The feminist movement and the LGBTQ+ community represent marginalized populations in Azerbaijan - they experience social, political, and economic discrimination and exclusion. Very recently, the visibility of these groups in Azerbaijan has increased. Nevertheless, the government continues to marginalize them from the public sphere. In the following article, I discuss the various and changing forms of discrimination and violence facing feminists and the LGBTQ+ community in Azerbaijan.
The “tolerant” state against the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities
At the 2014 PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) summer session, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev answered a question from Norwegian MP - Lise Christoffersen, about LGBTQ+ persons in the following way: “The rights of all groups of people are provided for in Azerbaijan; there are no restrictions.” Only 3 years later, in 2017, around 100 trans women and gay men were detained by the police in crackdown raids and subjected to various forms of torture and harassment as well as forced medical examinations in detention and even alleged rape. Some of the representatives of the LGBTQ+ community targeted by the police lost their rented housing and jobs because their property owners and employers found out about their sexuality due to the raids. Some even fled to neighboring states – Turkey, Georgia, Russia – countries with legislation, policies, and culture far from acceptable for queer communities, but nonetheless promising to be a safer place for queer Azerbaijanis.
The Azerbaijani state seems to see feminist and queer communities as a threat to its centralized authority and does not tolerate any civil disobedience. The history of abductions/forced detainments at protests, using physical force against women and queers, and the obstruction of the work done by media representatives demonstrate Azerbaijan's attitude towards women and LGBTQ+ persons.
In 2019, at the March 8 protest to mark International Women’s Day, the police forcibly took demonstration participants to underground metro stations – away from the press – and did not intervene when a group of provocateurs attacked the protesters. Again, at the 2019 October march against domestic violence, the police detained activists, mostly women, using excessive force, as reported by the protesters. Despite these difficulties, in the following years, Azerbaijan’s feminists continued to return to the streets on International Women’s Day. The demonstration in March 2020 was bigger and better organized – activists managed to hang their large poster with the slogan “The streets are free for us” from the roof of a building in the city center, despite the strong police control in the area. As expected, the police again intervened and detained demonstrators. This demonstration, with its courageous slogans, had a bigger resonance in Azerbaijani society. Pro-government media suddenly grasped the power of the oppressed groups; so, they started a year-long, intensive attack on the newly-formed movement through online media, as documented by QueeRadar.
In 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic in Azerbaijan, the government introduced quarantine rules, including the prohibition of public gatherings. The ruling New Azerbaijan Party, however, continued to gather dozens of people and hold events. At the same time, on March 8 of the same year, when feminists planned to return to the streets to attend an unsanctioned demonstration, they faced a harsh police intervention. The police used physical force and detained the participants, moving them away from the demonstration area.
Thus, I observe that the Azerbaijani state’s attitude towards feminism is the attitude of patriarchy towards feminism. Patriarchy does not like feminism, it wants to suppress it because it sees it as a threat to itself. However, the government does not want to make its patriarchal position transparent. According to Vafa Rustam, lawyer and women rights activist who I interviewed for this article:
“Perhaps they think that it is possible to fight violence against women by maintaining the patriarchy. The existing public institutions focus more on the “family” institution than on women's rights. I say family in brackets, because I don’t know to what degree we can call them families when they are destroyed by violence. The patriarchy is ready to turn a blind eye to all kinds of abuse and tyranny, even if it is called a family.”
The state’s new “game”
Until some point in 2021, the police and other state-related bodies treated the feminist movement in Azerbaijan aggressively. However, now, instead of physically attacking protesters in the streets, other methods are primarily employed to undermine feminist and queer minority groups. It appears that one such method is creating division within the oppressed community. The police, as a state institution, does not primarily represent a physically violent actor anymore; still, “ingroup” members create diversion and conflict, like in 2019, when women who appeared to be “sent by the authorities” attacked protesters on the women’s day demonstration. Another method is the blackmailing of critics.
The most recent and effective tool to dismantle movements without using physical force seems to be the instrumentalization of media outlets. Recently, non-governmental organizations unofficially allied with the government decided to promote the image of “nice police” during demonstrations. In the events that took place on March 8th, 2022, the police did not use violence. Even the state-run Public TV came to cover the feminist protests. In the demonstration, the only incident was the LGBTQ+ flags being taken away from a participant.
What changed? If we look at the online coverage of those protests, we will see that what happened in previous years, i.e. larger violence, attracted more media attention than the 2022 protest. At the same time, now, a video of an LGBTQ+ flag being taken away by the police at the 2022 protest has been watched more than any other protest video of that year. It seems that the state now understands that showing the violence of its police system gets more (negative) attention in society. Moreover, violence against the feminist-queer movement does not look good for the ruling party on the international arena because the feminist-queer movement has a good network comprising of international NGOs and human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and gets international coverage.
Media and social networks as helpers of the state?
The use of media against the feminist and queer communities goes beyond the national or international traditional media and journalism. In 2021, famous Tiktok influencer Sevinj Huseynova openly called upon her audience to target transgender people on the streets. After these calls, LGBTQ+ activists sent a complaint to the State Security Service of Azerbaijan to open an investigation against Sevinj Huseynova and to protect the LGBTQ+ community. The State Security Service told the political activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva that there would be no investigation and they could not provide any protection because current legislation does not define the LGBTQ+ community as a social group (and there is no legal definition of a social group at all). This happened after the 2014 PACE conference where Ilham Aliyev stated that Azerbaijan provides protection to the LGBTQ+ community.
On 22nd of February, 2022 Avaz Hafizli, an LGBTQ+ activist who protested against Sevinj Huseynova’s homophobic incitement, was beheaded. While Avaz’s murderer was sentenced to a decade of imprisonment, aggravated circumstances - the torture inflicted to Avaz’s body during the murder - were not included in the court proceedings. The involvement of Sevinj Huseynova, the blogger who campaigned against Avaz, was also not investigated. Although law enforcement did not hinder the demonstrations of the LGBTQ+ activists protesting the state’s harsh policy against the queer community, as a participant of that protest, I can say that we were closely watched by policemen.
Although there was no physical attack on us for chanting slogans, the online platform Qıy vaar!, which I run for queer activism, became a target of digital attacks: there were several attempts to destroy it when I was streaming live from the court. Using digital opportunities to silence the feminist movement is another tool of the government. As the activism grew, during the last three years, numerous individuals and platforms became targets of online abuse. Minority Magazine’s and Nefes LGBT Alliance’s social media accounts were hacked; emails and social media accounts of feminist activists were stolen, and their personal information, such as photos and private conversations, were leaked to the public.
It is apparent that the ruling party of Azerbaijan instrumentalizes LGBTQ+ rights for political purposes. This results in contradictory positions. For instance, in March 2020, the New Azerbaijan Party Youth Organization targeted an opposition leader, Ali Karimli, for condemning police violence against LGBTQ+ activists. However, in the following months, when opposition leaders shared homophobic statements, the same youth organization shared a statement in support of the queer community.
Most likely, this was also the reason why the LGBTQ+ flags were not touched at the “We do not want a criminal state” rally held on May 14, 2022. The rally was held as a response to incidents of violence against well-known opposition politicians, activists, and journalists. Queer activists also joined the demonstrations to show their support. Seeing rainbow flags in the opposition protest was personally, a real godsend: pro-government media focused on the flags in their coverage, trying to discredit the rally organizers. Given the strong anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in local society, rally organizers can easily be labelled as immoral and anti-nationalist when symbols of queer activism are present. As a result, the political message of the demonstration was ignored, and the rainbow flags remained as the subject of discussion.
Protection of LGBTQ+ rights is not in sight
Social movements in the country regularly face the government’s harsh response and the feminist-queer struggle for freedom gets silenced. If the government is interested in protecting all human rights equally, as stated at the PACE and enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, which Azerbaijan is a party to, it should prevent and properly investigate violence against oppressed social groups instead of simply working on the image of “good police” at demonstrations.
Mainstream civil society in Azerbaijan have often excluded LGBTQ+ groups and left them behind. They frequently embrace deep-rooted queer-phobic beliefs and turn a blind eye on the violations committed against LGBTQ+ citizens. However, the 2017 crackdown on transgender and gay citizens broke the homophobic silence to some extent. For the first time in Azerbaijan, human rights lawyers took the initiative to defend detainees in court and take the cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Although police raids against transgender sex workers happened regularly in the past, we only witnessed such support from human rights lawyers in 2017. Later, in 2021, when physical attacks on the LGBTQ+ community increased in the country, some civil society representatives initiated a call to the relevant government bodies to take urgent action. Such developments in the civil society sphere accompany the empowerment of queer activism in the country. However, these examples are rare occasions and occur only when queers are facing serious danger. Civic space remains a narrow one for LGBTIQ+ citizens.
Feminist and queer activism in Azerbaijan tries to serve as a liberation movement for the whole country and raise its voice against discrimination and political persecution in many dimensions. As in the example of the ”We do not want a criminal state” rally held on May 14, 2022, we work not only against queer-phobia and the patriarchy, but also against different social inequalities. However, the queer movement does not yet receive the necessary solidarity from broader civil society.
All this shows how much struggle we must endure in our fight against oppression. In fact, attempts to appease the feminist-queer movements by creating an image of “you won”, even if they are periodically successful, are acts that must be exposed, along with the power that is behind these lies. Azerbaijani political activists and politicians need to understand that there will be no democracy and freedom in the country without equal rights and respect for its minorities.
The content of the article is the sole responsibility of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office - South Caucasus Region