Gains for women at European Games eclipsed by Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record

A thousand flowers cannot bloom at Baku. Vassil Donev

With the Women’s Football World Cup kicking off this month and the recent Women in Sports week, the first European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan could have been another opportunity for women’s sporting success to be celebrated. But Azerbaijan’s atrocious record on human rights, and the ban on certain journalists from covering the event have meant any gains made by female athletes are close to meaningless.

The billions spent on staging these games will be wasted – hardly anyone will be able to watch because of the tight media regulations; new rules make it possible for lawsuits to be brought against journalists whose work opposes national interest or “insults the honour of the state and the dignity of the Azerbaijan people”. So unlike the Women’s World Cup in Canada, in Baku few will see the great strides forward for women’s sport.

Out of sight, not out of action

So what have we missed? For a start, the European Games could have been a watershed moment for women’s boxing. Boxing, the archetypal male pursuit of controlled violence, has always been a tough arena for women. Often, they have to prove themselves over and above the levels of men to be accepted, not to mention facing multiple forms of discrimination and harassment.

Women challenge existing gender norms by crossing gender boundaries and while the inclusion of women’s boxing at Baku and in the 2012 London Olympics (after and absence of 116 years) was a sign of progress, there is still much more work to be done.

How many people have watched women’s boxing since the Olympics? Team GB star Nicola Adams became a household name in 2012 but coverage of her and other women boxers has been largely absent since then. London 2012 was called the “year of the woman”, but it increasingly seems to have been an exception rather than a norm.

Household name: Nicola Adams. Dennis M. Sabangan

Despite the lack of coverage, the GB women’s boxing squad is still fighting strong and achieving. Recent success came at the European Championships in Romania. The team returned with two medals. Natasha Jonas, who competed at London 2012 and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, won silver in the light-welterweight together with Stacey Copeland who also secured a silver medal in the welterweight final.

Nicola Adams is a positive role model and an inspiring leader, so it is no surprise that she carried the flag for Team GB at the opening ceremony in Baku. She’s just won her opening round fight at Baku and is on course to make more boxing history.

Nonetheless, she argues for more female role models given that many of her role models were men. This includes the need for more women in leadership roles in boxing. Meanwhile, today’s women boxers join the likes of other pioneering women boxers, Barbara Buttrick, Jane Couch, Cathy “The Bitch” Brown who could continue to inspire, but only if we hear about it.

Dodging human rights issues

And it’s very hard to inspire at an event so mired by controversy. While some argue that sport and politics should remain separate, sport does provide an opportunity to be an agent of social change and has been promoted as a force of good in the world. It would be naïve not to recognise how closely tied sport and politics are despite European Olympic Committee Chief Patrick Hickey insisting that sports remains divorced from politics.

Sport presents us with an opportunity to demand change. In the early 1970s, ping-pong diplomacy was used to open up new diplomatic channels between the US and China. Nelson Mandela saw sport as a way to connect a nation; in 1995 he used the Rugby World Cup victory to symbolise the future unity of South Africa.

But there are stories from the other side too. In 2008, the Beijing Olympics was a powerful example of human rights being ignored and the interconnections between Olympism, global sport and geopolitics. Similarly, the potential for transformation in Baku has been marginalised in favour of economic and corporate aims.

Given this context and the bans on journalists entering the country, using the European Games as an opportunity for women to be seen as role models in sport could prove challenging and contentious.

Nonetheless, these games do appear to have brought human rights issues into the limelight and the UN rights office is making attempts to get the Azerbaijan government to ensure freedom of expression assembly and association and fight for the release of jailed human rights defenders.

If anything, the European Games in Baku are a reminder that the fight for women’s representation is a human rights issue. We cannot celebrate the gains made by women in male-dominated arenas as long as they take place in a country that does not support equality for all.