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Background:
Azerbaijan, the host of the 2012 Internet Governance Forum, is a small former Soviet Muslim petrostate. Since 1993, it has been ruled a father and son dictatorship. Media has long been censored, but the Internet has posed a new challenge to the stability of the regime. The Internet is both unpredictable and a prime venue of unsanctioned content. It threatens what post-Soviet authoritarian states value most: power through consistency, and consistency through power.

While most post-Soviet authoritarian states have responded to the Internet by censoring it, Azerbaijan has gone in a different direction. The government purposefully leaves the Internet “open” to make it easy to publicize the horrifying repercussions of even mild dissent. Censoring the Internet would not have this effect. Only by making the Internet open can they reach Internet users in this way.

Azerbaijan’s censorship strategies have challenged assumptions that an ‘‘open Internet’’ and ‘‘transparency’’ increase opportunities for freedom of expression. Many Azerbaijanis view the Internet as a refuge from their political reality, instead of as a means to transform it. Azerbaijani activists compare Facebook to the movie The Matrix, where the fog of apolitical ‘‘real life’’ is lifted and political problems are confronted. The Internet may have little pragmatic effect on the authoritarianism of the Aliyev regime, but it is one of the few places where the Azerbaijani political imagination could be transformed. In the last few years, many activists have taken to social media. Given the complete government control of media, the Internet is the sole source of independent information.

Our previous work on Internet freedom in Azerbaijan focused on the challenges faced by activists and addressed the barriers to political participation, which include fear, cynicism, and a lack of trust. Our new project examines the Internet and politics in Azerbaijan through a gender lens.

Though women’s political participation is often hailed as a source of potential democratization in developing states, in Azerbaijan, there remain significant barriers to participation. However, the Internet could provide an opening for women to engage with democratic participation because it affords privacy, co-location without physically leaving the house, and flexibility. Despite this, in Azerbaijan, because women are not using the Internet, the potential for them to participate in democratization online is hindered. Thus, the lack of access to the Internet amplifies the gender inequality in political participation.

The Internet in Azerbaijani is a man’s world. 73% of daily Internet users in Azerbaijan are men; similarly 72% of Facebook users and 74% of popular social networking site Odnoklassniki in Azerbaijan are men. Two-thirds of Azerbaijanis who do not know what the Internet is are women. While 30% of Azerbaijani men have ever used the Internet, only 17% of women have.

Women in Azerbaijan face not only political prohibitions to Internet use, but also social prohibitions. They are unable to participate fully even in the imaginative space of the Azerbaijani Internet. As such, women are being excluded even from civic discourse and from potential new directions in Azerbaijani politics, which are taking place online.

Project Goals and Objectives:
The goal of the project is to contribute to increased participation of women in the Internet and political life.

Specific project objectives:
1. Examine and analyze the roots of women’s online marginalization and the repercussions of exclusion from the Azerbaijani political scene by examining the obstacles Azerbaijani women face in using the Internet;
2. Provide recommendations to increase women’s Internet use;
3. Increase understanding and awareness among local and international actors of the obstacles women face;
4. Bring attention to gender inequalities in Internet use, and contribute to efforts to make the Internet more accessible to women.

Target Audiences, Beneficiaries and Partner Groups:
The target audiences and beneficiaries of the project are women in Azerbaijan. In addition, individuals, groups and organizations working on Internet freedom issues, gender issues, and political participation will benefit from the results.

Using our extensive networks within Azerbaijan, we will collaborate with organizations to disseminate the information to relevant stakeholders.

Research Methodology:
Using qualitative research methods, the project will explore the barriers to women’s Internet use in Azerbaijan. Anecdotally we have heard young brides being forced to give their Facebook passwords to their husbands. In our analysis of media coverage of Internet in Azerbaijan we have examples of social media use being linked with sex crimes and human trafficking. Moreover, we argue that given the unique Internet freedom environment in Azerbaijan, that there may be more than cultural reasons that keeping women from the Internet. However, without qualitative research, these are merely hypothetical notions.

Recommendations, Dissemination, and Awareness Raising:
Despite increased attention to the use of technology in developing countries such as Azerbaijan and its potential for social change, the gender discrepancy issue has not received enough attention in Internet Freedom research, advocacy, development, and policy circles. The report will highlight “the other 50%.”

The key deliverable of this project will be an online open access report. Also, the results will be shared with local and international organizations, which will contribute to development of more effective programs more inclusive of women. The team also plans to use the data for academic publications and articles in media outlets.

This project will be of interest to the Internet Freedom research, advocacy, development, and policy circles, particularly those concerned with gender issues and digital divides in the developing world. Our findings will also be of interest to the Azerbaijani community as well as citizens of other authoritarian states.

Project Team:
The team includes two female Azerbaijani scholars and activists and two female American academic researchers who combine their diverse expertize and backgrounds to help understand the obstacles for women’s Internet use. Jale Sultanli is a doctoral student and Azerbaijani researcher and activist with experience in international development, gender issues, and conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Arzu Geybullayeva is an Azerbaijani activist and journalist. Katy Pearce and Sarah Kendzior are academics with extensive research experience as well as a track record of influential publications on Azerbaijan and other former Soviet states.

Internet Freedom for whom? An exploratory study of gender inequality in Azerbaijani Internet use

Submitted by: Katy Pearce

Though women’s political participation is often hailed as a source of potential democratization in developing states, in Azerbaijan, there remain significant barriers to participation. However, the Internet could provide an opening for women to engage with democratic participation because it affords privacy, co-location without physically leaving the house, and flexibility. Despite this, in Azerbaijan, because women are not using the Internet, the potential for them to participate in democratization online is hindered. Thus, the lack of access to the Internet amplifies the gender inequality in political participation.

The Internet in Azerbaijani is a man’s world. 73% of daily Internet users in Azerbaijan are men; similarly 72% of Facebook users and 74% of popular social networking site Odnoklassniki in Azerbaijan are men. Two-thirds of Azerbaijanis who do not know what the Internet is are women. While 30% of Azerbaijani men have ever used the Internet, only 17% of women have.

Women in Azerbaijan face not only political prohibitions to Internet use, but also social prohibitions. They are unable to participate fully even in the imaginative space of the Azerbaijani Internet. As such, women are being excluded even from civic discourse and from potential new directions in Azerbaijani politics, which are taking place online.

Our research project will qualitatively explore the barriers to women's Internet use in Azerbaijan. We know that women are not going online but we can only speculate why they are not going online. Anecdotally we have heard young brides being forced to give their Facebook passwords to their new husbands. In our analysis of media coverage of Internet in Azerbaijan we have many examples of social media use being linked with sex crimes and human trafficking. Moreover, we argue that given the unique Internet freedom environment in Azerbaijan where the government leaves the Internet open, that there may be more than cultural reasons for keeping women from the Internet.

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Katy

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