Faced with the prospect of potential arrest, police abuse or harassment, few Azerbaijani women seem willing to stick out their necks these days to take a public stance on issues. But for one group of practicing Shi’a Muslim women, the risks are not a deterrent to protesting.
Over the past few years, small numbers of observant Azerbaijani women, wearing hijabs and Islamic overcoats, have taken part in various Baku demonstrations, mostly those to do with religious freedom. But now that interest is extending to Azerbaijan’s October 9 presidential election.
The women interviewed by EurasiaNet.org, all members of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan’s Women’s Council, say secular matters primarily drive their interest.
“I fight for the rule of law, for respect for human rights,” said 54-year-old Nevreste Ibrahimova, a Shi’a Islam instructor who heads the 10-member Women’s Council. “It does not matter if the [protest] action is based on religious or secular rights, I will be there.”
The Islamic Party of Azerbaijan is officially banned, but many of its supporters and activists are backing the National Council of Democratic Forces, the country’s main opposition coalition.
Ibrahimova is especially concerned about what she describes as the master-to-servant relationship between the Azerbaijani government and ordinary citizens. The population’s basic needs get overlooked, she believes. “They [officials] concentrate mostly on building bridges and residential buildings, which is good for comfort. But many people are unemployed. They should think about the nation’s employment,” she said. Ibrahimova studied Islam for five years in the Iranian city of Qom, a center of Shi’a teaching.
Islam’s popularity within Azerbaijan has been growing steadily in recent years, particularly among women. In a 2012 survey by the non-profit Caucasus Research Resource Centers on religiosity in the South Caucasus, 70 percent of 1,829 Azerbaijani respondents described themselves as religious; a 13-percentage-point increase since 2011. Eighty-six percent of the female respondents identified religion as “very important” or “rather important” for their lives, compared with 75 percent of the male respondents.
Arif Yunus, a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Democracy in Baku, and the author of several books on Islam in Azerbaijan, believes that female believers who attend protests are filling a void left by observant Shi’a men, many of whom were jailed by the government in recent years on alleged terrorism charges. “As actively protesting men are in jail, we see more practicing [Shi’a] women protesting or participating in rallies,” Yunus said. “As women, they are not hurt. So far, no woman believer has been arrested for protesting.”
Nonetheless, the secular-minded government in Baku keeps a wary eye on the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan. The party lost its registration in 1995 after officials claimed that Iran, Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor and a fellow majority-Shi’a country, was using it to stir up unrest. The party’s leader, Movsum Samadov, is currently serving 12 years in prison for an alleged attempted coup, a charge brought after he posted a YouTube video denouncing President Ilham Aliyev.
National Council spokesperson Oktay Gulaliyev says that the group’s participation in opposition protests simply reflects the fact that the government’s abuse of civil rights impacts all Azerbaijanis regardless of their background. “Our supporters are people with diverse backgrounds, including believers,” Gulaliyev said.
Citing the protesters’ support for established political parties, Yunus also sees no sign of radicalism in their actions. “To me, Shi’a believers’ participation in protests is not radical. They try to take advantage of their constitutional rights as citizens of Azerbaijan.”
Azerbaijani Islamic Party member Natig Kerimov, a delegate to the National Council, said that the party decided to support the National Council “because they united the democratic forces of the country and want to change the political system and eliminate corruption.”
While members of the Women’s Council advocate for greater religious rights – particularly for wearing hijab in public educational institutions, the target of earlier protests – they say that they see them on a continuum with other human rights.
“Hijab is a huge problem for us,” noted 38-year-old Fatima Salimova. “Why can’t practicing women enjoy the constitutional freedom of wearing hijab as part of their religious practice, while the rest of women in Azerbaijan can wear whatever they want? It is not only we who are suffering from the violation of our rights; all citizens experience it.”
Many of the Council’s activists, including Ibrahimova, head of the Public Association for Assistance to Soldiers’ Mothers, also campaign against the abuse of army conscripts, a topic which sparked a sizeable unauthorized rally in Baku this January.
That perception of common cause, in fact, could prove the catalyst for more Islamic women to follow the Women’s Council’s example, Yunus believes, as active Muslims join forces with others – journalists, civil-society workers, and politicians – who also believe that the government has repressed their rights.
“Their circle will grow,” he predicted. “It will be part of the increasing role of Islam in Azerbaijan.”
But, so far, when Ibrahimova and her colleagues travel to these protests – as yet, only in Baku – they do so without collaboration with secular Azerbaijani women. The Women’s Council does not limit its membership to religious women, Ibrahimova said, but, as yet, no secular women have chosen to join.
Ibrahimova remains hopeful. “We want other women to understand that our only difference is practicing Islam,” she said. “That is it.”
Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist focusing on Azerbaijan.