March 2020, WorldChicago was honored to welcome a recipient of the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage (IWOC) award to our great city, as part of the U.S. Department of State’s uniquely prestigious International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). The IWOC award annually recognizes women from around the world who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment – often at great personal risk. WorldChicago had the distinguished privilege of hosting IWOC awardee Ms. Shahla Humbatova of Azerbaijan, a lawyer who has bravely defended journalists, bloggers, youth activists, and other political prisoners in an environment in which human rights lawyers are regularly harassed and threatened.
In Chicago, Ms. Humbatova had the opportunity to meet with influential NGOs, government bodies, and legal clinics that work to protect the human rights of Chicago’s most marginalized communities. These organizations included the International Human Rights Clinics at Northwestern University’s and University of Chicago’s Law Schools, the Center on Halsted—the largest LGBTQ community center in the Midwest—and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois.
Ms. Humbatova is no stranger to the significant challenges that individuals face in her field. Not only does Azerbaijan’s judiciary function as an arm of the government’s executive branch, but according to Ms. Humbatova, the Azerbaijani Bar Association holds a “complete monopoly” on the actions of Azerbaijani lawyers. The organization is notorious for sacrificing its independence in favor of bending to the whims of the government. Ms. Humbatova even joked that a common greeting among Azerbaijani human rights lawyers is: “You been disbarred yet?” Unfortunately, Ms. Humbatova herself is pending disbarment, and she expects that the procedure will be finalized in the coming weeks. However, she remarked that her visit to Chicago reaffirmed her commitment to human rights and inspired her to find new ways to continue to serve the people of her country.
Women lawyers in Azerbaijan experience an additional series of obstacles due to the country's adherence to traditional gender roles. In fact, Ms. Humbatova is one of only two prominent women human rights lawyers in all of Azerbaijan. She was subject to backlash even within her own family for pursuing a career as a lawyer, instead of remaining in the domestic sphere. However, Ms. Humbatova believes that the paths of career and family are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, she raised her son while working tirelessly to defend Azerbaijan’s political prisoners, and she considers her son’s support the greatest prize of all.
When sharing her story with public prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago, many of them noted that Ms. Humbatova’s willingness to fight for her clients until the point of ultimate personal sacrifice—disbarment—demonstrated her courage beyond a shadow of a doubt. Ms. Humbatova saw the situation a bit differently. “This is what I do,” she remarked. “It’s not courage—it's responsibility.”