Nurturing Civil Society

Women, Civil Society, and NGOs in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 7, Issue 1, November 2004

By Nayereh Tohidi*

Although the public at large still knows little about the meaning, functions, and significance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the “Third Sector” in Azerbaijan is gaining prominence among intellectuals and activists. The recent surge of interest in civil society building, especially in non-partisan and non-governmental organizations, may reflect a new dynamism toward democratization in this country.[1] The widespread misunderstanding and resentment of NGOs, especially on the part of government supporters in 1994-96, seems to be changing as many of the activists and officials, both proponents and opponents of the Heydar Aliyev government, show a relatively good understanding of and positive attitude toward NGOs.

In Azerbaijan, women have been active, often playing leading roles in the Third Sector from very early on, but women-focused NGOs did not form until a few years after the collapse of the USSR when women began to fear that they were losing social status. As pointed out by Valerie Estes, it is necessary to separate the role of women as actors in NGOs from the role of NGOs in addressing women’s and gender issues. Many women work in NGOs that do not address women’s concerns, and many NGOs that are not identified as women’s NGOs deal with problems specific to women or gender issues.[2]

Why have women in Azerbaijan, as in other post-Soviet states, been so active in NGOs?[3] According to Irada Kulieva, one of the founders of Gulyum (my flower), aimed at strengthening environmental education for preschool children throughout Azerbaijan,

The Third Sector suits women, because NGOs are busy addressing many of the social problems that women have been left to address for years—disabilities, health, children’s issues and education.[4]

There are more reasons behind women’s activism in NGOs. As argued by Estes, in the face of the exclusion of women “from the power centers of government and big business, NGOs offer women one of the few avenues currently available to them to promote broad-scale socioeconomic change, not just change connected with women’s issues.”[5] Estes also suggests that, compared to the traditional positions of power, NGOs are new and relatively devoid of corruption and hence less liable to damage the reputation of women and their families. Additionally, one should consider that Azerbaijani women (compared to men) have better communication skills, foreign language proficiency, and stronger informal networking abilities. This can facilitate their contacts with foreign donors as well as grant writing and resource mobilization.[6]

The main barriers to the growth of NGOs continue to be related to economic hardships and lack of resources and philanthropic institutions, exacerbated by the fact that the issues concerning Karabagh, the site of Armenian invasion, and refugees from there draw away most of the available resources. Despite some improvements in the NGO-government relations and communication, the legal and governmental barriers, long waits for registration, and lack of transparency continue to interfere with the proper and free function of NGOs. Due to scarcity of resources, NGO activism (for both men and women) is confined primarily to the capital. There are very few NGOs addressing gender issues in the provinces.

Generally, the initially fierce competition to establish contacts with donors and secure grants is slowly giving way to a realization of the necessity of cooperation among NGOs. By 2001, about ten coalitions of NGOs had emerged. One of the largest and most active NGO coalitions is the National NGO Forum (Milli QHT Forumu). Formed in 1998, the NGO Forum brings together and coordinates 262 NGOs, including a number of women’s NGOs, and has recently established branches in five regions. It is encouraging to see that one of the Forum’s main sectors of activity is gender (the others being human rights, development, ecology, peace, and democracy). Women make up 40 percent of the administrative body (6 out of 15), 37.5 percent of working staff, and 10 percent of experts in the Forum.[7] The member organizations hold monthly meetings to share their concerns, experiences, and ideas. It was due to such coordination and cooperation that NGOs were able to bring more serious pressure on the government for legislative reforms.[8]

Currently, women’s NGOs are of various types. Although these NGOs usually claim political independence, a number of them are directly or indirectly active in partisan politics as well as women’s rights issues. For instance, the Azerbaijan Women’s Majlis (Sevil) claims to be the largest women’s association, with chapters or representatives in 72 regions of Azerbaijan, and is led by the President’s daughter Sevil Aliyeva. The D. Alieva Society for the Protection of Women’s Rights initially emerged as the women’s wing of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan and up to 1995 engaged actively in nationalist politics with no clear gender perspective. However, as stated by its Chair, Navella Jafarova, in recent years, this organization has become “more inclusive, less militant, and more concerned with and active on women’s and gender issues.”

We practice what Ibrahimbeyova [Gender in Development coordinator] preaches and theorizes. For example, after a seminar in a village in Khachmaz region, we taught 40 women how to punish a man in that village who was battering his wife. We have been the first to address the issues concerning prostitution and trafficking in women. We teach women and men how to use contraceptives.[9]

One of the positive recent developments concerning women’s NGOs has to do with the establishment of a Gender in Development (GID) unit in Azerbaijan in 1997 under the auspices of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Under the directorship of Rena Ibrahimbeyova, a capable, gender-conscious Azerbaijani woman with training in psychology, this Center has embarked on a series of impressive and unprecedented educational and capacity-building programs among women. Among the innovative and timely activities of the GID in Baku are organizing national and regional conferences on issues such as “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights” and “Women in Conflict Resolution”; disseminating brochures on such taboo issues as violence, rape, and sexual harassment[10]; and producing educational and empowering TV programs dealing with gender relations.[11]

The growing influence of transnational feminist networks, gender projects of United Nations agencies such as UNICEF and UNDP, UN-sponsored regional and world conferences on women, and the activities of some gender-sensitive international foundations such as the environmental group ISAR, the Soros Open Society Foundation, and the National Democratic Institute have combined with the urgency of Azerbaijani women’s needs for information, resources, and gender education. Despite some undesirable consequences of intervention by foreign donor agencies in post-Soviet Azerbaijan, the interplay between domestic and international factors has contributed to an incremental shift toward gender sensitivity in the views, orientations, and goals of the women’s NGOs.

Unfortunately, however, before such initiatives can have a wider impact in society, projects such as GID are terminated due to lack of funding. This underlies a serious concern over the sustainability of NGOs, since donations from international sources make up over 95 percent of financial sources of support for most NGOs. “Donors give birth to the child and leave it out there with no support to grow,” according to Azer Allakhverov.

Thanks to the efforts of GID (led by Ibrahimbeyova), women’s NGOs such as the Center for Women and Development (led by Elmira Suleymanova) and the D. Alieva Society (led by Navella Jafarova), as well as women in the government such as Fatma Abdollahzadeh and Zahra Quliyeva (head of the State Committee on Women’s Issues), Azerbaijan has joined the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and has officially adhered to several UN conventions concerning human rights and women’s rights. The success or sincerity of Azerbaijan’s authorities in the implementation of these conventions, however, remains to be seen. Since the creation of the above-mentioned state committees and especially since preparation for the Beijing conference began, a renewed sense of enthusiasm has emerged among women activists, especially those close to the government. Although still limited to a small number of elite women and some political activists, this has set in motion a more gender-focused, systematic, and sustained engagement of women’s groups, which may pave the way for the emergence of a more popular and grassroots women’s movement in the future.

Another encouraging development is increased cooperation between Armenian and Azerbaijani NGOs. Women activists and NGOs such as the Society of Azerbaijani Women for Peace and Democracy in the Caucasus (directed by Rena Safaralieva) have been playing an active  role in peacemaking. Arzu Abdullayeva, the head of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly of Azerbaijan and a leading member of the Social Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, has been harshly criticized by Azeri ultranationalists for her increasingly bold peace initiatives. With the help of international donors, a number of Azeri, Armenian, and Georgian women have paved the way toward conflict management and peace building by holding meetings and establishing dialogue between Armenian and Azerbaijani NGOs (also including Georgian NGOs) in Baku, Yerevan, and Tbilisi.[12]

The State Committee on Women, created in 1998, is supposed to “oversee and coordinate” all programs and activities, including those of the women’s NGOs dealing with women’s status in Azerbaijan. The extent of this oversight is not clear yet, nor is its relationship with women’s NGOs. The independence of NGOs from state control, however, is necessary for the emergence of civil society. On the other hand, certain aspects of the NGO movement, such as total dependency on foreign donors and orientation of issues and projects toward grant-giving external/foreign donors rather than internal/domestic needs and priorities, may increase the potential for bureaucratization, corruption, and homogenization of women’s activism similar to that seen in the Soviet Union and other authoritarian regimes. Such a state-centered or foreign-dominated or grant-dependent “feminism” is bound to diminish women’s grassroots initiatives and overshadow diversity and genuine agencies for change toward real needs, equality and democracy.

Although the overall impact of the post-Soviet transition on women’s status, their economic and social rights has been negative so far, many women are taking advantage of recently introduced civil rights and new opportunities. Alarmed by the retrogressive gender agenda of the post-Soviet nationalist, conservative, and Islamist forces, many women have begun to redefine the gender parameters of national independence, the market economy, and democracy. Through their political and civic activism, many women, especially those with higher education, professional experience, and language skills, are taking part in civil society-building and democratization. They are fighting unemployment, political exclusion, and social marginalization by asserting their presence in both formal politics and the informal civic arena, especially NGOs.

Women’s social activism, initially dominated by charity and promotion of nationalism, is gradually gaining gender-consciousness. Azerbaijani women currently avoid identifying themselves with feminism, especially “Western feminism,” which is associated in their minds with hostility to men and the family. But many aspects of their social activism would serve a long-term feminist strategy.[13] Activities indicative of a growing gender-sensitivity in women’s civic activism in Azerbaijan include women’s fights against unemployment and poverty, and more recently against domestic violence, sex discrimination, regressive attempts to reverse egalitarian family law, and trafficking in women, as well as their support for implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and support for promotion of women’s representation in the parliament and political parties.

Regardless of whether they characterize themselves as feminist, many women have begun to assert their agency by incorporating a gender-conscious approach in a struggle toward gender-sensitive socioeconomic development and democratization. The activism of many may evolve into a “national feminism”[14] containing a nationalist undertone, or grow in line with “difference” feminism as observed in Latin America,[15] but it seems unlikely that well-educated, professional and economically active Azerbaijani women will passively submit to a loss of their civil and human rights.


* Nayereh Tohidi is an associate professor of women’s studies at California State University, Northridge, and the coeditor of Globalization, Gender, and Religion: The Politics of Women’s Rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Post-Soviet Women Encountering Transition: Nation-Building, Economic Survival, and Civic Activism, edited by Kathleen Kuehnast and Carol Nechemias, published jointly by Johns Hopkins University Press and the Woodrow Wilson Center Press. Copyright 2004 by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The author wishes to thank Azerbaijani women activists whose generous cooperation made this research possible. This article was in part supported by the Title VIII-sponsored grant through the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, D.C.

[1] For an informative overview of NGOs in Azerbaijan, see Allakhverano, Azer, “The Third Sector in Azerbaijan: Theory and Practice,” and “The Report on the Development of the Third Sector in Azerbaijan (2000)” by Society for Humanitarian Research, Baku, August 22, 2001.

[2] Estes, V. “Lessons in Transition: Gender Issues in Civil Society Development” in Give & Take (A Journal in Civil Society in Eurasia), 3: 2, Summer, 2000, pp. 5-6.

[3] As of 2001, about 1,500 officially registered and nearly 1,000 unregistered public organizations exist in Azerbaijan. However, only about 200 of them are actually active. Of these 200 active NGOs, 37 are women-focused groups and 30 are aimed at youth. The most active and strongest NGOs (numbering 50-60) are concerned with Karabagh refugees and internally displaced persons, health and children’s issues, human rights and women’s rights, and environmental and ecology issues.

[4] See Bickley, Charmaine, “Gyulum: Azeri College Friends Found NGO, Find New Opportunities” in Give & Take 3: 2, Summer, 2000, p. 8.

[5] Estes, Ibid.

[6] Higher rates of female students in philology and foreign languages has become a special asset for women in transitional context.

[7] Figures calculated based on the information in the report, 2 Illik Hesabat: Iyun 1999-May 2001, Milli QHT Forumu, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2001, pp. 9-11.

[8] Coalition building among women’s NGOs has been much slower, however, and it has been only through the State Committee on Women’s Issues and international agencies such as the UN-supported GID, as well as ISAR and Soros Open Society Foundation, that women’s groups have established some degree of contact and cooperation. A related obstacle is the strength of the cult of personality. Many of the NGOs, including women’s NGOs, are formed around a strong person rather than a vision, program, and plan of action. Personality and ego friction often limit the potential for solidarity, collaboration, and coalition building.

[9] Author’s interview, Baku, 7 August 2001.

[10] See the “Azerbaycanda Qadinlarin Veziyyeti” in the Me’lumat Bulleteni no. 1, part 1 (January 1-15, 1999), published by the Center for Defense of Human Rights in Azerbaijan.

[11] See “The GID Unit in Azerbaijan: A Growing Experience,” Baku, February 1998.

[12] As a member of the Advisory Committee for the “Armenian-Azerbaijani Peace Initiative,” I have been a participant observer to at least one of these on-going efforts that began in 1993 with the support of the Stanford Center for Conflict & Negotiation and the Foundation for Global Community.

[13] Molyneux, Maxine correctly distinguishes between women’s strategic (anti-patriarchal) and practical (welfare and immediate) interests in her “Mobilization without Emancipation? Women’s Interests, the State and Revolution in Nicaragua,” Feminist Studies, 11:2, 1985.

[14] See West, Lois A. (ed.), Feminist Nationalism (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[15] Based on an “ethic of care” as opposed to an “ethic of rights” proposed by scholars such as Carol Gilligan, “difference feminism” suggests that “women have something unique to bring to the content and practices of political life.” See Jaquette, Jane, and Sharon Wolchik (Eds.), Women and Democracy: Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 26.