Meet Barbara Standal. She is one amazing, intelligent and gracious lady. I have known Barbara for about 10 years, but she has been my client for the past 2-3 years. She has an interesting story that needs to be told. Barbara has been kind enough to agree to an interview, with yours truly, to tell us what she has been up to the past few years. Barbara's courageous efforts in helping women in Azerbaijan has earned her recognition by her Alma Mater in Spokane WA., where she has received an award for her humanitarian efforts.
~Tell us about yourself...How did you decide to become an attorney and what type of law did you practice? How long did you practice?
When I graduated from Eastern Washington University with an M.A. in English in 1971, I had planned to get a Ph.D. so I could teach at the university level. However, I decided law would give me more options. Also, I had been greatly influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and believed as a lawyer I could make a difference. I taught at Gonzaga University School of Law for a couple of years and also clerked for the Washington State Court of Appeals where I learned what being a lawyer was all about. I left Spokane and moved to Seattle in 1980. After six years in private practice, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission hired me as a supervisory trial attorney. It was a dream job. I was an attorney working for the federal government to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which I still believe was the most significant legislation of the 20th century.
~What was your motivation for going to Azerbaijan?
In 2003, I took a tour of the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan). Prior to that, I had traveled quite extensively. I had arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia from the U.S. and had taken the overnight train from Tbilisi to Baku, Azerbaijan, located on a desert peninsula that juts out into the Caspian Sea. In the morning, the train had slowed as we were nearing the Baku station. I looked out the window and saw a woman crouched beside the railroad tracks. She looked as if she were in utter despair. I felt ashamed to be a tourist looking on helplessly. At that moment, I decided I had to stop being a tourist, get a job and go to work in one of these countries and find out about women like the one I saw. I had known of the American Bar Association’s work in many different countries, and so I came home and applied for one of their positions in Central Asia or the Caucasus. My first job was in Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia.
~What was/is your mission?
I discovered as a young woman that what gave me the greatest satisfaction and took me out of myself was to give to other people whatever skills and knowledge I had to share. I believe American women like me, well-educated and given opportunities have an obligation to give back. I used my skills and knowledge in Azerbaijan to teach women lawyers how to put an organization together that would meet international standards. In the past, I have served on the board of two Washington State women’s bar associations and participated in Washington State Bar Association projects. I wanted to give those smart, savvy young women some of the knowledge I had gained.
~How long did you stay there?
I was in Azerbaijan for two years, from 2008 to 2010. Prior to that, I worked for the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative in Kyrgyzstan for two years.
~Tell us about the Azerbaijani people and their culture.
Azerbaijan is a country of eight million people bordered by Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Dagestan, a Russian republic. Azerbaijan is over 90% Shiite Muslim; however, religion is not openly practiced there. The government, a repressive oligarchy, does not encourage religious expression and controls religious practice. In appearance, the people are highly Westernized. You see virtually no religious dress among women. There are more hijabs in San Francisco than in Baku. In two years, I saw women in chadors no more than five or six times and they were probably from Iran.
Azerbaijan is a male-dominated, family-oriented society. The highly educated, Westernized, modern women attorneys in my office continued to live at home and will do so until they marry. That practice was very different from Kyrgyzstan, also a Muslim country, where the women in my office had their own apartments and lived by themselves and had active social lives.
Arranged marriages are still common in Azerbaijan. Women are often coerced into marriage. Prior to marriage, there is little contact between men and women. A divorced or widowed woman is stigmatized in Azerbaijani society. In rural areas, early marriage is common. Girls as young as 12 years old are coerced into marriage with older, wealthier men. The reasons for this practice are due to the extreme poverty of the rural poor, the denigration of women, and the corruption of officials at all levels. The legal marriage age for an Azerbaijani woman is 17, but corrupt officials will be paid off and allow younger girls to marry. These young women lose all rights to their children and property and if abandoned easily become victims of trafficking. Overall, I found the role and life of women in Azerbaijan from my American perspective to be suffocating and limiting for both men and women.
I was treated with great respect and friendliness in my office and neighborhood. They liked an American who would attempt to talk to them in their language. People were kind, generous and hospitable. Azerbaijanis, like their Iranian neighbors, are very beautiful, especially the women with aquiline noses, high cheekbones, brown eyes and dark thick hair. They are not cute, but truly beautiful.
~Tell us about women's rights or lack thereof in this part of the world.
On paper, women have equal rights, but in practice, their lives are circumscribed by the customs of their families and society. For example, a woman lawyer in her late twenties in our office was selling theater tickets one afternoon because her brother would not be able to go with her. In other words, if she were to go out in the evening, she would have to be accompanied by a male member of her family. She was unable to travel, or even to socialize after work. She was typical of many well-educated women her age.
~What have you learned through your experience(s)?
I have learned a great deal about myself. I am also even more grateful for having been born an American, able to experience the freedom we have. I taught a democracy class to a group of Azerbaijani lawyers, and I was proud to talk about our history, forefathers, government structure, its separation of powers, independent judiciary and freedoms under the First Amendment. But I also learned how similar we human beings are in so many ways in what we really value and want for our lives and future. The Azerbaijanis love and cherish their families, yet chafe at family customs. Many yearn for greater democratic freedoms and hope their children’s lives will be better than their own. They are proud of their Muslim heritage and puzzled and angry at American ignorance of Islam.
~Tell me about one of your favorite experiences while being in Azerbaijan.
A memory I will never forget is returning with our five staff attorneys from a regional conference in Prague in June 2009. We had a six-hour layover in Istanbul before departing for Baku. So I suggested taking them to my favorite rooftop restaurant in the old city, Sultanahmet, in the hotel where I often stay in Istanbul. It was a beautiful summer evening when the six of us arrived. I had reserved a table for us on the roof where we had dinner as we looked directly across at the spectacular Blue Mosque, then beyond to the Sea of Marmara and the ships on the Bosporus. As we ate and laughed and talked, I realized this was a magic moment for all of us. I also recall the wedding reception of our male staff attorney, Parviz. In Baku, there are special restaurants called Wedding Palaces that are specially built for wedding receptions, a Soviet legacy. They are a bit like a Las Vegas hotel. Parviz had invited about 250 to 300 for dinner and dancing. The music was very Eastern, and the dancing was a combination of Western and Eastern. I recall watching the men all dancing together, legs kicking to the beat of the music. It was an athletic event and very moving to watch. Everyone was having such a great time, yet there was no alcohol fueling the festivities.
I recall wonderful times traveling with the women staff attorneys. One of our last journeys was to Sheki, a beautiful town up near the Georgian border. Our last night in Sheki we ate in an outdoor restaurant that looked out over a forested valley. It was almost dark as we sat waiting for our food when suddenly the haunting call to prayer of the muezzin floated out across the valley from a small mosque near our restaurant. It was such a beautiful sound in the still of the evening and reminded me of the love and generosity of the Azerbaijanis to me in this complex and troubled country.
~What are you up to now and what do you plan on doing in the future?
I hope to find some consuming interest here in Seattle, but I haven’t yet decided what I will do. I plan to bring three Azerbaijani women lawyers to Seattle in the spring to meet with women lawyers here in Seattle. I want them to learn something about each other and try to see if there can be an exchange of ideas and values. I hope to return to Baku for a month next year to continue my work with the Women’s Bar Association of Azerbaijan.
~How can the everyday person help? Where can one find more information?
You can find the Women’s Bar Association of Azerbaijan on Facebook which will link you to their website. Also my article on the organization you can find at www.wsba.org and link to the June issue of the Bar News or find it on Google. I will let you know more about how you might be able to help the rural women of Azerbaijan later this year. I will be working on such a project with women lawyers here in the Seattle community.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about this complex and fascinating part of the world and the good and decent people who live there.
Thank you Barbara for sharing your story with me and everyone who reads this! You are truly an amazing woman and I am a better and more informed person for knowing you. For those who have no idea where Azerbaijan is, (I was one of them), here you go...
Cheers everyone! I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I have. :)