Azerbaijan and Georgia are both located in South Caucasus gaining their independence in 1991 due to the collapse of the USSR. The countries did not only share the same geolocation, but also have almost suffered from the same problems.
Today both countries have similar problems on women’s rights such as early marriages and not having enough women political leaders. The main difference is how the countries battle with these issues. In Georgia, many civil society organizations are fighting with these issues and operating in various parts of the country while Azerbaijani law restricts the movement of civil society organizations, therefore limiting their function mainly to the capital – Baku.
This paper will shortly compare the most important periods for two countries – The First and Second Independence period while looking how representation of women in the Parliaments of these countries varied throughout the periods. The paper will also provide examples from the most active and emancipated women of their eras and show the reasons why two countries were affected differently from the same events.
Azerbaijan first gained its independence on 28 May, 1918 alongside neighboring South Caucasus countries – Georgia and Armenia. Therefore, this day is celebrated as a Republic Day every 28 May in Azerbaijan currently. This republic lasted only for 23 months before it was annihilated by Bolsheviks.
During its reign, the Republic made many progressive changes inside the country to adapt Azerbaijan to the world standards. Among them was the launch of Azerbaijani Parliament, opening of the first university – Baku State University, and many more. In this paper, we will focus on the Republic’s policy on women.
According to the Article 4 of the Independence declaration of the First Republic of Azerbaijan, the Republic provides all the political and civil rights to all citizens regardless of their gender, nationality or class. This was a huge step towards providing women their rights considering that during that time women were excluded from the society and the religious rules were dominant.
If we look at the main three principles in front of the main governing body of the Republic (“Milli Shura”), we can also see that providing equal rights to women as men was always the priority of the Republic.
The major contribution to the women’s rights in this Republic was declaring the right to vote for the women inside the country. This change was brought by the legal norm on the elections for the Parliament of the Republic on 21 July 1919. The chapter II on the “Election right” was clearly stating that both women and men aged 20 till the election day can vote. This was an exceptional milestone as Azerbaijan became one of the first Muslim countries to grant voting rights to the women. However, if we look at the parliament members, there are not any women representatives (The Parliament of Azerbaijan was decided to have 120 representatives while it only consisted of 93 members.). One of the reasons for this was that women refused to apply for executive roles in the Parliament. Moreover, women organizations were not allowed to have candidacy inside the Parliament. However, the passiveness of the women was not only related to it. In my opinion, the women at that time did not fight for their rights like in other parts of the world. They were given these rights and that’s why the rights had been taken for granted. It is also good to highlight that the women in Azerbaijan were not ready for these rights in the first place. There were only a few emancipated women who were active and pursuing the empowerment of the females inside the country. Moreover, as a religious country, to follow the stability and step by step process to achieve the final goal was important. It was not possible to knock down all the religious and traditional beliefs within two years and the executive bodies also planned to proceed slowly. Unfortunately, invasion by the Bolsheviks did not allow the Republic to prosper and to implement many ideas.
We would like to mention that even though there were no women members inside the Parliament, there were some who have worked for the Parliament. Moreover, there were other women who were quite active in this period and contributed a lot for the women’s rights in Azerbaijan. In order not to ignore these women and their efforts, this will be separately discussed.
Since this paper is about the women’s representation in the Parliaments, we would like to start with the women who worked for the First Parliament of Azerbaijan. There was only one female representative inside the Azerbaijani Parliament who is also considered as the first female journalist of Azerbaijan. Her name was Shafiga Afandizade.
Born to a teacher family, she was already involved with reading and learning languages during her childhood. After getting her teaching certificate in 1901, she starts to teach Azerbaijani for the girls in the First Russian-Muslim Girl School in Azerbaijan. However, her community engagement was not limited only to teaching, she was also writing articles to various journals such “Open Word” and “Azerbaijan”. Her topic of articles mainly focused on the education of women and its importance as well as women’s role in the elections. Apart from writing, she was also an assistant to the clerk in the Parliament representing the whole Azerbaijani women.
Nigar Shikhlinskaya was born to a family of famous religious leader – Huseyn Afandi and got her education at Trans Caucasus Institute of Girls. Despite her educational background and high knowledge, her activism did not start until she got married– Aliaga Shikhlinskaya. Nigar accompanies Aliaga during his martial trips and couple ends up in the World War I in the West front in St Petersburg. Here, Nigar was selected as the head of Red Cross Society where she worked between 1914-1918. Due to the popularity of that hospital, it was even called “Shikhlinskaya Hospital”. Moreover, Nigar was also elected as the head of Women Charity Organization in 1914. The couple returns to Baku on 1918 and during the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan Nigar continues her job as the head of Nursing Department in Azerbaijani Red Crescent Society that was created on 10 March 1920. Therefore, Nigar is considered as the first nurse of Azerbaijan. She continued charity work with her husband till her death in 1931.
Khadija Gayibova was born into a renowned family in Tbilisi in 1893 and got her education in St. Nina Girls’ School. Having an innate talent for music, she got her elementary music education at school and also learned to play the piano. After certain time, she moved to Baku with her family where she worked as a musician, teacher and researcher. Her talent soon proved itself and she got popular in Baku. She organized many concerts. However, her story was not a lucky one and she became a target for the USSR regime. She was blamed for being a spy for Turkish government and sentenced to the death during the bloody days of 1930s.
Khadija Alibayova was the creator of the newspaper “Light” as well as the first women editor of Azerbaijan. She was born into a religious family in Tbilisi in 1884 and got her first education Russian girls’ gymnasium. “Light” newspaper was launched in 1911 in a purpose to empower women and also create a space for women to express themselves. The newspaper was functioning with the financial support from Azerbaijani charity people and lasted till April 1912. The newspaper attracted women from various spheres such as doctors, women poets, and teachers. Upon different headings in the newspaper such as “Women are the mothers of the nation”, “A few notes to my sisters” or “About medicine”, women were educated on the disadvantages of early marriages, the importance of education and criticism of ignorance”. During two years, there were 68 editions of the newspaper. It closed its doors to its readers not only because of the lack of the materials and the subscribers, but also the assassination of Mullah Ruhulla Mahammadzade who was protecting the newspaper from radical religious groups.
Azerbaijani women charity organization was first suggested as an idea by Azerbaijani writer – Mirza Jalil Mammadguluzade in 1905 when he and his wife – to – be Hamida Javanshir met in Tbilisi. The idea came into realization in 1906 as “Caucasus Muslim Women Charity Organization” which started in Tbilisi and lasted till 1917. This was to help to raise awareness and education among women with the help of donations and charities. This idea also affected creation of national charity organizations inside the South Caucasus countries. For example, in Azerbaijan the first “Baku Muslim Women Charity Organization” was created in 1914 by Rahila Hajibabayeva. The Organization supported the opening of vocational school for the girls of vulnerable families in 1917 which had 4 grades and 6 vocational departments. The organization also helped the wounded soldiers during the World War I. The regional branch of the organization was created in Lankaran by Maryam Bayramalibayov.
The list can go on and we can see the first women painter, playwright or movie director of Azerbaijan. The purpose of this chapter is to show that even the women of Azerbaijan were not represented as members in the first Parliament of Azerbaijan, they still actively participated in civil and political atmosphere of their country. In this process, there is also undoubted work of the male activists, the charity people and mainly the progressive approaches by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.
Azerbaijan declared its second independence during the fall of the USSR on 18th October, 1991 alongside many members of the USSR. Since its independence, Azerbaijan has seen many challenges due to the conflict with Armenia and also sudden developments because of its natural resources – oil and gas. All of these changes did not affect the fact that women’s issue is one of the most important issues the country has faced and still facing. Azerbaijan Constitution declares that all people are equal in the court. The same article (Article 25) also dictates that women and men have equal rights and the government provides all rights to all citizens regardless of their gender, sex, religion and ethnicity.
Azerbaijan has also joined the UN Conventions on “the Political Rights of Women” and ‘the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – CEDAW” in 1992 and 1995 respectively. To implement the gender policy, State Committee for Women’s Issues was established in 1998. The committee changed its name to “State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan” in 2006.
All of these provide evidences that Azerbaijan is a secular country and trying to create a gender equal space for the representation of women in the society. Let’s look at how these policies work in reality, especially within the context of parliament.
Azerbaijani Parliament consists of 125 MPs. Currently, Parliament functions with 121 MPs.
Since 1991, there have been 6 Parliamentary elections in the Republic of Azerbaijan. If we need to comparatively analyze these elections, we can get the below chart:
The chart clearly points out that there has been a steady increase in the number of Women MPs. Women represent only 18% of the Parliament after the elections of 2020. The head of the Parliament (Milli Majlis) is also a woman – Sahiba Gafarova.
According to the State Statistical Committee, women comprise 50.1 percent of the population in 2021. If we compare the number of the women with their representatives in Parliament, around every 230, 000 women get 1 representative in the Parliament while every 51, 000 men get 1 representative in the Parliament. This small comparison can show how huge the difference is.
To move away from the numbers, we have to look at how these women MPs function in the national level. Most of the time women MPs are not active or they follow the same path as other MPs that have been paved for them. They do not actively engage in the politics nor raise the issues women face. For example, according to a non-governmental organization – Mejlis Info, in 2021 among the top ten speakers of MPs in the Parliament, only one of them was a woman MP – who is also the head of Parliament.
To conclude, it can be said that Azerbaijan theoretically protects the right of the women and supports their representation at all levels. However, most of these women have been artificially appointed to these positions and they are not recognized as the representatives of women at grassroots level.
A lot of things happened in Georgia in 1918, but gaining independence from the Russian empire on the 26th of May was undoubtedly the most important. Following this, conducting the first-ever democratic election of the national legislative body in 1919 was arguably equally important for the future and development of the country.
The constituent assembly was the name of the legislative body of the democratic republic of Georgia. It was elected with a free and direct election held from February 14 to 17. 15 different political parties took part. Finally, the four parties formed the assembly: The Social Democratic Party of Georgia with 109 seats, the National Democratic Party with 8 seats, the Georgian Socialist-Federalist Revolutionary Party with 8 seats and the Socialist-Revolutionary Party of Georgia with 5 seats.
And yes, you can see in the picture that the female is sitting among other members of the assembly. Maybe it is not surprising now, but just a quick reminder that the picture was taken in 1919. During that period not many countries granted women the right to vote, not to mention the right to be elected. One of many reasons why the 1919 elections in Georgia were notable is that women not only voted but also were elected. In total 17 women took part in the election and 5 of them were elected.
Let’s go back to the Ana (Ola) Sologhashvili. She was a member of the Georgian Social Democratic Party and one of the signatories of the Georgian Declaration of Independence in 1918. As an elected member of the assembly, she was a part of the libraries and editorial commission. After establishing the Soviet regime in Georgia, Anna actively participated in the anti-Soviet movement. During the great terror in 1937, she was arrested and executed for “anti-Soviet and anti-collective agriculture propaganda, having chauvinist views, and having ties to Menshevik leader Ramishvili.”
Not in the first picture, but there were four more women democratically elected as members of the assembly. Let’s have a look at the short bios on all of them.
One common pattern is noticeable, while about these women. Their lives were marked with tragedies. Minadora Orjonikidze-Toroshelidze is not a lucky exemption.
She studied medicine at the University of Geneva. After coming back to Georgia she actively participated in the political process. The act of independence includes her signature as well. From 1919 to 1921 she was a member of the founding assembly of Georgia. During the Soviet regime, she worked in the Red Cross and American Relief Administration. Minadora illegally led the women’s organization and was an anti-soviet activist. As result, she was exiled twice in 1924 to Moscow and in 1936 to Kazakhstan. She was only allowed to return to Georgia in 1950. During the great terror, her husband and two children were executed.
Another woman politician from the first Georgian republic was Liza Nakashidze-Bolkvadze.
On 20 March 1917, she was elected chair of the Gurian Women’s Society. As a member of the founding assembly in 1919, she joined the labor committee. After establishing the soviet regime in 1921, she started working in the anti-Bolshevik movement. Because of this she was arrested and exiled twice in 1923 to the Ural and in 1926 to Krasnodar. Finally in 1937, She was charged with counterrevolutionary activity and executed.
Eleonora Ter-Fersegova-Makhviladze was also a member of the Social Democratic Party and an elected member of the Constituent Assembly in 1919. She joined the labor and public health commission. She has lived and worked in Sokhumi since 1905, where Eleonora actively participated in revolutionary protests. She was exiled in 1926. The exact date of her death is unknown. We only know that she came back to Tbilisi in the early 1930s and died soon after.
One more incredible woman from the first republic of Georgia was Kristine (Chito) Sharashidze. From an early age, she was involved in politics. A 15 years old girl organized the pupils’ revolutionary movement in 1904 and was expelled from the St. Nino Womens’ Gymnasium. She graduated from the Gymnasium later. Apart from being a member of the constituent assembly, she was also the junior secretary of the Presidium and a member of the library, editorial and public education commissions. Besides their political activity, she was elected as a member of the “society for spreading literacy among Georgians and was a co-founder of the Georgian University Founding Society. In 1922 she was arrested. Because of an illness, she was released under bail. Later in life, Kristine studied and worked on Georgian manuscripts and researched Georgian fonts. She died in 1973 and left the great amount of knowledge of Georgian manuscripts we have today.
During its operation, the Constituent Assembly held more than 169 ordinary and extraordinary sessions and adopted more than 265 laws and decrees. The laws were oriented toward human rights, citizenship, education, social issues and many more. The assembly approved the first constitution on 21st February 1921. Unfortunately, after 4 days, soviet rule was established in Georgia, but the first constitution was an important and progressive document, which still shows the achievements of the first republic.
Pari-Khanum Sofieva, while, not a member of the Constituent Assembly, still was a very notable figure, who took part in the building of the first democratic republic of Georgia.
She was the first-ever Muslim woman elected as an MP in Georgia. Pari-Khanum was from Karayaz, a region mostly inhabited by Azerbaijani people. She took part in the local elections as an independent candidate, won and became the member of the national assembly, the predecessor of the Constituent Assembly in 1918. On her initiative, the construction of the railway began in the region. During the great terror, 5 of her 8 brothers were executed. Fari-Khanum died in 1953. Her legacy still needs to be researched. In her village, locals remember her as an independent, powerful woman.
Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country endured many challenges including wars and revolutions. Georgian women have always been actively involved in all of these processes, but their participation in parliament was always low. For example, as of 5th March of 2020 With 15% representation of women in the parliament, Georgia ranks 53rd among 56 countries in Europe and Asia. Also, as of 1st February 2019, Georgia was in 138th place among 190 countries in the women’s participation in parliament rankings of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
In recent years, women’s participation in parliaments slowly rises. The graph below shows the results of the last five parliamentary elections.
“New gender quotas will break up the gentlemen’s club that is the Georgian parliament” was the headline of the Eurosianet article in 2020. Under this new law, which was adopted on June 29, 2020, all candidate parties for the parliament will have to award every fourth party-list seat they win to a person “of a different gender.” Also, the one-in-every-four formula will be replaced by one-in-every-three in 2028, which means that 50 seats will be taken by women.
The new law had many critics and supporters in society. It raised many question marks as well. European Georgia party appealed against the new law in the Constitutional Court of Georgia, but the court dismissed a lawsuit.
The political situation in Georgia is intense, the country still faces many challenges especially in this geopolitical situation when there is an ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Regarding women’s participation in politics, soon, we will see the result of the gender quotas reform and be able to evaluate it, and decide what else to do to change the picture.
Before jumping to any comparison between two countries, the authors would like to mention that both countries relatively live in the same contexts and have endured the same challenges due to the fate of the region overall. How these events affected differently is another noticeable point of discussion.
For the first Republics in both countries, it is clear that the atmosphere was almost the same in both countries. The enlightening period of that time helped both countries to make progressive decisions, to provide voting rights to the women and help their emancipation. Even though women were not represented in the Parliament of Azerbaijan like Georgia, it can be agreed that women actively participated in the public life of the country and contributed hugely to the emancipation of the women.
However, the case of second Independence vastly varies. After gaining independence both countries suffered from the same problems in the terms of women’s issues. However, after the rose revolution in 2004 Georgia took another turn by carrying out democratic reforms and getting much closer to the Western countries, while Azerbaijan was slowly tightening its grip on the civil society. Due to this, the representation of women in Azerbaijan is simply cosmetic now while in Georgia there are real actions being taken inside the country like gender quotas and increasing female activities in politics.
Unfortunately, even though Georgia is one step forward Azerbaijan, both countries still have a lot to go and implement certain projects on awareness raising and women political leadership to provide real solutions and to activate women’s active political engagement. Both countries should follow the path of the Council of Europe, which has adopted a new strategy on gender – the “Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2023” and one of its strategic areas is to ensure “balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making”. Only through this way, these countries can achieve the values they have chosen for themselves and can contribute to the development of their nations. For the future of the South Caucasus, no other option.
The blog is produced within the Economic Policy Research Center’s (EPRC) project ACTION -Activating Civil Society Organizations through Training and Inclusive Operational Network. The project is implemented with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
The views expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of EPRC and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.