Feminist men in Azerbaijan

What it's like to be a supporter of gender equality in a patriarchal country

Up until recently it was believed in Azerbaijan that it was very inappropriate to say publicly that you hold feminist views. The very definition "feminism" triggered aggression. Even nowadays, many Azerbaijanis tend to think that the words "a feminist woman" are about a woman who has failed to be happy in her personal life, a "spinster", while "feminism" is considered a marginal and malicious movement.

It is all the more surprising that the feminist movement has started to gain momentum in Azerbaijan in recent years, several feminist organisations have been established and even feminist men have appeared who are not ashamed to say it publicly.

We spoke to two feminist men about feminism in Azerbaijan.

"Formerly, I did not know what gender equality was about"

Elvin Jabizade is 28. He is a film director and blogger and engaged to a female journalist. He often ends up having arguments with opponents of feminism on social media and on his blog. However, Elvin supports ideas of gender equality in his personal life as well. He does not divide housework into things that only men do and things that only women do. He says he does not think that cooking or doing the laundry or cleaning are ignominious or dishonorable things for him to do at all. However, that is not how it has always been.

"We are three brothers in our family, we do not have a sister. Therefore, we had to help our mother with her work around the house and to do 'women's' work ever since we were kids. When somebody unexpectedly visited us, I was ashamed of it and tried to quickly hide the cloth or the mop so they did not see me do 'unmanly work'. However, when I familiarised myself with the theory of feminism, I realised that I had not been doing anything shameful or dishonorable. That is exactly the right thing to do," Elvin says. He says he had actually never been against gender equality, but he had simply not known what it was about previously.

In fact, in feminism there are many things that are advantageous for women as well: "For example, if you perceive a woman as someone who is equal to you, that frees you from responsibility for her. You do not feel obligated to take care of her," Elvin believes.

People around Elvin think the same way. All of his friends and acquaintances accept gender equality and therefore none of them is surprised or disturbed by his feminist views.

"I said – my wife will do what I will tell her to do"

Zaur Gurbanli is a lawyer by training. He is married and has a son. Like Elvin, Zaur also perceives feminism not only as an ideology but also as a way of life. He splits all responsibilities regarding housework and looking after their child with his wife. Zaur perceives gender equality as something indisputable, and he believes that the expression "to give women freedom" is erroneous: "A woman is born free. A man cannot give her freedom. All that a man can do is not impede her freedom."

However, Zaur did not become a feminist overnight. He held patriarchal views when he was a teenager: "When I was 13 or 14 and my relatives asked me questions that boys usually get asked in our society – 'Will you act like a man when you grow up and get married, will you have a final say in your house?' – I replied – yes, it will be as I say, my wife will do what I will tell her to do".

Zaur changed his views when he was 18, after he went to university and started studying law. "It was then that I realised that human rights and freedoms that I read about in books did not match our way of thinking or our attitude to women in any way. I realised that there was no such thing as men's rights or women's rights, but that there were human rights," he says.

Like Elvin, Zaur also sees obvious positive sides to being a feminist:

"For example, supporting my family is not on me in my capacity as a man. My wife also works and earns money and I work, too. We have split all household commitments in half. In my view, men often do not accept feminism just to free themselves from housework. They do not want to do the tidying in the house, or to cook or to look after their kid. However, personally for me the tranquillity of my conscience is more important in this regard. So, one night it is my wife who checks on our son and the next night it is me."

Zaur also gives his assurances that people around him are fine about his feminism. However, he acknowledges that outside his circle of friends he may face a completely different attitude:

"You often hear people say things that are completely unfounded scientifically, such as that women's brain is smaller than men's. Or else, people sometimes tell me that I cannot change traditions that are thousands of years old and that it should be done gradually. For example, today we will allow a woman to get a page on Facebook and some time later we will allow her to share her photos on there. I argue with people and try to explain as a lawyer that there can be no talk of giving freedom or permission, those are all unconditional rights of women."

"I opened up a new reality to myself in which men and women are equal."

Zaur and Elvin are not the only feminist men in Azerbaijan. Several years ago Azerbaijani politician Nahid Jafarov publicly said that he was a feminist and that he completely supported gender equality.

True, he says, he has not always been a feminist either: "I grew up in the province. When I was a teenager, I treated my sisters the way that society required. However, when I was studying in Europe I learnt to analyse and critique everything, including our attitude to women, their role in local society and related stereotypes. I sort of opened up a new reality to myself in which men and women are equal."

Nahid argues that after that statement he made he faced with a lack of understanding and a large number of insults. He even lost part of his audience and like-minded people. However, those "losses" do not sadden him because he believes that one should lead those who understand and recognise the rights of all people.

"Our government is anti-feminist, too"

As for the future of feminism in the country, Elvin believes that it should not be a women's movement only: "Problems regarding gender equality can only be resolved when feminism becomes a universal movement. To this end, along with women, it should be joined by men as well."

However, Zaur believes that there is a different solution to the problem of gender inequality: "The thing is that our government is anti-feminist, too. If democratic elections are held, the population, of which 51 per cent are women, will elect for themselves a government that supports feminist views."

With the support of "Mediaset"

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