“It all comes down to the fact that I’m wearing the hijab”

The realities of political administration in Russia’s North Caucasus are leaving their mark on the education system. RU

Ekaterina Selivanova
4 April 2017

Grandfathers and grandsons in a mountain village, Dagestan. CC-BY-NC-2.0: Dagestan Mountains and People Partnership / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Russia’s North Caucasus region faces many of the same challenges in education as the rest of the country — a lack of nursery places, school classes bursting at the seams, low-quality university education.

There are, however, also specifically local issues at play: preschools are overseen by the Russia’s Center for Combatting Extremism, special schools are set up for children of both militants and security officials, and university graduates go on to continue their studies in Saudi Arabia.

“Extremism” at the nursery

On 10 January, four cars drove up to the Happy Child private children’s centre in Makhachkala, Dagestan. The occupants, men wearing civilian clothes, climbed over the gate and entered the building. There were 23 children and six members of staff inside. When the nursery’s founder, alerted by a call from one of the teachers, arrived, they were all gone.

“The staff members were taken to the local police station and the parents, when they came to collect their children, were told that I am an extremist and a Wahhabi,” says Sofia Sultanbekova, the centre’s director. One door down from the nursery is the city’s Salafist Tangim mosque. The mosque’s popular preacher Nadir Medetov, also known as Nadir abu Khalid, left to join so-called Islamic State in 2015. His fate remains unknown. And since 2015, many of the mosque’s clerics have been placed under criminal investigation.

Members of Dagestan's Center for Combatting Extremism visit Makhachkala's Happy Child nursery.

The police made a similar visit to another branch of this nursery on the same day. A little later, the police explained to Sultanbekova why she was under such close scrutiny: she had been entered on a prophylactic register of those suspected of extremism (read more here). The police assured her that the children’s centre will never operate again.

The system of prophylactic registers in Dagestan is based on an order issued by the regional Ministry of the Interior. The document states that the police must “take every measure to identify persons adhering to extremist ideology”. There is no mention of what criteria might be used for this.

Sultanbekova says that the police are trying to convince her that she will now have to abandon the business enterprise she started in 2014. “It all comes down to the fact that I’m wearing the hijab and most of my staff wear the hijab. The police told me not to employ those who wear headscarves and not to give nursery places to children whose mothers wear the hijab,” Sultanbekova explains. She believes the headscarf is the only reason that she is on the register.

Teaching patriotism to orphans

Prophylactic registers are not the only means of surveillance employed by the region’s authorities. Another peculiar education initiative is the Dagestan muftiate’s plan to set up a boarding school for children of militants who have been killed by the security forces. The idea is that they would study together with the children of security officials.

So far, the new school is in the process of securing its property — no work has been done on its future curriculum. Enrolment will be open to orphans and children of single mothers, while the school’s focus will be on addressing psychological issues.


July 2013: the house of the third wife of underground leader Magomed Suleimanov is destroyed by Russian security forces. CС Varvara Pakhomenko/International Crisis Group/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, criticises the Dagestan authorities’ plan to set up a separate boarding school because an attempt to segregate the children of militants, even in good faith, may have a negative effect. Teenagers, Sokiryanskaya says, will ask why they have ended up there. Moreover, the traditional clerics who will work with them at the school have little authority in the eyes of their families and will struggle to win their trust. Contrary to the project’s aims, this will only force children to shut themselves off from the world.

“The absolute majority of women whose husbands have been killed in raids by special forces will not send their children to this school voluntarily,” Sokiryanskaya suggests. “Several of them have called me already – they see this initiative as an attempt to separate them from their children. Moreover, the plan was to put this boarding school in a village far from Makhachkala. Few would want to send their children there.”

A similar school for orphans from the families of militants and members of security forces has been proposed in Ingushetia. In February, news broke that the head of Ingushetia, Yunus-bek Evkurov, will set up a community council to oversee organisations that work with children. Its members will include civic leaders and widows of militants.

Pupils whose parents died in conflicts with the security forces will go on museum visits together and attend events organised by the patriotic club Turpalkho (“Hero” in Ingush). Civil servants are also promising to provide psychological support and help with employment. Ingushetia’s administration believes that the project will help to eradicate extremism.

In the Caucasus, mentioning that a family member had been a militant is taboo — an even bigger taboo is telling children about it

Magomed Mugoltsev, head of the Ingush human rights organisation MASHR, says that the project is doomed to failure— in the Caucasus, mentioning that a member of a family had been a militant is taboo, and an even bigger taboo is telling children about it. “The republic already has social services that are in charge of education. With this plan, children will be constantly confronted with their family history. It’s like telling children they have a disability. I can see nothing but populism in this initiative. There was nothing to prevent social services organising pastimes for children in the past, without reminding them who their mother or father killed or who killed them,” Mugoltsev notes.


Yunus-bek Evkurov, head of Ingushetia. (с) Andrei Stenin / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Mugoltsev also suggests that the initiative has different aims in mind: “When the children grow up, the authorities will start to harass them constantly. If you do that, any adaptation efforts will be in vain. They need this to legitimise arrests in the future, to keep the children and relatives of militants under control.”

Between 2010 and 2015, there had been almost no mention of any events organised for children from the families of militants in online reports published by local authorities. Most tours, excursions, and gift-giving ceremonies had been for children of deceased members of security forces, sometimes together with children from “socially vulnerable groups”. Whether this included children of militants was never pointed out. Since 2016, events for orphans from the families of militants have been featured prominently.

Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya thinks that the change in rhetoric has to do with the war in Syria: “The situation as it stands is more conducive to prevention: in the last three years, after many Russians went to the Middle East, things have been quiet in the North Caucasus. In 2016, the number of terrorist attacks grew, but not by much, about 10%. Everyone is very clear that this is just a quiet period rather than some sign that the problem had been solved in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics. There has been a directive from the federal authorities to focus more on prevention. Such measures receive significant funding from relevant ministries.”


Children let off steam between lessons in Guli, Ingushetia. (c) Said Tsarnaev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Sokiriyanskaya believes that the project in Ingushetia is more promising than the one in Dagestan, because children will not removed from society.

However, the analyst says that the best practices in helping children of militants adjust are found in Kabardino-Balkaria: “In February, I spoke to families whose relatives had been implicated in the 2005 terrorist attack on Nalchik and they told me that there is no bias against their children at school, they do not stand out. One girl, a school monitor whose father had been sentenced to a very long prison term, was gently asked by the teacher not to skip classes without a reason to avoid questions from the administration. It seems that lists of children from the families of militants are sent to schools, but they are subtle about it.”

“A woman told me that after her husband was killed she lost her job, was stripped of public benefits, and her four-year-old was barred from the nursery”

In Dagestan, it’s the opposite situation: a local police inspector can visit a nursery or a school and tell teachers that a child’s parent was a militant.

In Chechnya, children from the families of armed rebels may even be expelled from an educational establishment. Sokiryanskaya is aware of one such case: “One woman told me that after her husband was killed she lost her job, she was stripped of welfare benefits, and her four-year-old was barred from the nursery. These days, the relatives of militants in Chechnya are evicted from villages; their houses are set on fire.”

Outdated textbooks and nonsense assignments

Another area where the school curriculum in the North Caucasus differs from the rest of Russia is additional subjects such as local languages and history, which are included in the curriculum’s so-called “national-regional component”.

Sergey Manyshev, a history teacher from Makhachkala, says that the quality of these subjects tends to be fairly poor: “Before I started working at the school, I used to think that the Caucasian War [of the 19th century] was something significant for the Caucasian establishment, that everyone knew something about it. As it turned out, schoolchildren and university students know, at best, who Imam Shamil was and that there was a war.”

Manyshev believes that the problem isn’t just the students — the textbook that deals with the Caucasian War was published in 1992. Moreover, schools struggle to provide textbooks used for the nationwide curriculum, too: there are, on average, two copies for a classroom of 20 pupils. As a result, the teachers’ personal views determine many of the things the pupils end up learning.


Portraits of imams hang in Gimri school museum, Dagestan. СС BY-NC-ND 2.0 Varvara Pakhomenko / CRISIS GROUP. Some rights reserved.“Of course, children are often told as a matter of creed that Imam Shamil was ‘our hero’, even if in private some might express a very different view. This is shaped by political games with history. Take, for example, the memorial complex at Akhulgo, which opened earlier this year as a monument to peace and accord. It is absurd: after all, it marks the events of 1839 – that was at the height of the Caucasian War, which lasted another 20 years,” Manyshev confides.

There is no unified approach to teaching local languages in the region, either. In North Ossetia, Ossetian is taught at school in every grade, with two or three lessons a week. “There had been times when we had as many hours of Ossetian in the timetable as Russian and Russian literature. That’s a lot,” says Natalya, a graduate of a school in the village of Arkhonskaya. “They usually divide classes up into speakers and non-speakers. However, in my class there were only four Ossetians out of twenty-three pupils, so they just split us 50-50.”

Natalya says that teaching had been of a high quality in the early years, but later the curriculum was reduced to “short texts by Kosta Khetagurov, the best-known Ossetian poet”. Now, she only knows a few phrases in Ossetian.

“Most of the time, we would just go for a walk rather than write down nonsense from dictation”

In Karachay-Cherkessia, there are separate lessons for Karachay students, who study the language, and Russians, who have “ethnography” classes instead. In the curriculum, both are treated as a single subject.

“Karachay kids were studying their native language. However, no-one knew what to do with us,” recalls Viktoriya, who studied at a school in Ust-Dzhegut. “We would write some strange nonsense from dictation and fill entire notebooks with tiny handwriting without ever thinking of what the texts were. As a rule, ethnography was not taught by the most intelligent of teachers, so most of the time we would just go for a walk rather than write down nonsense from dictation.”

The expertise level of school teachers is a separate issue. According to Manyshev, the history teacher, it is very rare for members of staff at educational establishments to be fired. “I cannot recall a single instance. If someone gets a job, most likely they will hold on to it until they die. Many give bribes to be hired. A few years ago, the going price for a job at an urban school in Makhachkala was up to 250,000 roubles, even though in the region as a whole there is a shortage of teachers. Teachers believe that if they spend that money now, they will eventually get it back,” Manyshev says. He adds that the way they “get it back” is not in salaries, which average 10,000 roubles a month (£140), but in subsequent bribes.

Nursery bribes

Corruption is rife in other kinds of educational establishments in the North Caucasus, too, including pre-schools. According to data from Rosstat, the federal government office for national statistics, the region has the longest waiting lists for nurseries in the country.

In Chechnya, for example, there are 146 children per 100 nursery places. In 2016, just four new nurseries opened in Ingushetia, where, as official data suggest, nursery places are available for just over half of the republic’s children. To fully match demand, the regional Ministry for Education calculates, the republic needs another fifty-five nurseries and over 12,000 nursery places.

To get around the problem of getting their child into a nursery, parents often have to pay. “It does happen, sometimes they ask for a contribution towards the cost of lockers or cleaning supplies, although not always. Unofficially, they ask for around ten thousand [roubles] to secure a place for a child. This is strictly voluntary, each person according to their means,” says a pre-schooler’s mother from Nalchik. According to her, you don’t have to pay, but if you don’t, your children may miss out on a place because of the massive waiting lists. The same is true of almost every republic in the region.

In these circumstances, state schools are supplemented by private educational establishments. However, not every family can afford them. For example, tuition at Prioritet, a private gymnasium in Chechnya founded by war veteran Khalid Islamov, is 120,000 roubles a year (£1,700). In addition to the main curriculum, pupils study creative arts and have individual development sessions; they can also stay the night at the school.

Student immobility

Although the education system in some North Caucasian republics is in deep crisis, school graduates can get into universities outside the region. Sometimes, a lack of preparation is offset by other means.

“When I was sitting the final exams at my school, most kids wanted to follow the rules; unfortunately, however, corruption has permeated education alongside other spheres of life. Many in Dagestan rely too much on shortcuts, money, and connections,” says Zarema, who graduated from one of Makhachkala best schools, Lyceum 39. She followed the official application procedure and now studies at the Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University.


March 2016: students check participant lists before the single state exam on Russian language in Grozny, Chechnya. (с) Said Tsarnaev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Natalya Chuprunova, head of the Foundation of the Association of Educators in Conflict Resolution (FARN), says that corruption has become widespread at universities, as well. Students pay upwards of 20,000 (£280) to pass their mid-term exams. She believes the main problem is the quality of universities themselves: “In the 1990s, there were about 20 new satellite campuses of Russian universities in Ossetia, which charged students fees for courses in law, economics, and management. However, the course content was of very low quality and they did not provide any internships.”

Many school graduates from the Caucasus go to universities elsewhere through a programme of targeted admissions. This allows students to compete for places only with peers from the same region; in exchange, they must return home after getting their degree and work in the local government or at state-owned enterprises for several years.

In Chechnya, this route is not limited to Russian universities. In 2008, Ramzan Kadyrov signed off on the International Cooperation in Education programme; many Chechens call it “the leader’s scholarship’. The selection process is managed by private businesses: London’s INTO World Education Centre and StudyGroup. An agreement is also in place with the German academic exchange service DAAD. Universities in Saudi Arabia, such as the Islamic University in Medina, are another popular destination. Most applicants are under 30.

Ibragim Isyanov, a representative for the Saudi Arabia Universities website that helps with applications to Saudi HE institutions, stresses that the number of students from the North Caucasus is stable but not, by any means, the largest in Russia. To be accepted, applicants need to speak Arabic and “must be Muslims of high moral standing”.

The Chechen dress code

According to University World News, about 90 students from Chechnya take part in such study-abroad programmes each year, but fewer than ten of them are women.

Karina Kotova, a member of the human rights organisation Civil Assistance, notes that women in the region face challenges not only with student mobility, but with employment as well. The organisation’s representatives regularly organise seminars across the North Caucasus, where they have the chance to meet and talk with students from different republics. Kotova says that young people try to steer away from the topic of gender equality: “Everyone is on the same page when it comes to corruption, various checks, or the fact that in the middle of a lecture we may get strange visitors who want to know who is in attendance. However, gender issues are always contentious. Young men, for the most part, object to women raising these issues. In practice, even after young women graduate from universities, they are often precluded from working.”

The human rights advocate brings up the case of one seminar attendee: a young woman who had studied architecture but could not find a job — a Chechen architecture firm told her that she could not work with men.


Chechen women near the Berkat market, Grozny. (c) Ramil Sitdikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved. Within universities, women are also treated differently from men. In Chechnya, the entire public sector is subject to a dress code policy for women: long skirts, long sleeves, and headscarves. This is not typical of the region. Even a few years back, other republics tended towards banning headscarves and the hijab rather than making them compulsory for female students. Sokiryanskaya notes that people are starting to understand that banning the hijab is not the right thing to do, although there is still some confusion over this in Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan.

“Banning the hijab is dangerous because in this scenario, when a girl from a religious family reaches puberty, the family stops sending her to school”

“Banning the hijab is dangerous because in this scenario, when a girl from a religious family reaches puberty, the family stops sending her to school. We know what awaits her then: an early marriage, no education, no ability to defend herself or to lead an independent life in the future,” Sokiryanskaya says.

At the same time, the analyst believes that whether parents want to give their children an education mostly depends on their income, not religiosity. Education is expensive, but if you a marry a girl off, the husband becomes responsible for providing for the family: “In many Salafi families, women work, have their own businesses – there is no incontrovertible assumption that they must stay at home.”

For young people in the North Caucasus, a university diploma is a sign of prestige, although just 10% of graduates pursue further studies at better universities in Russia’s capital cities or abroad, says Natalya Chuprunova, the head of FARN. The choice of institution largely depends on the will of the family. “This is also linked to additional financial support from the parents. Traditionally, parents in the Caucasus continue to support their children for a fairly long time, even after they have established families of their own,” she explains.

The threat of cohesion

There are few learning opportunities outside the state education system in the North Caucasus and awareness campaigns are the preserve of human rights organisations. Often, this leads to friction with local university executives.

Civil Assistance’s Karina Kotova says that some students who had attended their seminars were later called into the rector’s office to explain why they went to these events. “This has nothing to do with the issue of human rights or with our group in particular. They are concerned about any activity outside the university. This kind of cohesion always worries local authorities,” the human rights advocate says.

Not every local expert I interviewed agreed to openly discuss the challenges facing education in the North Caucasus. “If I told you how everything is, I will not get a pat on the back. I can only speak in vague generalities. I doubt that anyone would answer your question truthfully, especially in our republic [Chechnya]. In the past, we knew how to stand our ground. Not anymore,” says a member of one of the republic’s NGOs. Most of the schoolchildren and students I spoke to also insisted on anonymity.


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