Feminist activists in Azerbaijan have sent a blow-up doll to a government official who said that the proper place for women was either “in the grave or in the kitchen”.
Comments made by transport ministry spokesman Namik Hasanov to the website www.publika.az provoked fury among women’s rights defenders across the country.
“A woman is good only in the grave or in the kitchen,” he told. “A woman’s place is only in the kitchen. Even in the 22nd century, I’d like to see women in the kitchen.”
Hasanov’s comment was particularly ill-timed as it came just before International Women’s Day on March 8.
To formulate a response, a Facebook group was set up to discuss possible options. Members collected 200 manats, about 260 US dollars, to buy an inflatable sex toy abroad, since such things are not available in local shops.
The group waited until just before Armed Forces Day on June 26 – which they described as “Man’s Day”– to send the official their gift.
“In making his comment, Hasanov gave us women a present for the women’s holiday, so we tried to reply in kind,” said Ulviya Mamedova, one of the activists behind the plan. “We aren’t trying to offend anyone. We just want Namik Hasanov to respect women’s rights.”
While the sex toy was meant as a light-hearted stunt, campaigner say sexist stereotypes remain a serious problem in Azerbaijan.
At a June 20 press conference, the campaigners publicised an open letter addressed to Hasanov.
“We’re sending you this technological innovation just in case you aren’t already aware of it. We hope our present will look good in your kitchen, or in a grave somewhere,” the letter said.
According to Mamedova, the letter “reminded Namik Hasanov of the international conventions to which Azerbaijan has signed up, and the obligations our country has assumed. We also remind him of the laws of the land, of which he may be unaware.”
Interviewed later by RFE/RL, Hasanov said he never intended to cause offense, but then went on to dig himself deeper.
“My comments about women were taken out of context. In actual fact, I just think women look best in the kitchen,” he said. “I don’t want a woman to destroy her family for the sake of her work or career. I’m not saying women shouldn’t work – it’s just that I think that if women spend a lot of time working, it will destroy their families.”
Matanat Azizova, head of the Women’s Crisis Centre, said Hasanov’s comments were particularly worrying as they set the tone for other officials.
“When the journalists interviewed Namik, they were speaking to him as a representative of the state,” she said, describing his comments as “as a kind of instruction to all state employees on how they should treat women”.
Azizova said that on previously occasions, she had complained that women’s rights were deteriorating, only for officials to accuse her of making a fuss in order to win grants from foreign donors.
“So we shut up,” she said. “But now Namik has shown what the true situation is, and if any government agency ever tries to insist that everything’s fine again, we’ll know they are lying.”
The casual denigration of women translates into systemic discrimination. In the Global Gender Gap survey for 2012, produced by the World Economic Forum as a way of ranking countries on a range of economic, political, educational and health measures of sexual equality, Azerbaijan came in 99th out of 135 countries – below every other former Soviet state included on the listing.
Lawyer Asiman Nasirli, who was part of the campaign, argues that the persistence of chauvinist attitudes at the higher levels of government is closely connected with the lack of women in senior positions.
“If you compare us with European countries, there are basically no women among senior officials, and there isn’t a single female minister,” she said.
Magerram Zeynalov contributes to the website www.civil-forum.az.