A member of parliament in Azerbaijan has proposed ditching the International Women's Day holiday on March 8 and replacing it with a celebration of the April 28 birthday of President Ilham Aliyev's late mother. The proposed change is stoking fresh debate about the Aliyev family's place in Azerbaijani society.
Elmira Akhundova, a pro-government, non-party-aligned MP from the southern region of Masalli, called for the change during a February 2 session of parliament. Akhundova is also the author of a recently published biography of the late president, Heydar Aliyev, the father of the incumbent leader.
"Azerbaijan's people respectfully remember Zarifa Aliyeva, the faithful spouse of national leader Heydar Aliyev. The celebration of her birthday as a Mother's Day could demonstrate national love for Zarifa khanum," Akhundova said, using the traditional Azeri form of address for a noblewoman.
By comparison, Akhundova continued, International Women's Day, a holiday that was heavily promoted during the Soviet era, has "lost its significance." The commemoration, she argued, should be abolished.
Many Azerbaijani women do not agree with Akhundova's assessment. "I will not celebrate this [Mother's Day] holiday on principle, since they're just licking the president's boots with this proposal," declared Nigar Chingizgizi, a young Baku teacher. "We will celebrate March 8 as usual." Members of parliament, she added, should spend time "solving other issues that are more important for society."
President Aliyev has not yet commented publicly on the issue. Government officials and other members of parliament have also not spoken publicly about the proposed holiday switch.
While some women note that they have no objections to Zarifa Aliyeva, an ophthalmologist who died in 1985, they emphasize that they see the Mother's Day proposal as an attempt to secure favor from the president in a parliamentary election year.
The proposal's sponsor, 56-year-old Akhundova, is a former reporter for Literaturnaya Gazeta and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who served as a member of Azerbaijan's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe from 2006-2007. Currently, she is a member of the presidential Commission on Pardoning Issues, which advises on prisoner pardons. In 2003, she was issued a Shohrat (Glory) medal, one of Azerbaijan's highest awards, for "the development of popular writing."
Much of her prominence is linked to her 2009 multi-volume work on the life of Heydar Aliyev, whose image, arguably, ranks as Azerbaijan's supreme national symbol. The elder Aliyev, who served as president from 1993 to 2003, is revered for his role in rebuilding Azerbaijan after the country endured a period of tumult during the early- and mid-1990s.
Paying respects to the memory of Aliyev and his wife has become de rigueur for foreign delegations, which routinely lay a wreath on President Aliyev's tomb, along with flowers on Zarifa Aliyeva's grave.
Parks and schools named after the presidential couple have also been opened in almost every district of the country. In 2008, a ferry named after Zarifa Aliyeva started sailing between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, attend all opening ceremonies.
Independent analyst Leyla Aliyeva (no relation to the president's family) argues that the profusion of Aliyev memorials underlines the difficulties of Azerbaijan's democratic development. "In a secular, democratic country, private things must be separated from the public realm," she said. "In a traditional society such as Azerbaijan, where a personality cult exists, such a link is deepening."
Akhundova could not be reached for further comment. Much of the criticism of the parliamentarian's proposal eschews the political factor to focus solely on the loss of a feel-good holiday when women receive flowers, candy and expressions of goodwill from male friends, family and colleagues.
A Mother's Day would deny many women such tokens of respect since "not every woman is a mother," argued 52-year-old doctor Farida Hadjiyev. "It would be great to have one more holiday in the calendar, but it does not mean that Women's Day should be canceled."
Mira Miradova is a freelance reporter based in Baku.