Young women in Kabardino-Balkaria must resort to lies and stratagems to navigate a society governed by man-made rules and double standards. In this excerpt from an unpublished novel, Marina Marshenkulova reveals through fiction the reality she cannot describe as a journalist.
Kabardino-Balkaria may be in Russia, but lots of Russians only have the vaguest idea where it is. Muscovites are clueless about anything beyond the Sadovoye Circle. They only get it if I say I live near Europe’s highest mountain – Mount Elbrus. It was only when Elbrus was made a World Heritage Site that they realised there’s more to the North Caucasus than terrorism and wars.
Yes, it’s about that too. Even people who’ve never heard of Mount Elbrus know about Chechnya and Beslan. When they would ask me where I came from, I’d be reluctant to say how close we were to those infamous places. But it turned out to be the only way they could locate Kabardino-Balkaria on their mind maps. Once, I even tried writing an article about my home, hoping that at least some of my readers would be embarrassed by their ignorance. Did I succeed? I don’t know. Some people don’t know what it’s like to be embarrassed. Others, those of us who come from Kabardino-Balkaria for instance, understand it all too well.
It’s a man’s world
It’s a man’s world in Kabardino-Balkaria. Girls are born with a deep sense of guilt. They feel guilty even if they haven’t done anything to feel guilty about. They’re born knowing that they were conceived in the dead of night and that the subject is one you can’t even discuss with your mother. Did I say “even”? Especially with your mother.
'There is even a joke about it: what does an American woman say during sex? “Oh, yes!” What does a Russian woman say during sex? “Oh, da!” which means the same. What does a Kabardian woman say during sex? “Please, don’t tell anyone!”
Girls soon learn that sex is dirty unless it’s done by married people. Even if they are married, it’s not something you should be proud of. These girls learn that men rule the world, and you can only become a part of that world if you learn to obey. So they learn. They have to remember that virginity is the core virtue, even if it’s fake, who cares. If you don’t bleed on your wedding night, you’re in trouble, and so is your whole family.
Given this, what’s funny is that even in my little hometown sex is our main entertainment. It’s just a huge secret. There is even a joke about it: what does an American woman say during sex? “Oh, yes!” What does a Russian woman say during sex? “Oh, da!” which means the same. What does a Kabardian woman say during sex? “Please, don’t tell anyone!”
It’s funny, but if you look more closely, it’s not at all funny. It’s scary and sick. Let me tell you one of the sick stories that has been going the rounds. It’s about a girl – we’ll call her N. She was dating a boy who we’ll call D. It doesn’t really matter any more what happened between them, or their feelings for each other. He broke it off and started spreading rumours about what he did with her, how they did it, in gory detail. The poor girl was disgraced, even if it was all lies. When the rumour reached her brother X he didn’t go and punch D. in the face, though he could have. He went one better: he got to know D.’s sister and started dating her. Let’s call her J. And when they were having sex he videod her “oral performance.” Oddly enough, J. was well aware what he was doing. She just kept asking him how long he was going to keep filming. It wasn’t that she minded. But she wasn’t exactly happy about it either. What was she thinking about? Did she really think that he was taking a home video for the two of them? Had she forgotten where she came from? It seems so. That’s not the end of the story, either.
X. sent the video to D., saying “Enjoy, brother.” D. was furious. What happened behind the scenes no one knows. But the story goes that J. ran to the police station and reported that she’d been raped by X. X responded by sending the video all over the place. He even put it on Youtube. But all things are possible if you’ve got a good brother. D – whose family was very rich - “bought” some guy with a decent expensive car and made him marry his sister. Yes, the guests may have watched that famous ‘oral’ video clip in secret, during the wedding ceremony. But who cares? Now that she was married, she was safe from their judgments.
Some girls are different. Circumstances make them rebellious. I’m going to write about those girls, the rebels. Some lost their virginity to men who said they loved them and wanted to marry them. Others lost it because they were living for the moment, because saving it just didn’t seem important. There are girls who sleep all over the place, just like Samantha in the “Sex and the City.”
But Samantha has the guts to admit that she does what she loves, while these girls go and sew themselves up so that they that they can play the virgin again. You see, even in this male’s world, men can be fooled. There are many different kinds of girls in this rebel category. I want to share some of their stories. My own story is a bit different. My hope is that, by writing about others, I can mend myself.
Kabardino-Balkaria is proud of its people. They are workers on one hand, but there’s a whole side that’s kept in the darkness. At the end of the day it comes down to this: somebody’s going to get hurt, whether it’s sex or love. If I knew what I know now, I’d make things much easier for myself. I’d spare myself the hundreds of mistakes I’ve made on my way. But I was barely 19 when it happened.
When I heard the café door open, I turned round automatically to see who it was. Would anything have been different if I hadn’t looked? No matter how far I had run to get away from my past, it was right there still, and it was not going away.
‘Some girls are different. Circumstances make them rebellious. There are girls who sleep all over the place, just like Samantha in the “Sex and the City.” But Samantha has the guts to admit that she does what she loves, while these girls go and sew themselves up so that they that they can play the virgin again.’
I have only seen the man who entered the coffee house twice in my life, but I would never forget his face. That was the man who almost became my husband seven years ago. The man who ruined my life.
I don’t remember how I took off, leaving Idar behind. But he followed me. Though I was running, he soon reached me. He grabbed me by the arm.
“Who was that?”
“Nobody. I’ve got to go.”
“Like hell you do. Who was that?”
“Let me go, you’re hurting me.” He let go.
“I can help you.” How could he?
“I don’t need your help. You don’t know… God, you don’t know.” I was close to tears. But how could I cry now? I ran on, knowing he was following me. Wanting him to follow me. After all I owed him a story, didn’t I?
It was so easy – to fall in love
My name is Skai Karova. I was born on the 6th November in a tiny village hospital near Nalchik. My parents didn’t dream of giving me a name. In our patriarchal society only my father’s relatives could do that. My past is full of people who loved me – my parents, my sister, my friends and relatives. I was a normal kid, a pretty easy teenager, an obedient one. I didn’t date anyone till I was 18. That’s when I fell in love, or I thought I did. It was so easy – to fall in love. We met at university during the first week of school. Those were the crazy times; we couldn’t be apart for one minute. We were addicted to love. Funnily, I don’t remember much about him now. We were going to get married in a few years. Although he’d never formally proposed to me, we used to talk about how we’d bring up our children and even had fights over it. Then one day everything changed.
I was walking home when a car stopped in front of me. A guy got out of the car and asked his way to a shop. I told him and that was the end of the conversation. Next day that car stopped again. But this time it didn’t end so well. My kidnappers threw me into the car, although I bit at them and screamed my head off. I later found out that he’d seen me at university and decided to have me as his wife. Unbeknown to me, he’d been watching me for several days. One little detail he didn’t find out was that I had a boyfriend. And that I wasn’t a virgin.
‘When my kidnappers found out, I was returned home, branded as a non-virgin. It was a big scandal. My parents were not just disappointed in me - they could barely look at me. I was a stain on their spotless picture, and they did their best to get rid of it. Although in my society such stains stay forever.’
You can guess the rest of the story. I was returned home, branded as a non-virgin. It was a big scandal. My parents were not just disappointed in me - they could barely look at me. I was a stain on their spotless picture, and they did their best to get rid of it. Although in my society such stains stay forever. So I did the only thing I could under the circumstances – I ran.
When my monologue ended, Idar and I found ourselves in the park. I had talked and talked. I just couldn’t stop. The day was dying. It was still sunny, but the sun was gentle. There were flies everywhere, but I didn’t care. I was too engrossed.
“Did you ever talk to your parents after you ran way?” he asked. We were walking down a dark alley towards the huge oak-tree.
“Only once. I called my mom from Moscow the day after I escaped. I didn’t want them to think I was dead or something. Though now I come to think of it they’d rather I had been dead than…that.”