What is to be done when society and even the police are not on your side and the laws do not help? For the time being, it is women who can protect themselves from a hate-based killing, experts believe.
Last October, the mother of three children, Leyla Abdullayeva, was killed in the street in Baku by her husband, who stabbed her 20 times. This happened before the eyes of their children and numerous witnesses. In the same month, Javahir Akbarova, 36, died after her husband hit her on the head with a dumbbell. A few years ago, 11th-grade student, Aytaj Babayeva, 17, was killed by her ex-boyfriend, who stabbed her eight times in the street because she "did not reciprocate his love".
According to official statistics, women constituted 74.9 percent of victims of crimes related to domestic violence in Azerbaijan in 2018.
A total of 12 women were killed in this country last October alone. Six of them were killed before the eyes of their own children.
These are only official figures. These are only those cases about which information has reached the public. The real picture is even more distressing, experts say.
"Not every case reaches the media, and crime reports released by the Interior Ministry do not mention every case, unfortunately," says Shahla Ismayil, the head of the Women's Society for Rational Development.
However, nobody in Azerbaijan talks about femicide, that is, hate-based killings of women. And few people know what femicide is.
The term "femicide" is most often defined as "gender-based killings of women and girls". It has become ubiquitous over the past 50 years. The innovator of the word is Diana Russell, a feminist writer, who defines it as "the killing of women by men because they are women". It was her who politicized the term "femicide" and achieved fundamental legal changes in many countries where laws on femicide were passed.
At present, there is also a pan-European coalition to combat femicide, which works with statistics from 20 countries. There are numerous organizations in the United States, Canada, and Latin America that study and work to eradicate femicide. Laws on violence against women that have been adopted in the United States and developed European countries do not always contain the word "femicide", but they are quite harsh and allow women to protect themselves from violence at any level.
Shahla Ismayil says that although femicide is quite common in Azerbaijan, people are not informed about it at all.
"At best, people in socio-political circles, and organizations dealing with this issue have an idea about what femicide is, and maybe even they do not know all about it. In 2017, we prepared a report on femicides in Azerbaijan, and it was then that we came to understand that femicide is a concept that Azerbaijanis do not know of at all," Shahla Ismayil says.
During a poll conducted by Meydan TV correspondents in the streets of Baku, none of the respondents was able to answer this question – what is femicide? Many suggested that the word sounded more like the name of a medicine.
Azerbaijan ranks 80th on the UN Global Database on Violence Against Women. The calculations are based on cases of physical or sexual violence in the country (committed by partners) against women aged 15 and older.
A total of 91 women were killed in Azerbaijan in 2010, 120 in 2011, 96 in 2012, 101 in 2013, 144 in 2014, 99 in 2015, and 110 in 2016.
Over these years, the percentage of killings of women committed out of domestic violence has been at least 75 percent, says a report published by the Women's Society for Rational Development in 2017.
Practice shows that it is most often women who have suffered violence from their husbands, partners, fathers, or brothers for years that fall victim to femicide.
"I do not think that the killing of a woman in a family comes as a result of a quick decision and that it could not be foretold," gender activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva says. "I believe that this is the last point that was preceded by physical and psychological violence, and when at the last moment the victim cannot save herself, it ends with the killing."
Flora Mahmudova, the mother of slain Leyla Mammadova, has told Meydan TV that Flora Mahmudova suffered constant moral pressure from her husband in the course of the seven years that she was married.
"When he took my daughter to the doctor for an examination, he put a book in her hands, so that she hid her face behind the book. She had to walk with her head down all the time. My daughter did all this, she agreed to everything," the woman says.
Gender activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva says that Azerbaijani women themselves are often not aware that violence is a bad thing, because they have been taught something completely different since their childhood years:
"For example, there is an Azerbaijani proverb that says that when one person is fire, the other person must be water. And it is always the woman who has to play the role of water. Women have always been taught to keep silent in response to violence and to be humble and obedient."
The first thing one needs to understand, Gulnara Mehdiyeva says, is that something bad is actually happening. And then the woman should think how she can resist it. Sometimes, a woman can prevent her own killing by talking about violence. However, most often they prefer to be silent, because for most of Azerbaijani society, it is the woman that is the "culprit" of her own killing.
"Apparently, she did something, she annoyed the man, apparently, she committed some kind of misconduct, she talked to someone or met with someone and angered the man. These are the kinds of weird excuses for killings of women," Gulnara Mehdiyeva says. These are the kinds of excuses that not only society, but also the law-enforcement agencies voice.
Lawyer Samira Agayeva believes that these kinds of incidents occur in Azerbaijan mainly "because of impunity".
"That is why the number of these killings grows by the year," she says.
Gulnara Mehdiyeva says that in all cases of violence against women that she has observed, instead of punishing the guilty person police acted as a "peacemaker", that is, they turned a blind eye to all complaints made by a woman and urged her to "make peace with her husband".
"Police believe that violence against a woman in a family is not a reason for divorce or for the punishment of a person who resorted to violence," Gulnara Mehdiyeva says. "To justify the violence, it is enough for the police that the man is the husband, father or another close person. As a result, the woman has to return to the person who committed violence against her."
The activist believes that in Azerbaijan one needs to have a lot of moral, physical and financial strength to see the matter through and get the culprit punished, and not every woman has the strength.
Lawyer Samira Agayeva says that even if women in Azerbaijan do turn to the police, they retract their complaints under pressure from their close relatives or friends and even from police.
And even after filing for divorce and receiving it, a woman runs the risk of being killed.
Leyla Abdullayeva's mother Flora Mahmudova told Meydan TV that the reason her son-in-law killed her daughter was because Leyla had filed for divorce. She said Leyla had tried several times to file for divorce, but did not see the matter through, because the husband said that if she did it, he would kill her and her relatives. "That is why she was afraid of getting divorced," Flora says. However, when the daughter brought herself to do it, the husband delivered on his promise.
On 1 February this year, yet another female resident of Baku, Dilara Zeynalova, 37, suffered multiple stab wounds from her ex-husband Jeyhun Bahmanov, whom she had divorced two years earlier. She was admitted to intensive care in a very serious condition. A criminal case was launched against her ex-husband for "attempted murder" and a ruling was passed to arrest him for four months.
Dilara's relatives say that her husband had often humiliated her during their marriage. Finally, in 2018, she decided to put an end to it and get divorced. However, she did not manage to get rid of threats from her husband. The relatives say that Dilara complained to the police, but police did not look into her complaint.
Fatima Gambarova, 16, was killed on 29 January 2020 in the village of Khoshchobanli in Masalli District two weeks after her wedding.
The 16-year-old girl's husband was arrested and admitted to committing the crime. A joint statement released by the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office said that he had strangled Fatima with his hands during a family conflict.
The marriage age in Azerbaijan is 18. However, early marriage is quite common, especially in remote areas of the country. It is such a common thing that it has become a norm in many regions and local people do not consider it to be "early". Since people under the age of 18 cannot enter into legal marriage, their families organize a wedding celebration for them in line with a "folk custom", without their marriage being registered, or arrange a religious marriage ceremony.
It is women who were married off when they were underage that very often fall victim to femicide. They are, perhaps, the most vulnerable group. These women suffer physical and moral pressure from their husbands for years and almost never receive support from close relatives. And they do not have sufficient knowledge about how they can defend themselves or what the state should do for them in this case.
"We have come across something like this so many times – underage girls are married off, something terrible happens, but no one bears responsibility for it – neither the executive authorities, nor the parents, or any other bodies," lawyer Samira Agayeva says. "There is no agency to work with families regarding such issues at all."
Gender activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva says that killings of women were not at all a matter of public concern just two to three years ago.
She says, "nobody thinks or talks about it, nor does anyone find it necessary to talk about it".
The gender activist, however, believes that the reason behind the topic becoming important in recent months is the strengthening of the women's movement in Azerbaijan.
Experts and public activists consider 2019 the year of the highest activity of the women's movement in Azerbaijan.
It is also remembered for marches on International Women's Day on 8 March and on 20 October, which were dedicated to combating violence against women.
The 20 October protest was organized in the wake of killings of women that had become frequent. For the first time, a group consisting of women, and men, even if few, marched through central Baku with slogans and placards in defence of women's rights. They chanted the slogans "Do not tolerate violence" and "Do not be silent about violence". The protesters said in a statement that the march was held in protest "against killings of women that have become frequent in recent days, and domestic, physical, and psychological violence and pressure against women".
Samira Agayeva believes that the existing legislative framework in Azerbaijan is sufficient to prevent femicide and domestic violence, but the application of these laws in practice leaves much to be desired.
"If all laws in Azerbaijan worked and were brought in line with international conventions, killings of women could certainly be prevented. It's just that these laws should work," the lawyer says.
Azerbaijan has been a member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) since 1995. In accordance with commitments it undertook, Azerbaijan reports to this body on gender-based violence every four years. The last hearing on Azerbaijan took place on 18 February 2015. A package document of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was adopted, titled "Concluding recommendations and observations on Azerbaijan". One of the recommendations in the document was about joining the Istanbul Convention.
The 20 October protesters also demanded that Azerbaijan sign the "Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence", known as the Istanbul Convention.
As soon as 21 October, the Azerbaijani Committee for Family, Women and Children's Problems said that it had submitted to the government a package of proposals in connection with the signing of the Istanbul Convention.
"If Azerbaijan ratifies the Istanbul convention, women will be able to talk about their problems and claim their rights in the international arena," Samira Agayeva says.
The Azerbaijani government, however, is in no hurry to ratify the convention, although it does declare that it is "very interested" in signing it.
The document, known as the Istanbul Convention, was signed in 2011 in Turkey. Thirty-four of the 47 EU countries have already ratified the document. Only Russia and Azerbaijan have not signed it, and Bulgaria has found that the convention is not in line with its constitution.
In a situation where the larger society is silent and laws do not offer protection, it is women that can save themselves.
"I would say that, first of all, women themselves should change their attitude to this issue," Shahla Ismayil says. "They should educate themselves, they must receive education, despite absolutely all obstacles, because without education they will not be able to stand firmly on their feet, nor will they be able to resist violence, be it in their family, at their workplace, or in society."
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