As a woman, an advocate for women, and a mother to a little girl, I am constantly looking for strong role models that I can point to, and remind myself and others of the potential for greatness and kindness that exists in the world.
Women leaders are a powerful and important part of our society in Azerbaijan, and are integral to what our country is all about. They can provide leadership and a positive role model that is consistent and compassionate in troubling times. This personal passion and ability to reflect what is good in all of us, is something I have written about, detailing many specific examples of where Azerbaijani women have broken leadership boundaries. I smile and think of how the majority-Muslim Azerbaijan granted women the right to vote in 1919, becoming a pioneer in the Muslim world, but also making this remarkable achievement an entire year before the United States passed women’s suffrage.
The Azerbaijani government has always prioritized culture and community as important part of national policy and agenda. Perhaps this is because we have stood out as a nation and people for our unwillingness to succumb to intolerance or violence, and have long known that peace, and the values of tolerance and acceptance that make peace possible, are always a better and stronger choice.
Today, the health of our society is very connected to the focus and support of leaders in promoting this culture and building national opportunity and unity, and Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva has been key to these achievements. Since 2004, the First Lady has been the President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. Named after the National Leader and Founder of modern Azerbaijan, this nonprofit has been working ever since to improve the country’s economic, cultural and social development. One of the key areas of focus is the betterment of children, which is also an issue that has been championed by the outgoing First Lady of the United States, Mrs. Michelle Obama, during the last 8 years. Mrs. Obama has been steadfast in her desire to improve children’s health, against all odds, and create programs that encourage children of all ages to exercise and eat healthily.
Under Mrs. Aliyeva’s leadership, the Heydar Aliyev Foundation has built and rebuilt new schools, kindergartens, hospitals, clinics and museums. At the same time, the First Lady has worked on women-focused initiatives, such as programs to help women with breast feeding, and offering integrative summer camp options for disabled children.
As the Goodwill Ambassador of UNESCO and ISESCO, Mrs Aliyeva has expanded the Foundation’s activities beyond Azerbaijan’s borders as well. Education has been one of the key areas in this regard. The Foundation has built and rebuilt schools in Georgia, Egypt, Romania, Russia, Holland and Pakistan.
The completely rebuilt school in Pakistan was a girls school, which had been heavily damaged after an earthquake. This commitment to the health, education and welfare of young women is not new in Azerbaijan. Namely in 1901 the first secular school for Muslim girls in the Russian Empire, which Azerbaijan was then part of, was established in Baku. It was followed by the first secular mixed-gender school for Muslim girls and boys.
This striking commitment comes no matter the circumstance or the adversity that a nation or community may be under. After the war in the Balkans destroyed a Center for Children with Impaired Vision in Sarajevo, the Foundation stepped in to help completely rebuild the center.
Promoting Azerbaijan’s long-standing traditions of interfaith tolerance and multiculturalism has been another key area of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and Mrs. Aliyeva’s leadership. These achievements include the construction of a Jewish Chabad school in Azerbaijan, the restoration of Vatican catacombs, as well as many churches in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, France, Russia and elsewhere. Also many ancient mosques in Azerbaijan were restored to their original beauty with the Foundation’s assistance. The organization has also rushed to the aid of countries suffering from natural disasters such as when they provided financial assistance to Haiti after the earthquake or when devastating floods hit Romania.
There is so much that can be said and ways to show how important it is to have strong and positive female role models that women and girls can look up to. But I think what is most exciting about these great, female political leaders is how they use their humanity to connect with the people they serve. I think both First Lady Aliyeva and First Lady Obama have impressed many on a personal level, which is something that takes place outside of policy or funding or actions; it’s really about their character.
I want to congratulate First Lady Michelle Obama on 8 years of hard work, and her ability to stay so focused on the needs of children, and the successful awareness she brought to their needs around the world. And I am so proud of Azerbaijan’s First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva who stands as a powerful role model and how she continues every day to work to show the world the importance of family, education, tolerance and compassion.
Author: Durdane Agayeva