From Baku with Hope
Activist and politician Narmin Shamilova on the need to fight not just for more visibility of women but also for their presence as voters and elected figures
“My grandmother used to say: “Just go where you see the light and take it with you”, Narmin Shamilova reminisces and it seems like this has been her modus operandi for quite some time.
Shamilova is one of the most active South Caucasus politicians on the topics of feminism, equal rights, and the need for a resilient and healthy media landscape. At the beginning of our Zoom call, we had some audio issues. Half tongue in cheek, half seriously, Narmin says we might be wiretapped. “Not that I’m a very important person”, she adds with a shy smile, though in fact she is.
Born in 1987 in Sumgait, a town near the Caspian Sea, Narmin Shamilova graduated in Russian studies and literature from Baku Slavic University in 2011. Since then, she has gradually been building her profile, first as a journalist and TV presenter, then as an activist, leadership trainer, and politician. “University definitely strengthened my skills”, says Shamilova, who is from a culture where women are perceived mainly as mothers. By using her education and through tireless activity, she has constantly challenged the limitations of her home environment and now – according to her – her family is happy with her breakthroughs. “I managed to convince them that an active life is not something experienced only by the wealthy.”
Azerbaijan and Baku are places with important benchmarks in women's history. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1919 by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920), thus making Azerbaijan the first Muslim-majority country to enfranchise women. Azerbaijan thereby became part of the global movement to recognize women as full-time members of the society. However, the country today still faces numerous issues regarding gender and societal discrimination.
Building on this legacy, Narmin has been active in the complex local political scene since 2011. She was a member of the pro-EU Democratic Reforms Party, established in 2005 by Asim Mollazade.
Through the party, she helped organize the “Azerbaijani Women in the 21st Century” conference in 2014 and, in the same year, she headed a women’s branch of the party and initiated an Intellectual Women’s Club in the capital. In 2018, she led a programme promoting women’s participation in her hometown. In 2019, she was an expert in the “Women Against Radicalization” project and also led a campaign on reproductive health and rights in Baku. Her activity is not limited to Azerbaijan – she organised several events in Tbilisi, Georgia, including workshops on fact-checking, combating propaganda, and women’s participation in the decision-making processes. During the pandemic’s first wave, she collaborated with the West Ukrainian National University on the discussion platform “International Cooperation in the post-pandemic world”.
Now she’s a member of the Movement for Democracy and Prosperity of Azerbaijan, led by Gubad İbadoglu, which will be established as a party later in 2021.
Apart from being a political activist and an independent journalist, she is also the founder of the “Woman in Action” platform which started in 2020 and highlights women’s rights through art, educational events, and mentorship programmes. With this organisation (or network or movement, if you prefer), she wants to emphasize on how a successful woman can be a model for a successful society, and how important it is for women in the countryside to be more interested in politics and positive self-development. “You know how every girl has a dream? We want to make every girl dream and then act. We want young girls to believe they can do everything.”
The goal is for Azeri women to not only be more self-aware and outspoken, but also to be active in the decision-making process, interested in important political processes and global issues, and to increase their diplomatic, political, media, and cultural skills. “Every woman comprises capital for the future”, she says enthusiastically and thinks there’s also room for more mutual support among women. “We need to collaborate and support other women, to show solidarity.”
Narmin notes that although the participation of women in politics is not restricted by law, in practice it’s still easy for their voices to be pushed aside. And the increased presence of women in parliament is not enough, “We need elected women, not just appointed ones.”
For her, the empowerment of women will contribute to both their own development and be a huge benefit for the society. “They will pass on different opportunities and ideas in both their political and public lives”, Narmin says. “Women can be real architects of the future. We have to show that it’s not just men who decide who can be elected – we can also be elected.”
Shamilova is happy that although the word “feminist” is still controversial in Azerbaijan, she still sees a lot of support from men. “Men in Azerbaijan are different already – they are ready to support us if we’re more vocal.”
Is there a generational shift in the way Azeri women think? Narmin takes a few seconds as she sees that topic in a wider context. “Our government is still not doing enough to improve the media landscape”, she says and notes that a person with her beliefs can be subject to slander campaigns. Another important factor is that the local family culture is still marked by a strong patriarchal system and this tradition still has some controversial facets – some women are still marrying at a young age, especially in smaller towns. According to the data hub “Women Count”, in Azerbaijan, 11% of the women aged 20–24 years old had been married or engaged before age 18.
“There’s still this notion that a girl or a woman can do well only by being supported by a man”. Shamilova would like for more girls to prioritize their education instead of creating a family while still in their teenage years.
She finds that there is an enthusiasm and a desire for a different future but young people are still unsure how to blaze their own paths. She has also participated in forums and conferences for the development of young people and mentoring those interested in entering politics. “Young people want to be active but they don’t know how to fight for their rights, they have limited opportunities to express their voices – this is something I found out through these trainings”, Narmin says. “I think a person must first fight for his or her own rights and then for others’, in that way we can all be part of public life. And in that way, you do more for your society and the country. And that is needed because we still have issues with establishing a real democracy. I believe we can change society.”
Narmin thinks she herself is an example and is trying to promote her ideas through her own experience. “What I wanted to do, I did.”