In Chechnya, the warfare that rumbled on between 1994 and 2009 has been turned against the republic’s women. The most public aspect of this campaign is the progressive imposition of a so-called ‘Islamic’ dress code. Lisa Kazbekova charts its course, enquires why it is happening, and how Chechnya’s men and women are responding
The imposition of a severe Islamic dress code is the visible front of an aggressive campaign against women being waged by Chechnya’s government. Demoting the status of women has become a political priority for the republic’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Back in 2006, when still only acting prime minister, Kadyrov was already exhorting women to show more ‘modesty’. After becoming leader, he declared that women were the property of men and endorsed polygamy. Recently, he has publicly condoned the spate of ‘honour killings’ of women with ‘loose morals’, in the name of ‘reviving Chechen traditions’. Men up and down the republic have echoed their leader’s views enthusiastically.
It was six years ago that women in government departments, university students and schoolgirls were first instructed to wear traditional kerchiefs on their heads. ‘Our boss simply called us in and informed us that the president had ordered all women to wear headscarves. Those who objected were told they could submit their resignation,’ recalls Malika, a pediatrician at the children’s hospital in Grozny.
'The policy of gender discrimination is certainly popular with men. Many Chechen men maintain that women’s real role is in the kitchen, looking after a husband and children.'
The inherently violent character of these ‘reforms’ became clear in the summer of 2010. Right in the middle of the capital Grozny, dozens of women who were not wearing headscarves were attacked by men armed with paintball guns and rubber bullets. In August, during Ramadan, ‘representatives of the muftiyat’, wearing the traditional loose-fitting Muslim garb started going up to women in central Grozny. They publicly shamed them for their ‘immodesty’ and handed out brochures containing detailed descriptions of clothing deemed appropriate for a Muslim woman: sleeves and skirt should be long and the head should be completely covered. These men would be joined by aggressive youths who grabbed at women’s sleeves or hems, their hair or bare arms, shouting obscenities.
Ramzan Kadyrov made it clear on television on 8 July 2010 that he approved of the paintball campaign, and wanted to ‘show his gratitude’ to these anonymous fighters for the moral state of women. The victims, he said, only got what they deserved.
Then in January 2011 a written order appeared in every government organization in the form of a letter from the chef de cabinet of the Head of the Chechen Republic stating that all employees must conform to a dress code appropriate to “the norms of Vainakh ethics”. A scanned copy of this letter was published on the website Caucasian Knot.
In May last year came the turn of schoolgirls aged 13 plus to be dragooned into long skirts and full headscarves. A couple of months later women government employees were banned from entering government buildings unless every part of their body was covered except their face and hands.
A barrage of propaganda has been deployed to drive the message of this campaign home. Giant posters of women in full hijab, with lowered gaze, adorn buildings and billboards. Even the mannequins in store windows are not ‘allowed’ to flaunt their pale plastic bodies publicly: swathed in billowing clothes, their bald heads are wrapped in headscarves.
These outlandish new rules are illegal. They contradict the Russian constitution. This is why they were for a long time only handed down by word of mouth, on the direct authority of the head of the republic. But the fact that they are illegal makes them no easier to resist.
In Chechnya, Kadyrov’s word is law. President Putin’s total support for him, and the fact that the Russian constitution effectively doesn’t extend to Chechnya means that Kadyrov behaves as if the republic belongs to him. Last summer, for instance, a (verbal) instruction was issued that female newsreaders should be removed from the nation’s television screens. According to the head of the TV station, Kadyrov did not think that ‘young women should be presenting the news’. A month later, to the great relief of the women, word came down that they should once more be allowed to read the news. No one knows why Kadyrov changed his mind.
'The inherently violent character of these ‘reforms’ became clear in the summer of 2010. Right in the middle of the capital Grozny, dozens of women who were not wearing headscarves were attacked by men armed with paintball guns and rubber bullets.'
He treats Chechnya’s inhabitants like rag dolls whom he can abuse to his heart’s content. If he feels like dressing women up in Islamic dress, it will be done. If he doesn’t like the women reading the news, he’ll make a phone call and she’ll be gone. A bit later, he feels like seeing women on the box again. Fine – that’s no problem. This is one young politician who is prepared to declare quite openly, without a twinge of embarrassment, at an official function: ‘I’m the boss here – you’re just a bunch of nobodies’.
Homilies about women are read at Friday prayers in almost all mosques-government controlled, of course - as well as being broadcast on local TV. In their obligatory lessons at the university and all Chechen schools, representatives of the Centre for the Spiritual-Moral Edification of Youth (which operates under the republic’s official ‘muftiyat’) pay particular attention to the moral instruction of girls:’ Usually, the mullah tells us that women who don’t obey their husbands and brothers will burn in hell, along with those who display parts of their bodies in public’, one woman student told me. She reports that clerics tell the boys that in order to allay Allah’s wrath, they must control their sisters, monitor what they do, to whom they talk, and if possible accompany them everywhere.
What drives this campaign against women?
When he first came to power, Kadyrov claimed to be guided by a desire to ‘revive the lost traditions of our forefathers’. Before the Russian revolution, women in Chechen society were indeed mostly viewed as ‘keepers of the hearth’, mothers and obedient wives. But with the beginning of the Soviet era things changed. Chechen women began to be educated and to work outside the home – first in agricultural collectives and later on in factories and even in leadership positions.
However, men did manage to preserve their dominant role in some parts of Chechnya. This was particularly true in the eastern region bordering Dagestan, where the president’s native village Tsentoroi is located. ‘Ramzan Kadyrov probably wants to impose this way of life, the one he grew up with, on all women’ reasons Amina, a 32-year old woman lecturer in Russian history at the Chechen State University. Chechens are well aware that even during the Soviet period women in that eastern region remained under the rule of men and always wore full headscarves and long dresses. Few received an education, and they were taught from childhood to be obedient wives to their husbands.
However, local human rights activists point out that Kadyrov’s interest in conservative traditions of Islamic culture really began when he started travelling to those Arab countries with which he had friendly relations. There were regular journeys to Mecca, surrounded by large numbers of his relatives and clerics. There were meetings with members of Jordan’s royal family and visits to exclusive racing stables in Dubai. All these trips, which were always extensively reported on in the Chechen media, seem to have exerted a growing influence on the young leader. ‘Every time he comes back home, the president introduces “something Arabic” into our society’, comments Zarema, a human rights’ activist with a special interest in women’s rights.
Meanwhile, Kadyrov’s own actions blatantly contradict his pronouncements on public morality. In the course of a typical night’s viewing on Chechen television he will be seen condemning the non-Muslim conduct of Chechen women, while going on to revel in the performances of Russian and international starlets whom he has invited to sing in Chechnya. Absurdly, the performances of scantily clad guest stars alternate with Chechen singers in full ‘Islamic’ dress. He barely attempts to reconcile these contradictions, beyond repeating his mantra that ‘We are a full and equal subject of the Russian Federation, but we must not forget that we are Chechens and Muslims’.
Turning men against women
Whatever may have inspired Kadyrov’s discriminatory policies against women, Zarema is clear that his main motivation has to do with power: ‘It’s an ideal method of controlling half of Chechnya’s population while courting popularity with the other half’.
The policy of gender discrimination is certainly popular with men. Many Chechen men maintain that women’s real role is in the kitchen, looking after a husband and children. They invoke Chechen tradition as well as Islam in support of this view. Even those who otherwise resent the Chechen leader’s politics agree with their leader that women need to ‘know their place’.
‘Reasserting control over women was the easiest way of restoring the self-esteem of Chechen men, which has taken a battering in recent years.’
Umar, 25, and Adam 30 are typical. Good-looking and well-educated, they appear to be thoroughly modern young men. But touch on the issue of headscarves and that Western air evaporates: ‘Women must obey men and dress modestly - that’s how it’s always been!’ Umar repeats a favourite maxim of his leader. ‘Why doesn’t anyone acknowledge all the good that Ramzan’s done?’ Adam complains. They talk up Kadyrov’s reconstruction of the republic. There are the huge entertainment complexes he has built and the gigantic new stadium, at whose opening stars of international football stars like Diego Maradona, Bortez and McManaman have played. ‘Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that Maradona himself would play in Chechnya!’ Umar enthuses.
‘Kadyrov has won the support of much of the male population thanks to football, headscarves and his promotion of polygamy,’ reflects Amina, a lecturer in Russian history. Reasserting control over women was the easiest way of restoring the self-esteem of Chechen men, which has taken a battering in recent years. ‘Our men have a very short memory’ Amina goes on. In wartime the historic role of breadwinner switched from men to women. Women did not only have to take care of the domestic chores, they became the sole breadwinners of their families.
They also, quite literally, became the protectors of the male population. ‘During the war, I witnessed again and again how women lay down right under soldier’s machine guns and protected their husbands, brothers, sons, neighbours with their own bodies.
Often enough they did the same for men they didn’t even know,’ Amina remembers. Women grew confident in the war, when many men opted to stay indoors because of the risk to their life as soon as they stepped outside. Women learned skills, pursued their education and their influence in the social and political life of the republic grew correspondingly.
Much of the male population did not like that new-found female empowerment. And when he came to power ‘Kadyrov got the support even of those men who had spent the entire war hiding behind women’s skirts’ Amina comments.
The fearful regiment of women
How have Chechnya’s women reacted to these developments? ‘The atmosphere of fear has become so overwhelming that we don’t even dare to express our dissatisfaction among our colleagues, because we’re afraid of informers,’ admits Khadizha, a 54-year-old government worker. In her view it would be not just pointless, but dangerous to object to the draconian new dress code imposed on female government employees.
So what of the future? Things could well get even worse, in the view of local women’s rights NGOs. Even activists see little they can do to stop it. ‘The young president controls everyone and everything, and with complete conviction. He takes every opportunity to stress that “He is everything and everyone else is nothing”’ says Malika, 41, who works for a local women’s NGO. To invoke the legal protection which the Russian constitution theoretically affords is virtually impossible: ‘It’s not just that there’s nowhere to file a complaint,’ Malika goes on: ‘These kinds of violations of people’s rights have become the norm in our society.’ Many women have internalised the view that fighting for their rights and expressing their opinions would shame their family, she believes. They fear the judgment of their community, and the condemnation of their own relatives. ‘They prefer to suffer in silence rather than to fight’ she concludes sadly.
Others keep silent out of fear for their loved ones. Zarina is a young teacher who was shot by a paintball on her way home from work. She ended up hiding what had happened to her from her own family: ‘My brother would have tried to find the perpetrators and punish them. And I don’t want him getting involved with those thugs,’ she explains.
When the schoolgirls heard about their new dress code, some refused to accept it. Aza, Zaira and Liana went to school in their usual short skirts, the little kerchiefs in their hair being their one sartorial concession. The school director sent them home: unless they came back dressed like ‘proper Chechen young ladies’, they’d be expelled. Their parents’ objections fared no better: ‘If you don’t like it, go find another school,’ the director told Aza’s mother Malika, a 42-year old paediatrician. ‘The order had come from the top and there was nothing anyone could do about it’, Malika realised. She and her fellow doctors at the children’s hospital had long since had to succumb to headscarves: ‘But I’m over 40 – they’re just children! To cover them up in those blankets robs them of their childhood!’
‘Local human rights activists point out that Kadyrov’s interest in conservative traditions of Islamic culture really began when he started travelling to those Arab countries with which he had friendly relations.’
When I met up with the girls, they’d only been wearing their new uniforms for a week. ‘I hate those long skirts and big headscarves!’ ranted 15-year old Aza, pushing her unruly dark curls back under a blue scarf. ‘They make me look like an old woman!’ 14-year-old Zaira agreed. ‘I just want to leave this place, move abroad and dress like my Western peers.’ Zaira’s parents have been seriously considering moving to another region of Russia, because they feel that the constraints are having a bad effect on their children. ‘What if one day Kadyrov forbids girls to go to school altogether? Who can be sure that our society would resist it?’
The political climate on the dress code fluctuates constantly. By late May 2012 there was a renewed push to introduce an even stricter one at the universities, the government’s preferred laboratory for its social experimentation. Floor-length skirts, long sleeves and fully covered hair are already de rigueur. Female teachers and staff are now being told that in the autumn they will have to wear a hijab, a headscarf that wraps around the front and covers their neck. By now the debate seemed to be about a few centimeters of fabric – would this newly mandated hijab have to cover their jawline as well, or could they tie it below the chin?
There are glimmers of light in this gloom. Laila, a 4th-year student at Grozny State University, wears a short, close-cut dress and her hair loose on her way home from university, and she carries a large, bulging bag. In it is her uniform - floor-length skirt, standard-issue blazer and headscarf. Laughing, she pulls out the skirt and demonstrates how, sarong-style, it opens at the front and can be put on and taken off easily over her much skimpier outfit. She had the skirt specially sewn for this purpose, and so, she says, have many other students. “We used to find some hidden place to change discreetly after leaving campus, but now we strip off our uniforms right in front of the guards at the entrance. Imagine how they stare at us!” Despite Zalina’s obvious glee at her and her classmates’ symbolic subversion of the dress code, she knows her actions are not without risk. There are stories going round about girls who were expelled from university for pulling off their long skirts while still on campus.
Another such glimmer concerns the paintball attacks. These stopped as suddenly as they started, and there has been no recurrence. Many human rights activists believe this was a result of the international reaction they provoked. ‘We can’t prove that the attacks stopped because of pressure from abroad’ admits human rights activist Zarema. But the activists agree that the fact that the attacks stopped as soon as the world started paying attention is no coincidence. ‘This gives us hope, at least. It encourages us not to give up fighting for our rights’.
The names of the author and women mentioned in this article have been changed for their protection.
The author is a journalist based in Chechnya.