Earlier this year, Russia’s social networks were stunned by the story of Aisha Azhigova. The seven-year-old girl was brought to a hospital in Nazran, in Ingushetia, in a terrible state. Aisha was diagnosed with fractures of both arms and several vertebrae, as well as bruises, burns and even human bites on her body. Delay in treating Aisha in hospital led to gangrene and she had to have part of her right arm amputated, despite medics from an emergency children’s surgery and trauma centre fighting to save it.
It turned out that Aisha’s aunt, Makka Ganiyeva, had been beating the child. Her parents were divorced and her father had left home to find work, leaving his daughter with his sister, who was also bringing up two sons with her husband.
No one had official custody of the girl, and the local authorities were basically unaware of her existence. Makka Ganiyeva is now under arrest.
After Aisha’s case came to light, Ingushetia’s Children’s Ombudsperson Zarema Chakhkiyeva, who is now the child’s official guardian, said that she had received thousands of letters from Ingush women asking for help to retrieve their children from their ex-husbands.
In Ingushetia, in Russia’s North Caucasus region, it’s common for the children of a marriage to live with their father and his close family after their parents divorce. Tradition requires that fathers have greater rights over their children than mothers, and women face incredible hurdles to retrieve their children if their ex-husbands decide to bring them up in their family.
Customary law, Sharia or the Constitution?
Ingushetia may conform to the laws of the Russian Federation, but the republic retains its own very strong traditions and customs. According to these Adats (an unwritten code analogous to “customary law”), children always remain with their fathers following a divorce.
“Whatever the reason for a divorce, the father raises the children,” Ilez Matiyev, a journalist and writer, tells me. “In Ingush society there’s a common belief that if children are raised by their mothers, they won’t be able to inherit the family culture and spirit of their father’s birth line. A woman can remarry after divorce, but she can’t take her children with her into a new marriage.”
This is what happened to Ingush resident Asiat Agiyeva. When Agiyeva applied for a divorce, the court gave her custody of her children, but their father refused to hand them over, and she hasn’t seen them for several years now.
When Asiat got married, she was 22 and very much in love. She told me how gallantly her future husband wooed her, and despite her parents initially being against the match, she was able to win them round. Ingush and Muslim tradition requires a young woman to have her parents’ consent to marry: otherwise, the marriage is considered invalid. If a man wants to marry, he talks to a family member – a sister or younger brother – and they approach the family elders. A delegation of respected elders then visits the young woman’s home and asks her father for his consent to the marriage, after which he sets a date for his response. If the prospective bride agrees, her father or nearest guardian gives his consent and the young couple are then officially engaged.
Asiat had two children with her husband, but she didn’t get on with her mother-in-law. There was no way she could avoid living with her: she was married to the youngest son and tradition obliged him to live with his parents and look after them. Relations between the young couple gradually soured; rows and arguments became increasingly common.
Asiat tried to leave her husband, but didn’t manage to do so: “My parents knew that I had married against their will and made it clear that there was no way back.”
She came to terms with the situation and had another child, who was born with a congenital condition. Now Asiyat’s life was all about fighting for her child’s health. Meanwhile, her husband began an affair with another woman. The rows at home continued, and when Asiyat’s younger child was almost two and the older one, five, she landed in hospital, at risk of a potential stroke. After recovery, Asiyat’s brother took her home to her parents’ house, but her husband arrived and announced that he was divorcing her.
It used to be shameful for a woman to be divorced. Once divorced, she could only marry a divorced man, but divorced men usually married unmarried women. Now the situation is gradually changing, and the main argument for marriage between a divorced woman and an unmarried man is the fact that the Prophet Muhammad, a bachelor, married a divorced woman who was also older than him.
For a marriage to be dissolved, both Muslim and Ingush traditions suggest its enough for a man to tell his wife he wants to divorce her, although at the same time Islam doesn’t encourage it. “It’s seen as a very undesirable act,” says Ahmed Tangiyev, a theologian.
It certainly was for Asiat. “My husband just turned up and said we were getting divorced, although we had agreed that he would bring her the money for her medical expenses that day,” she tells me. “He also didn’t consult my brothers or other family members about the situation. And while I was in hospital he removed my child allowance certificate and my children’s birth certificates from the wallet with all my papers in it. I only discovered this later. He was already organising the divorce when I was ill.”
Children’s rights under Sharia Law
Unlike Adat customary law, Sharia gives mothers the principal right to bring up their children. In that sense, Sharia and Adat are contradictory. Over the last few years there has been a slight change in the use of Sharia law in Ingushetia where, according to Tangiyev, there is a general rule: children stay with their mothers until the age of seven, at which point they are asked who they would like to stay with, and this forms the basis for the decision.
“A Sharia judge can take individual decisions,” says Tangiev. “In other words, the court’s decision is always based on the interests of the children, not the parents. If a mother isn’t able to bring up her children, the court will leave them with their father. If it’s the other way around, then they can give the children to their mother.”
The Imam of the town where Asiat lived told her husband that their children would stay with her until they were seven, and that her husband, as required under Islam, should provide them with housing and everything required for a good standard of living.
“The Imam told him that he should forget about Adat,” says Asiat. “In Islam, children should be with their mother.”
At that time, though, Asiat was still undergoing treatment following her stroke risk. “The Imam said, in the presence of my ex-husband, that I could leave my children with my husband for a while and go, and that when I returned the children would be back with me.”
When Asiat returned, however, everything had changed: her ex-husband refused to give her children back or provide a home for them. Asiat went to the Sharia court, which yet again ruled that the children should be with their mother, while her ex-husband should provide the family with everything they needed.
Against the law
Russia is a state governed by the rule of law, as well as Adat and Sharia Law. Asiat and her ex-husband’s divorce wasn’t official. “My mistake was that I hoped he would just comply with the Sharia court ruling, and not get a civil court involved. It was only when he himself applied for a [official] divorce and went to court to force me to pay alimony, that I lodged a counter-case,” she tells me.
The court ruled that the children should stay with Asiat, but six weeks later her father died. Her ex-husband took the children for a week, ostensibly to spare them any psychological trauma over their grandfather’s death. At the end of the week, Asiat wanted the children back, but couldn’t get them – her ex-husband kept hold of them, even though it was illegal. “He turned my children against me, so that the kids themselves didn’t want to come back. When I came to meet my son out of school, he didn’t want to see me and became hysterical. And I had to leave.”
In the end, Asiat moved to another city, and didn’t manage to get her children back: “I couldn’t stay where I was, I was afraid of getting ill again. I lived on the next street to them, and when I was walking to work and he would drive past with my children, he wouldn’t even stop the car so they could at least say hello”.
Asiat’s older boy is now 13, and she says he has become withdrawn because of the rift between his parents and the constant psychological pressure his father puts him under. But she hasn’t lost hope that sooner or later the children will be back with her.
Through the eyes of psychologists and teachers
Zalina Beksalova, a secondary school teacher, tells me the story of a former student brought to a fifth grade class by his paternal grandmother. The boy’s father was dead, but he didn’t live with his mother – his strict and uncompromising grandmother had taken him to live with her.
According to Beksalova, at any moment he felt like in class, the boy would fumble in an enormous backpack, which got in the way of his learning process. It turned out that he was looking for his mobile phone and sending texts to his mother, whom he wasn’t allowed to see. The mother had secretly given him a mobile, so that he could keep up contact with her. After a while the lad moved to another school – Beksalova discovered that he had returned to his mother after all, and told me that this kind of situation wasn’t uncommon in her experience.
“They always have the cautious look of someone who can no longer play around with his mother, the look of someone who only has themself to rely on,” says Zalina. “Bruises and cuts are common in this type of family.”
Djannetta Akhilgova is a psychologist by profession and heads a resource centre that works on woman and child issues. Akhilgova feels that a child frequently becomes purely a tool for revenge against a mother who has decided on divorce. “This revenge has a hugely destructive effect on the health and wellbeing of the child,” she tells me.
Psychologist Khadi Dudarova works directly with these kind of cases, dealing with children brought to her with psychological traumas. “Children who frequently see their parents in a bad temper and fits of rage develop neuroses and even psychotic conditions,” says Khadi. She stresses that working with a psychologist can decrease the child’s trauma, but parents won’t often ask for help.
A forced marriage
Zarema Besayeva, whose married life also didn’t work out well, didn’t turn to a Sharia court, but sought permission to raise her children in a secular court. Her married life began “off-kilter”, as she herself jokes. In 1994 she, as a 19 year old young woman, was abducted by her future husband against her will.
“I didn’t know him then. I never even spoke to him. He saw me somewhere, fancied me and stole me.”
Stealing or abducting brides was widespread in Ingushetia until 2013, when it was officially banned. A young woman could be kidnapped by her future husband without any words being spoken between them, although in the last few years before the ban, the “abduction” generally took place by mutual assent. It meant you could get married swiftly and avoid the traditional endless bother and ritual.
Zarema’s marriage led to four children. She put up with domestic violence for ages and lived like this for almost nine years. “My husband used to beat me nearly every day,” she recalls.
After her divorce, the court ruled that the children should stay with Zarema, but after three years her ex-husband managed to have the children back with him.
“I agreed to this for the children’s sake, because he really wore them down. But I regularly met up with them, called in at their school, bought everything they needed, such as clothes. Even medical stuff if they were ill.”
Zarema hasn’t remarried, although she has had proposals. Ingush tradition forbids women taking their children to live in a second husband’s family, so such cases are rare. It’s very rare that either the children’s father or the new husband agree to it.
“She can marry again if she wants to, but the children mustn’t go to live with her in someone else’s house. If there is no father or close relative of her father who could look after the children, she needs to sort that out with her ex-husband’s and future husband’s family. Taking her children to live with her and her new husband contravenes Adat,” says Matiyev.
Zarema lived in the hope that her children would return to her, but didn’t try to persuade them: she wanted them to take the decision themselves. And nearly 10 years passed before they took it. “I didn’t want to force them, didn’t even mention the subject. Then one day my son phoned and said he had left his father’s house and wanted to come and live with me. He was 19. I was overjoyed, of course and took him it. And then he went off and fetched the others”.
An out-of-court practice
If it was Zarema’s own decision to leave her children with their father for some time: usually, as in Asiat Agiyeva’s case, it’s a question of the secular law not working as it should.
According to Olga Gnezdilova, a lawyer with the Russia Justice Initiative organisation, it’s not uncommon for a court, when determining a child’s place of residence, to come down on the mother’s side. These decisions, however, are purely formal and aren’t implemented by court officials.
“We and our partners in the Northern Caucasus are engaged in contesting this protracted official inactivity,” says Gnezdilova. “Even when a court rules their behaviour illegal, it doesn’t mean the child is returned to their mother. Then the only legal instrument left is the European Court of Human Rights.”
According to Gnezdilova, the Russia Justice Initiative has lodged dozens of appeals to the ECHR, some of them have been examined and two have produced decisions in favour of women, Elita Magomadova from the Chechen Republic and Leyla Muruzheva in Ingushetia.
“Magomadova succeeded in retrieving her son from members of his father’s family (his father was dead by then) and Muruzheva was given the daughter of her father’s relatives, although they are still holding on to his son. The father himself works in Moscow and visits his children at weekends, but for almost five years their mother has been unable even to speak to her son on the phone, let alone see her. The children of both Magomadova and Muruzheva have been living without either of their parents.”
The Russia Justice Initiative is also engaged in protecting the rights of Aisha’s mother, Lidiya Evloyeva, who claims that her child was taken from her by her sister-in-law Makka Ganiyeva, the very same “aunt” who is suspected of harming the child. Lidiya is determined to have her child back, but I have been unable to speak to her.
According to Vanessa Kogan, director of the Justice Initiative, Lidiya is at present in a very vulnerable position in terms of both representatives of power and children’s services, on the one hand and her family on the other,. The latter, according to Kogan, “have practically thrown Lidiya out on the street and are threatening her. Meanwhile, these representatives of power and the caring professions have shown no interest whatsoever in the fathers of these children: for them everything is the mother’s fault”.
Zarema Chakhkiyeva, Ingushetia’s Children’s Ombudsperson, did not support Evloyeva when she spoke of her desire for her daughter’s return: “She said that she wanted her daughter back, but I will do everything in my power to prevent it. Where was she when the child was tortured for months?” Chakhkiyeva told journalists.
Aisha’s mother has, however, recently seen her daughter. Their meeting took place with the help of Anna Kuznetsova, the Russian President’s Children’s Ombudsperson, who announced that the government had no objection to mother and daughter living together. But by no means can all women in Ingushetia rely on a similar outcome.
There are no official statistics regarding which side - wife or husband - courts in Ingushetia tend to favour in these cases. According to the Justice Initiative, the state does not monitor these decisions.