Ambassador (ret) Richard Hoagland and Sara Huzar
The Greater Caspian Region is home to many remarkable women blazing trails in politics, business, innovation, and security. In recognition of the unique contributions these women make to their countries, the following brief offers an overview of women working in these fields in the Greater Caspian Region.
In general, women in the Greater Caspian Region have legal rights enshrined in national laws, but, in practice, they face challenges such as domestic violence, bride-napping, patriarchal social norms, and wage gaps. Across the board, women are underrepresented in government; no Greater Caspian country has more than a quarter of its legislative seats occupied by women. Similarly, the presence of women in higher education varies widely throughout the region, from 39 percent in Tajikistan to more than 50 percent in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Each country has its own long and diverse history when it comes to women’s rights. For example, late 19th and early 20th Century Russia was home to a thriving feminist movement. Russian women were considered some of the most educated in Europe at the turn of the century. They were among the first women to win the right to vote following the 1917 revolution, and several women held positions of leadership in the new government. Stalin’s control of the Soviet Union, which at the time included many of today’s Greater Caspian states, made women’s rights more complicated. Motherhood and domesticity was a key part of women’s roles, but work outside the home was also necessary to support the state and their families. These two responsibilities shouldered women with a ‘double-burden.’
Afghan women’s history has long been the focus of significant international attention. The Afghanistan of the last several decades is frequently associated with the repressive regime imposed by the Taliban. However, women’s rights in Afghanistan were following much the same progression as the rest of the world earlier in the twentieth century. Afghan women were first eligible to vote in 1919, and the new constitution developed in the 1960s included measures for women’s equality in the political sphere. The Taliban rule in the 1990s rolled back most of these rights, banning women from accessing education, working, and participating in politics. However, today’s Afghanistan is taking serious steps to correct the imbalance. The varied trajectories of these two countries are emblematic of the diversity in women’s rights in the region.
Women in Government:
Many women are making an impact in leadership positions in the states of the Greater Caspian Region, despite unequal representation in government. One example is Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s recently appointed Ambassador to the United States. Ambassador Rahmani became the first woman in history to occupy this post, when she was appointed in December 2018. She had previously broken ground as Afghanistan’s first female ambassador to Indonesia, and its first ambassador of any gender to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Ambassador Rahmani has been navigating a complicated bilateral relationship in her first months on the job, as the U.S. negotiates with the Taliban in the absence of Afghan government officials and prepares to withdraw troops from the embattled country.
Ambassador Rahmani’s role is emblematic of Afghan women’s greater presence in the political sphere in general. Afghanistan passed an affirmative action law in 2005 mandating that at least one fourth of its parliamentary seats be held by women, along with 30 provincial council seats. The results are mixed. Women currently hold 69 seats in the 250-seat parliament, only one more than the quota mandates. However, many of these parliamentarians are in their second or third term, indicating that once women achieve office, they earn the loyalty of their constituents. Representation seems to be having a positive effect on cultural attitudes. In 2004, just prior to the quota’s implementation, 72 percent of male Afghan survey respondents believed that men should determine the candidates for whom women voted. That number was down to 16.9 percent in 2017.
Mehriban Aliyeva is a towering figure in Azerbaijan, having won countless distinguished awards from domestic and international institutions during a long career in the public sphere. She has been particularly active in preserving and promoting Azeri culture, from starting the Friends of Azerbaijani Culture Foundation in 1995, to assuming the Presidency of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, and becoming a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2004. She now serves as First Vice President of Azerbaijan, in addition to being First Lady.
President Salome Zurabishvili became the first woman to hold Georgia’s highest office when she was elected in 2018. A former French diplomat of Georgian descent, Zurabishvili left her post as France’s Ambassador to Georgia to serve as Georgia’s Foreign Minister under Mikheil Saakashvili.
President Zurabishvili is not the only powerful woman in Georgian politics. Tamar Chugoshvili serves as First Vice Speaker of the Georgian Parliament and has used that platform to advocate for the advancement of women’s rights in Georgia. She also chairs the Gender Equality Council of the Parliament of Georgia that focuses on ameliorating issues such as domestic violence against women, discrimination, and sexual abuse, while pushing for greater inclusion of women in political and economic activity.
Unfortunately, President Zurabishvili and Vice Speaker Chugoshvili are outliers in the Georgian government. Only 15 percent of Georgia’s MPs are women, as Chugoshvili herself pointed out in a recent speech. Local governments are actually becoming more male-dominated: 14 percent of their representatives were women in 1998, compared to less than 10 percent in 2014. One of the biggest obstacles, according to local civil society leaders, is that younger women do not see politics as an accessible career goal for themselves. That perception may begin to change with President Zurabishvili occupying the nation’s top political office.
Elvira Nabiullina controls Russia’s financial health as governor of the Central Bank. She assumed her post in 2013, while Russia was facing falling oil prices and sanctions. Her response to impending economic recession earned her international acclaim: she was named 2015’s Central Bank Governor of the Year by Euromoney magazine, and 2016’s Best Central Bank Governor in Europe by The Banker. She has also appeared on Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women.
Valentina Matviyenko assumed the speakership of the Russian Duma’s upper house in 2011, becoming the first woman to hold that position. She has been a pioneer in Russian politics since the 1980s when she became one of the youngest female MPs in the USSR. She later held several Ambassadorships, served as Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, and was governor of St. Petersburg before becoming Speaker. Now, she is the most powerful female politician in Russia as the country’s third highest-ranking official.
However, Speaker Matviyenko’s prominence is not necessarily a positive development for Russia. She was elected Governor of St. Petersburg by two-thirds of the vote, but her approval rating dipped to 35 percent in 2008 and then plummeted even further to 18 percent by the time she left office in 2011. Her ascent to the speakership from this inauspicious position was achieved through a series of political maneuverings on the part of the ruling United Russia party. First, several local deputies were encouraged to resign. Then, Matviyenko obscured which of the newly vacant seats she would run for until after the deadline for opponents to register had passed. Those candidates who did run against her were unqualified to the point that opposition figures accused them of being United Russia plants. As a result, Matviyenko won her election in a landslide, moved to Moscow, and became Speaker. Observers explain the series of events as an attempt to move the controversial figure to a more powerful, but less public, position in a ploy protect the image of United Russia.
Dariga Nazarbayeva has been a figure in Kazakh politics for many years, sometimes as an elected official, but always as the eldest daughter of the nation’s long-time president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Her father stepped down from his position last month, and his successor appointed Nazarbayeva as Parliament speaker the next day. Kazakhstan is holding snap elections this summer to replace Nazarbayev, and his daughter’s appointment created speculation that she may be moving to succeed him.
Nazarbayeva has remained silent on her intentions, and there are certainly reasons she might choose not to run. She went through a highly publicized divorce in the mid-2000s that lead her ex-husband, a powerful businessman and then-Ambassador to Austria, to sharply break with her father President Nazarbayev. Austrian authorities arrested him for kidnapping and murder, and ultimately he died in prison. The salacious case raised accusations of nepotism and corruption against the Nazarbayev family, which would likely resurface in a Nazarbayeva presidential run. Regardless of her plans for the future, Nazarbayeva is already the first woman to hold Kazakhstan’s parliamentary speakership and is now one of the most powerful women in the Greater Caspian Region.
Women in Business and Innovation:
Women are active in the economies of most Greater Caspian countries. However, very few of them rise to positions of leadership. One exciting exception to this rule is Reyhan Jamalova, a high-schooler from Baku who founded the start-up Rainenergy based on her invention that generates electricity from rainwater. Rainenergy was first presented at the Global Summit of Entrepreneurs in 2017. Jamalova was the youngest presenter at the summit at fifteen years old. Since then, she has received praise from American first daughter Ivanka Trump and appeared on the BBC’s list of 100 influential and inspiring women of 2018.
As an entrepreneur, Jamalova is an anomaly. Azeri women in the workforce generally occupy low-wage positions and rarely appear as business owners. Only 26.38 percent of the country’s entrepreneurs are women. However, Jamalova’s early success reflects policy changes in Azerbaijan that have boosted school enrollment rates to nearly 100 percent and considerably decreased gender gaps in primary and secondary education. If Jamalova is any indicator, more Azeri women will take on leading roles in business and innovation as girls’ education continues to improve.
Goga Ashkenazi made her first fortune as founder and CEO of MunaiGaz Engineering Group, a Kazakh oil and gas conglomerate. She later moved into fashion, buying the label Vionnet in 2012. Now, she turns heads as a fixture in British social circles and close friend of Prince Andrew’s, known for opulent parties and an extravagant lifestyle.
Ashkenazi has attained a unique level of success, but Kazakh women, in general, have been increasing their presence in the business sphere. More than 30 percent of leading positions in the financial sector are held by women. Around 43 percent of small and medium-sized entities in Kazakhstan are female-owned. However, Kazakh women, though active in the economy, are often relegated to informal work or areas of low pay, meaning that their wages and access to social programs fall below that of men. Overall, the World Economic Forum ranks Kazakhstan ranks 30th in the world for gender equality.
Women in Afghanistan’s Peace Process
Women’s rights have been an essential theme in the narrative of the Afghan War. Taliban rule stripped the women of Afghanistan of their rights to receive an education, speak publicly, and travel in public without a male guardian. Many of today’s Afghan women worry that a peace deal that includes Taliban participation in government could lead to a regression in women’s rights. One Afghan parliamentarian, Rahima Jami, recalls being beaten for having her feet exposed in a market. In her view, “Afghan women want peace too, but not at any cost.”
These fears are augmented by the fact that, historically, women have been largely absent from peace negotiations with the Taliban. A recent Oxfam report catalogs eleven direct or indirect talks that have occurred between the Taliban and the international community. None of them has included women. Only three of the sixteen overtures made by the Afghan government involved female delegates.
However, women have successfully advocated for greater inclusion in the talks. Fawzia Koofi, an MP, and Hawa Alam Nuristani, a member of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), both attended the dialogue held in Moscow in February. Koofi, a high-profile women’s rights advocate in Afghan politics, gave an impassioned speech about the rights of her daughters and said of the Taliban’s refusal to entertain the notion of a female president: “Why should I beg them to get what I deserve? It is a right that is guaranteed in our constitution.” However, she was stuck in the back of the room at the official press conference. Both she and Nuristani were invited only in their personal capacities, not as representatives of Afghanistan.
Afghan women impact the peace process through non-governmental organizations as well. The Afghan Women’s Network, a prolific umbrella organization for approximately 125 smaller organizations totaling 3,500 members throughout Afghanistan, has played an outsize role. The group released its “Afghan Women Six Point Agenda for Moscow Peace Talks” in early February. They urged peace negotiators to (1) avoid changing the political order; (2) preserve law and order institutions; (3) incorporate meaningful participation from women in the negotiations; (4) include protections for human rights; (5) directly and strongly advocate for women’s rights; (6) ensure that any agreement does not comprise Afghanistan’s connection to the international community. A peaceful Afghanistan is still a distant goal, but including women’s voices through initiatives such as this one will be crucial to ensuring that whatever agreement the sides reach benefits all Afghans.
International researchers have increasingly demonstrated that democracies are stronger when women are equal participants in civil society. Fortunately, more women have been taking positions in the forefront of politics, business and innovation, and conflict resolution in the Greater Caspian Region. Yet, there is still significant progress left to be made, and the U.S. should take steps to encourage more female representation in civil society. The State Department could impose quotas for female participants in American-funded exchange programs. Development agencies could target microloans towards female entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses. Such policies would support the steps that women of the Greater Caspian Region have already taken to define themselves as an important force in politics, business, and security.