To many, it may come as no surprise. Politics is a man’s world in the South Caucasus, where women remain a legislative minority, according to recent data from the World Bank.
The study showed that, regionally, Armenia has the lowest share of female parliamentarians, at 11 percent of its 131-seat National Assembly. Georgia comes next on the list with 12 percent, though the 2012 election marked a slight improvement. Azerbaijan is doing the best, though the female presence in its 125-seat Milli Majlis still stands at a modest 16 percent.
Azerbaijan is also doing better than Russia (14 percent), and, like its Caucasian neighbors, far better than Ukraine, which, with women accounting for nine percent of its 450-seat legislature, boasts the most testosterone-heavy parliament among the former Soviet republics.
Many Azerbaijanis might say that their country comes naturally by this regional first . While often socially conservative toward the roles of women (public criticism of President Ilham Aliyev's wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, as an MP tends to be studiously avoided), Azerbaijan, under its short-lived Azerbaijani Democratic Republic (1918-1921), became the first predominantly Muslim country to give women the vote.(The country has enjoyed less success in other areas of women's rights; according to the United Nations Population Fund, violence against women has reached "epidemic proportions.")
Still, the South Caucasus numbers on women in politics are nowhere near European averages. Both Armenia and Georgia have introduced affirmative action rules to ensure larger legislative representations for women, but things do not always turn out as planned. At Armenia's last election, in 2012, quotas were meant to ensure a minimum-20 percent female representation in parliament, but only 14 women ended up being elected.
Local observers place the blame both on men and traditional views on gender roles. Armenian and Georgian men often tend to prefer to have women legislate at home rather than in national assemblies, while combining a political career with marriage and parenthood can sometimes prove a tall order for local women, given cultural stereotypes. “Political office is a pillar for business and men are not ready to let go of such positions,” Elena Vardanian, chairperson of the Armenian Public Council's Committee for Gender and Demography, told IWPR.
Parliamentarian Eliso Chapidze of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition noted that "some aggressive attitudes" do exist among male MPs toward their female colleagues. “When men run short of arguments and can’t fight intellect with intellect, they start saying that women have other, family-related matters on their minds,” Chapidze told Georgian Public Broadcasting.
Minority United National Movement member Tinatin Bokuchava agreed, though, that “the unhealthy,” sometimes violent, practices in local politics keeps women away. “Women don’t want to come to politics because they know that they may even face physical violence,” Bokuchava said.
In her comments to IWPR, a successful Armenia politician, Naira Zarobian, of the Prosperous Armenia Party, advised Armenian women to break away from the socially dictated gender roles and be more assertive in politics. “First, we have to overcome our complexes, and then we will demand gender equality from men,” she said.