'Don't wear too little but don't wear too much’ is how one could sum up Chechen women’s situation in terms of clothing. They are now obliged to wear a headscarf in official buildings but forbidden to wear a head covering that hides their forehead and their chin (as it would allegedly show sympathy with the Caucasian insurrection). For young women in particular, feeling that they have to cover up while remaining ‘sexy,’ the dress code puts them in a seemingly absurd position. But what does it tell us about their life?
While social pressures dictate Chechen women dress modesty, the women of Grozny still enjoy wearing bright colours.The first time I went to Chechnya I got it wrong, clothes-wise. Friends who had been there had told me to cover up, so my suitcase was full of dark, loose-fitting clothes. Little did I know.
Young women in Grozny like bright colours, bold prints, make-up, and very high heels. They also have a soft spot for exuberant accessorising – big earrings that say YSL, leather pochettes, glittery phone cases. They can't wear trousers, sleeveless tops, or short skirts, but they still often favour tight clothes. Looking good is very important, especially if you're young and unmarried.‘Have you ever watched The Stepford Wives?’ asked a cheerful young Chechen girl, as we browsed through dresses in a shop called Domodo. She continued: ‘Well, Chechen women are Stepford Wives. We're expected to be perfect, to do everything in the house and when the man comes home, to go: “here's a cookie honey.”’
Young women in Grozny like bright colours, bold prints, make-up and very high heels.
In Chechnya, the way women dress has been in the spotlight for years. After the brutal Second Chechen War and the access of Ramzan Kadyrov to power, the authorities engaged in a ‘virtue campaign’ for women – with the headscarf policy at its core. They enforced a compulsory dress code on women in public institutions, including schools, government offices and hospitals.
The slow evolution of prescribed dress codes has worked because women don't have any choice. Everyone here knows that the orders came from the central government and then trickled down. The restrictions on women's clothing are contrary to Russian law, but female students are aware that security guards won't let them into the university if they don't respect the dress code, while government workers know that they could lose their job. These rules are often referred to as the ‘modesty laws’, though they are in fact not enshrined in legislation and are unconstitutional.
The fiercest critic of the modesty laws, Natalia Estemirova, a leading researcher for the Memorial Human Rights Centre in Chechnya, was abducted and murdered in July 2009. A couple of months before, Ramzan Kadyrov had dismissed her from Grozny City Human Rights Council and threatened her, following the airing of an interview in which she criticised the headscarf policy. Her killers still haven't been identified.
The slow evolution of prescribed dress codes has worked because women don't have any choice.
Chechen women are often ambivalent about the dress code. I spoke to Layla, who remembers the whole evolution of restrictions on women's clothing, which happened while she was at university. ‘It started with the headscarf when I was a first-year student,’ she says, ‘and then it snowballed. I remember the first time I heard I needed to wear a headscarf to enter the building. There were lots of people outside and my girlfriend told me about it. I just didn't understand.’ By 2011, at the end of Layla's fifth year in college, women had to wear long sleeves and long skirts.
Clothes as performance
Even though dress codes have been invented and enforced by Kadyrov's government, many women have come to see them as being justified by Chechen traditions, a posteriori. ‘Chechen women always dressed modestly,’ says Khadija, a government worker. ‘Married women always covered their head. The traditional outfit for women consists of long sleeves and a long skirt.’ Young women don't remember Soviet times, when Chechen society was more secular and more mixed (when lots of non-Chechens lived in Grozny), and women had more freedom to choose the way they dressed.
Having to change throughout the day can be an interesting experiencet, an occasion to test the performative value of clothes. ‘Wearing a headscarf, long sleeves and a long skirt makes me behave in a different way,’ Khadija told me. ‘I'm more feminine. I can't run. It's actually very impractical for my work, but still, I got used to it.’ Assia, who is younger and remembers with fondness the time when she was able to dress the way she wanted because she lived in exile abroad during the second war, wears other clothes underneath her work clothes. She changes as soon as she leaves her office. ‘It's as if they were trying to kill all your personality,’ she says. ‘I feel like that, as if they were trying to kill me. I think choosing what to wear is our last freedom but they try to steal even that.’
‘It's as if they were trying to kill all your personality.’
Some women have to put on a headscarf when they come home. They have become experts at tying it really fast at the last minute, when they are one street away. It often feels playful, like a game you have to play in order to pretend that you are the woman that your parents or your brothers want you to be. Sometimes, however, if their relatives are abusive, it feels creepy, as if this little piece of cloth was a symbol of everything that is wrong with this place. Other women are happy to be seen wearing a headscarf, and do it as a sign of religiosity.
On the clothes policing front, things have actually got better in Chechnya. In summer 2010, there were reports that in the capital, unidentified men, including law enforcement agents, had attacked women who weren't wearing headscarves, shooting at them from paintball guns. This has stopped.
But something else has started happening. This September, there were reports that a woman wearing a hijab had been abducted by government officials in Grozny and held somewhere for a short period of time. Responding to the media outcry this event had caused, Kadyrov made a statement where he said women in Chechnya should wear a head covering of a traditional Chechen type but not one that, in his view, showed a different practice of Islam, and expressing possible sympathies with the North Caucasus insurgency. ‘In Chechnya, women shouldn't be wearing black and a head covering that covers their forehead and their chin. (...) As for men, if they wear a beard in Wahhabi style, we will not only shave it but we will cut their heads off!’
Women from Chechnya's Ministry of Culture displaying 'ideal' Chechen dress in front of a large portrait of President Kadyrov.
In a video, which recently appeared on Kavkaz Center, the news portal of the Caucasian Emirate, a young Chechen man used these recent events as an excuse to justify the 4 December attack on Grozny by a group of Caucasian Emirate fighters. ‘We are coming for our Muslim sisters,’ he said. ‘No one can lay a hand on them!’ Women thus seem to be caught in the middle of a PR battle enacted by men.
‘As for men, if they wear a beard in Wahhabi style, we will not only shave it but we will cut their heads off!’
A dire situation
‘This creates a very difficult situation for women in Chechnya,’ Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch told me, ‘where they are not free to decide whether to cover their head or not.’
Lokshina explained that, ‘Human Rights Watch is not an organisation that is either for headscarves or against them. But we are for the right of women to choose the way they dress. We are equally critical about restrictions on secular dress for women in Chechnya, and restrictions on head covering in a number of European countries,’ she added.
When we spoke on the phone about the situation of women in Chechnya, Lokshina remarked that ‘Kadyrov at least seems to have managed to quash bridal kidnapping, putting pressure on the mullahs so that they would no longer wed underage women. So this is one improvement which seems to have been achieved by authoritarian means.’
‘Aside from this,’ she continued, ‘the general situation of women in Chechnya, not only dress, is very dire. There is a serious issue with domestic violence, which is very much a taboo and is very difficult to talk about. What contributes to domestic violence is that, according to traditional Chechen law, in case of divorce, children remain with the father's family. As a result, many Chechen women who are beaten up and abused by their husbands remain in these abusive relationships because they know that if they walk away they will lose their children. And this is not fair...’
When I asked her why she thinks Kadyrov has led a blatantly aggressive campaign against women, Lokshina said she thought ‘he tried to bolster his popularity in a way similar to the way Putin has tried to bolster his popularity, by mobilising the conservative majority.’ She added: ‘If you look into the way he rules Chechnya I think it's fairly obvious that he wants to control every aspect of public life in Chechnya, including what we view to be private life. He blatantly intrudes in the realm of the private, explaining to women how they should dress, what their head covering should look like, how they should comport themselves, and then punishing them for not complying.’
Once, I went to one of Grozny's women-only swimming pools, in one of the big shopping centres. There, I met a young girl, who was so taken by my breast-stroke she asked me to teach her how to do the same. Like many Chechen women (and men), she hadn't really learned to swim. I tried to teach her the breast-stroke, and she became quite good at it, except for some reason she was only able to do it underwater. I thought she was 15 or 16. When we got out of the water, dried off and sat down, she told me about her life. She was actually in her early 20's. Although we weren't supposed to use our phones inside the pool, she showed me photos of her husband, and a photo of her, all dressed up, clad in a hijab, posing in a thickly-carpeted living room. Then she showed me a video of her and a baby boy, splashing water in a stream. It was on repeat, and I didn't understand why at first. ‘He was taken away from me after I broke up with his father,’ she said, ‘so I did this’ (showing me faint light scars on her wrist). We looked at the little boy for a long time; and he repeatedly kept laughing and splashing water in the stream, next to his mother.
Names for this story have been changed.
Standfirst and second image (c) RIA Novosti/Said Tsarnayev