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Chechnya’s women face fresh constraints, new rules and increased violence sanctioned from above. At home, they are subject to unwritten codes that systematically disenfranchise them. They must brave all this to enforce their rights under the Russian constitution. Beyond that, there is only the European Court of Human Rights.

Zalina Magomadova
19 July 2012

Women in Chechnya find themselves in a complex and contradictory situation. On the one hand, living within the framework of the Russian constitution, as members of Russian society, they aspire to modern lives, on secular lines. They want to work outside the home and to play active roles in the community. On the other, they have to live within the context of a society which has relapsed in recent years into religiously-influenced attitudes towards women. 

Chechen government officials are forever announcing new rules and norms that constrain women. They demand compliance with rigid behavioural codes, of which the notorious dress code is not even the worst. So women are once again relegated to second-class status in society and the family. They are subject to constant psychological oppression.


Women of all ages still suffer under the rigid patriarchal traditions of North Caucasusisn society; they are often denied access to their children and even thrown out of their homes. Photo: RIA/Said Tarnayev

The agenda of our political leaders for the moral and spiritual edification of the Chechen people begins and ends with the censure of women. From our TV screens and in our local papers  they dictate rules for women: what we should look like and how we should conduct themselves.

This extends to outright violence and the violation of women’s basic human rights. The security cadres confiscate cell phones from women, to prevent potential illicit contact with men. They initiated a campaign of paintball shootings against women who were walking in the street without headscarves. They endorse so-called ‘honour killings’ of supposedly immoral women, in order to ‘set an example’. When the government itself perpetrates and endorses violence against women, it is hardly surprising that this leads to a rise in violence against women in the family as well, at the hands of their husbands.

'Chechen women are caught between three legal systems: Russian law, ancient, patriarchal Chechen and Sharia law. In reality, Russian law has little effect on the lives of Chechen women – their fate is decided according to adat.'

To give you a recent example: in 2011 a woman was brought to Grozny’s maternity hospital, eight months pregnant and threatened with a miscarriage. Her face and body were covered in dark bruises. Her husband had beaten her because she hadn’t managed to get him his tea fast enough (or maybe she didn’t feel like serving his every whim, which would have been just as well). When the doctors took an ultrasound reading of her belly, they saw that the foetus also showed bruises from her father’s beating. The woman had three other small children at home and could see no way out of her predicament. She had nowhere to go with her children, she had no work, no home, no close relatives. She just kept crying and saying that the best outcome for her and her unborn daughter would be if they both died in childbirth. Her only regret was that her remaining children would be left without a mother. In the end, she had no choice but to return home to her husband with her newborn daughter, for the sake of her children.

There are many women like her, who cannot escape violent marriages because they would lose their children, or because they simply cannot put a roof over their children’s head. We would like to see the government provide housing to single and divorced mothers, so they could obtain custody and walk out of violent marriages.

Why should the government do this, people ask us? Even if a single mother cannot find work, isn’t the father supposed to pay alimony to support his children? But these days in Chechnya, alimony simply never happens. Asking for alimony, in the rare cases where a mother does win custody of her children, would be considered scandalous, shameless. A Chechen man to lose his children and still pay for them? Inconceivable! Although our team has helped women with many custody cases, we never brought an alimony case. We routinely advise our clients to sue for alimony, but they always decline. If I asked for alimony,’ they say, ‘That would only make everything worse. They would surely take my children away for that,’ or ‘If I did that my children could never have a normal relationship with their father’s side.’ 

During Soviet times, women would automatically get alimony in a divorce ruling. Gender equality was an official policy, after all. So here in Chechnya we have a situation where older women raised their daughters with the help of state-enforced alimony, but today their daughters could never get alimony from their ex-husbands.

Our officials are always telling us how, according to Islam, women mustn’t do this or that.  But none of them seem to care about improving women’s social welfare, creating jobs for them, or relieving women of the burden of hard physical labor. They don’t seem to care, although in Islam women are meant to be protected from having to do hard labour, or from working in the crowded, exhausting conditions of open-air markets. How is a woman meant to work on a construction site or in a market stall in the full ‘Islamic’ get-up that our government recommends? Clearly, they pick and choose only those rules of Islam that fit their agenda. That of bullying and oppressing women.

That was the recent experience of one divorced young mother who was about to lose her baby to her ex-husband’s family, a scenario only too common. Except that this young mother is a lawyer herself, who has brought many custody cases on behalf of her female clients. She and her husband divorced while she was pregnant with their first child. Soon after giving birth, her ex-husband tried to force her to give up her baby. He mobilised an Islamic judge, a qadi (who works for the government-controlled Muftiyat, or Islamic Spiritual Board). The qadi called – not the mother herself, but her older brother, who is considered his sister’s guardian – and demanded that the child be handed over to the father. He started by saying that adat mandated it. But the brother refused. As an Islamic scholar, he said, the qadi ought to apply Sharia law, under which infants and small children stay with their mothers. Embarrassed, the qadi apologised and promised not to call again. But the young mother has no peace of mind. She knows that the father’s family keep pushing her male relatives to hand over the baby. Her ex-husband’s female relatives keep harassing her. They scold her mother for having such an ignorant daughter, who doesn’t know how a proper Chechen woman ought to behave.  They make her feel as if she had never been anything but a surrogate to them.

'The majority of Chechen women do not know their rights.They regard themselves as being unprotected and can see no way out, which explains why Chechen women so rarely turn to law enforcement to protect their rights.'

The surveys we have made among women show that some 90% of Chechen women, a very significant percentage, are aware of these contradictions in the government’s propaganda and policies on women and Islam. But in our republic today the authorities are not interested in the opinions of women. They don’t take them into account.

Yet our surveys also show that a majority of Chechen women do not know their rights. They do not know how these rights are enshrined in the constitution of our country. They regard themselves as being unprotected and can see no way out. Likewise, they have no knowledge of Islamic law or our national customary laws, which we call adat. This ignorance of the law, and women’s lack of access to legal institutions explain why Chechen women so rarely turn to law enforcement to protect their rights.

Chechen women today are caught between three legal systems: Russian law, ancient Chechen adat and Sharia law. Of these three, regrettably, the Russian constitution, and the laws based on it have the least purchase on the life of a Chechen woman. In reality, all family and household matters (in short, the fate of women) are decided according to the patriarchal traditions of adat.  Those in positions of power are all too keen to support this situation. Propaganda in support of these archaic traditions in the local, government-controlled media has led to increasing violations of women’s rights, to women’s suffering and sometimes to tragedy.

Adat holds that in case of divorce, Chechen women cannot keep their children. Often they cannot even visit them, or play any part in their upbringing. Nor, when the husband dies, can the woman inherit substantial property, such as land, housing, cars or money. At best, if she has a son (who will inherit his late father’s property), the latter will provide her with a roof over her head.

There has been massive propaganda for polygamy in recent years. This, plus the ostentatiously displayed example of the republic’s leadership has led to widespread growth of this ‘custom’. Faced by these situations, women have no say. They are forced to suffer insults and humiliation.   

Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the republic, has a penchant for marrying local teenage celebrity singers, one of whom, Tamila Sagaipova, recorded a song in May 2012 about being the favourite of his 11 wives. CDs of the song were sold in the market until the security forces confiscated and destroyed them.

How does adat actually play out? Its rules are unwritten, and often quite vague. In the case of a conflict, the male relatives of both parties meet to discuss the case. Women never participate in these discussions, even if the case concerns them. They have no say in the decision, either. Women and children are simply subject to the decisions of men. If a woman’s relatives feel sympathetic for her, they might support her interests. The woman’s side has more chance of success if they are powerful people. Conversely, if one side is poor and lacks political clout, they’re not likely to come away successful, whether or not adat is on their side.  The parties are themselves judge, jury and executioner, with no impartial decisions or third-party enforcement.

The Chechen government has now created a Commission on Family Conflict. This is staffed by experts on adat who are tasked with resolving cases in which the two sides cannot come to an agreement. Its practice so far suggests that the Commission is merely part of the apparatus for implementing the government’s overall policy of putting women in their place.

Being psychologically, socially and materially dependent on their husbands, most Chechen women are denied recourse to the Russian legal system and the official law enforcement structures. Often they do not know their own rights, or how to defend them. However, when women do get expert support to access the official legal system, it can make a big difference.

'A worrying trend has emerged recently - court judges privately advise women to resolve their disputes according to adat, despite the fact that they are professionally bound to apply Russian law.'

Recently, for example, a young woman walked into a local NGO’s office with her mother. Tearfully, the women told their story. When she was pregnant, the young woman had been kicked out of her home by her husband and his relations, for some trifling reason. A few months later, while living with her mother, she gave birth to a daughter. After several months, her husband’s relatives came to her. Or rather, they didn’t actually come to her, but to her male relatives on her father’s side. Citing Chechen adat, they demanded that the baby be handed over to them. Since the poor woman’s relatives also favour strict observance of adat, they forced her to give away her baby. For a year, the stricken woman kept trying at least to see her daughter. But her ex-husband’s aunts hid the baby from her, declaring ‘You will never see that child again. It’s not your baby, it’s ours.’ The young mother turned to religious leaders, to the imam of the local mosque, but no one could help her. Everyone just sighed sympathetically and counseled her to forget about the child and find herself a new, better husband. Then someone directed her towards a women’s rights organisation.  A few days after her first visit, the organisation’s lawyer pressed charges against her husband for kidnapping the child. The police soon located the child in a remote mountain village and returned her to her mother.

Successful outcomes like this are very rare. More often, such cases drag on for years, blighting the lives of the children and their mother. Ironically, it was the father’s own hostile conduct after the divorce that made this fast resolution possible. After giving birth, the mother asked her ex-husband for his ID, so she could register him as the father on the baby’s birth certificate. He refused to cooperate, out of spite. Since he was not listed on the birth certificate, he had no right to the child, under the law. This made the kidnapping charges possible.

Especially heartbreaking is the lot of elderly women who are childless, or at least who have no son and heir. Since adat holds that the woman cannot inherit substantial property when her husband dies, these women cannot enjoy, or otherwise dispose of, the wealth the couple have acquired in the course of their married lives. Worse still, they are obliged to move out of their own homes.Not that it always goes so smoothly when women do turn to the law for help. One of our cases last year illustrates a worrying trend in recent years. Our lawyer went to court with a client seeking custody of her children. In the privacy of his chambers, the judge told the woman that she should resolve the matter according to adat, meaning she should leave the children with their father and get married again. Our lawyer reminded him that he was professionally bound to apply Russian law, and that he had better do his job. In the court session that followed, the judge did award the woman custody of her children. But had she not been accompanied by a lawyer no one would have called the judge to account. Being a Chechen man himself, he might not have been all that motivated to grant a woman custody.  If the matter were settled out of court, under adat, it would mean less paperwork for him.

Over the past year, our lawyer has been working on just such a case. He managed to get a court decision in favour of the widow, Maryem. But the bailiffs were unable to evict the late husband’s relatives from the house. For after his death they had occupied it, claiming adat.  Maryem is not only forced to continue living in a rented apartment instead of the house she owns under the law. She lives in fear that they will ‘punish’ her for going to a Russian court, for turning to the law, rather than submitting to Chechen adat.

The Russian federal government ignores these systemic violations of their law.  So women’s organisations play a vital role. They are in a position to be able to help women who have decided to fight for their rights. They can also offer moral and psychological support to women who are not yet prepared to take legal steps.

There is only one way forward open to us. We’ve got to promote awareness of women’s rights. We must demand recourse to the Russian constitution in order to protect those rights. The number of claims filed in the official courts has risen, as has the number of cases won by women.

This is what inspires women, and their lawyers too.  These precedents are crucially important. For in Chechnya, people are as cynical about the legal system as they are unaware of their rights. Successful precedents allow people to believe that the law can work for them. When a woman wins custody of her children or title to her late husband’s house, word spreads. Other women are persuaded to give it a try. In the past two to three years, more women have been coming to us asking for help in the courts. And when they do, they specifically mention cases they’ve heard about. The more cases we win, the more women will come to NGOs like ours, seeking justice and legal aid. 

What we need now is for a Chechen woman to defend her rights all the way to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. And we need her to win her case. Such cases take years, of course. And they put the applicant under great duress. But such a judgment is particularly important for Chechnya. For it would make our local judges think twice before making shoddy decisions that violate women’s rights. It would strengthen the hand of the law over local prejudice and community pressure. Russian courts of appeal are reluctant to overrule lower court decisions. But the ECHR has no such qualms. A mere handful of cases won in Strasbourg will give us game-changing institutional support.

The author, a long-serving human rights defender from Chechnya, is not writing under her own name, so we cannot identify her organisation. 

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