“I want to die just once”

In Azerbaijan, gender stereotypes remain deeply rooted and limit women's life choices on many levels – not least psychologically. We met women’s rights activist Shahla Ismayil at the Swedish Forum for Human Rights in Stockholm.

Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Johanna Lingaas Türk
Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Johanna Lingaas Türk

Women are prevented from making independent decisions about their own education, marriage or work life, but are expected to bear the sole responsibility for the household. And as if being a woman in the country was not hard enough, the regime now continues to tighten its grip on civil society. As a result, the situation for women’s rights activists has deteriorated rapidly.

“I’ve been working with human rights for 20 years. It hasn’t gotten any easier,” says Shahla Ismayil, chair of the Azerbaijani women’s rights organisation WARD.

Shrinking space for women’s rights activists

In 2014, Azerbaijan’s government introduced legislation that first restricted and then gradually all but banned foreign funding for civil society. Since then, several government critics, human rights activists and members of the press have been arrested and convicted in a sweeping crackdown. Civil society organisations are left with the choice of either cooperating with the regime, or drowning in administrative requirements.

“Threats from the government never come openly, in the form of political pressure. Instead, officials complain about errors in your papers, about the way you’re doing activities. Or they punish members of your family” explains Ismayil.

Shahla Ismayil’s fight for women’s empowerment and equal participation in Azerbaijan is recognised internationally. She is a founding member of WARD and clearly recalls the moment, 16 years ago, when she decided to dedicate her life to defending women’s rights.

Working for gender equality in Azerbaijan

WARD, Women’s Association for Rational Development, is situated in the capital of Baku. The organisation works to increase women’s participation in political decision-making and combat violence against women. It has created Azerbaijan’s first “women’s parliament”, which leverages Azerbaijan’s international commitmens to advance gender equality and improve life for all women in the country.

WARD’s efforts are sorely needed: these days, the country’s restrictions on political rights and freedoms are causing many citizens to emigrate from Azerbaijan. As a women’s rights activist, this disheartens Shahla Ismayil. She believes the only way forward is to stay and continue the fight for gender equality through engagement and active citizenship.

“It’s impossible to experience human rights in a country that does not have a strong civil society,” says Shahla Ismayil, who compares this to trying to fly with only one wing.

“The scared die a little every day”

Ismayil passionately continues her work – despite the threats and the obstacles she faces every step of the way. When asked about her personal safety, she answers that she tries not to think about it.

“If you do, you start to live in fear. The scared die a little every day, the brave only once. I want to die just once.”

18 June 2019