists here say the difficulties women are having now is particularly discouraging because women were at the forefront of the country’s transition from Soviet control.

“It was women who were leading the marches against the tanks,” says Jafaroglu-Appelbaum, referring to 1990, when the Soviets sent troops to Azerbaijan to suppress the country’s ultimately successful move to independence.

“Women took an active part in the national liberation movement and in the protests, which helped keep it from becoming violent,” Jafaroglu-Appelbaum continues. She remembers passing out flowers to Russian soldiers camped out in Baku.

Women also played an important part in pushing for democratic reforms in the period following independence, when Azerbaijan enjoyed a brief period of openness before Heidar Aliyev took control and created an atmosphere in which many came to believe that political activity had little consequence.

Looking across her desk, Jafaroglu-Appelbaum says she is worried that another tainted election might further drive women from Azeri politics.

“Azerbaijan needs democratic elections,” she says. “I’m tired of telling women to go to the polls and vote. I’ve been saying that for 15 years and they are always a fraud.”

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance writer based in Istanbul where he writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the Jerusalem Report, as well as other publications.

For more information:

Azerbaijan Gender Information Center:

Films Depict Rising Sex Bias in Old Soviet States:

UNIFEM in Azerbaijan:

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