Muslim World, Take Notice: Women’s Rights in Muslim-Majority Azerbaijan

In many Muslim-majority nations, particularly including those that self-describe as “Islamic” states, women cannot drive, or move freely in public spaces without a male escort or being veiled.

This is not the case in Azerbaijan, the Muslim-majority nation of Leyla Mammadbeyova. Leyla made history in 1931 in Azerbaijan by learning to fly. Dubbed the “mistress of the skies,” Leyla was the first female pilot to fly solo from Southern Europe to Central Asia. In her lifetime, Leyla would rise to the rank of squadron leader, parachute alone from a biplane, survive an assassination attempt, and raise six children with the love and support of her husband.

Leyla’s life highlights the literal and figurative unveiling of women from traditional patriarchal roles in Azerbaijan at a time when the “honor system” kept women otherwise secluded from public life, as many remain today in nearby Pakistan, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East. A source of great Azerbaijani national pride and a seminal point of reference to anyone on tour of Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, is the “Statue of Women Suffrage,” depicting a woman casting off her veil in an act of defiance and in homage to the freedom enjoyed by all women in Azerbaijan. 

Azerbaijan’s traditions of egalitarianism, democracy, and the rule of law for all, regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender transcends traditional interpretations of Islam, often used as a tool to reinforce patriarchy and honor codes that tie both men and women to narrowly defined roles in society.

Azerbaijan’s success today relies on its ability to integrate suburban and agrarian society, still infused with traditional notions of honor, with its urban centers to ensure greater economic development throughout the country. This requires maintaining the image of women like Leyla Mammadbeyova as role models, not outliers, especially at a time when Islamism -- a foreign ideology -- threatens the very ideals embodied in Azerbaijani citizenship.

The latter ideology is a political movement and should not to be confused with Islam in general or Islam as it has been practiced in Azerbaijan for centuries. As false prophets of “true Islam,” Islamists purport to present a fundamentalist interpretation for Muslims that violates all notions of universal human rights and basic democracy. Foreign-funded Islamists proselytize in Azerbaijan hoping to influence the country’s role in regional conflicts that benefit foreign powers and their political and religious agendas, rather than Azerbaijani citizens.

Potential victims of this foreign ideology in Azerbaijan are women first, who are being encouraged by some to return to a life of seclusion and “honor.” However, with a larger proportion of women in the Milli Majilis (Azerbaijan’s parliament) than in the U.S. Congress, women occupying powerful and high-level positions within government, a significant number of women as captains of industry and entrepreneurs, the threat remains, but a large army of powerful women, including the average Azerbaijani woman, exists to fight them.   

In acknowledgement of the threat to its egalitarian, multicultural, and gender-equal society, Azerbaijan has passed numerous laws since its independence in 1991. In 1995, Article 25 and 34 were added to Azerbaijan’s Constitution guaranteeing full equality between men and women generally (Article 25); and equal status of men and women within marriage specifically (Article 34).

In 2006, another Gender Equality Law was passed guaranteeing equal pay in the workforce between men and women, and proscribing discriminatory hiring practices. Broader prohibitions against gender discrimination in employment, education, economic and social relations, advertisements, and politics were also outlined.

The legal strides in protecting women in Azerbaijan has not curbed a resurgence of veiling. As the head of a woman’s rights NGO noted in 2008, “Ten years ago we really didn’t think religion and Islam were an issue or a problem for our country. But today as we see all these recently veiled women we begin to fear a fate such as that of women in Iran. We certainly cannot afford to lose any of our gains. But if we are not careful, Islamism could creep up on us and we’ll all be pushed back under the chador.”

Possibly fearing that the growth of Islamism would reinforce outdated customs like child marriage, the legal age to marry for women was raised to 18 in 2011. Moreover, forced marriages were explicitly made illegal.

The importance of these legal actions is to maintain the Azerbaijani traditional norms of equality, ensure and enhance the personal development of half the country’s population, and to codify measures that help to guarantee the country’s economic growth at a critical stage in Azerbaijan’s development.

Supna Zaidi Peery is Executive Director of the prestigious Muslim World Today, a daily publication devoted to the accurate, truthful and fair reporting of news, analysis and perspective associated with the Muslim world. Ms. Peery is also an attorney and policy analyst specializing in human rights, and foreign policy.