Women’s rights in Russia's North Caucasus: between “national traditions” and “ordinary” murders

How the Russian state authorities supports “national traditions” that infringe on the rights of women in the Caucasus. RU

Светлана Анохина
5 June 2018


Women in Grozny, 2012. Photo: Ramil Sitdikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Every time the issue of women’s rights rears its head in Russia’s North Caucasus, defenders of tradition – religious and lay figures alike – solemnly declare that nowhere do women enjoy the kind of protections and respect they receive as they do here. But their slogans in no way coincide with reality, in which monstrous crimes are committed with the tacit consent of society.

Moreover, young people are becoming ever more conservative in their attitudes to women’s rights. And these attitudes are being endorsed by the state authorities – not only at the level of the North Caucasus republics, but at the state level as well.

“Ordinary” murders

In February 2018, the European Court of Human Rights awarded €20,000 in compensation to Khava Bopkhoyeva from the village of Galashki in Ingushetia. Her daughter Zaira was 19 when she was taken to hospital and diagnosed as having been poisoned by “unknown substances”. The girl fell into a coma as a result of impaired oxygen flow to the brain.

A couple of months previously, Zaira had been bride-kidnapped on her way home from college. Though bride-kidnapping is banned – at least on paper – in Chechnya, it is still practised in Ingushetia and North Ossetia. The kidnapper’s mother was unhappy with her son’s choice (“But she’s divorced!”) and Zaira was returned home on the following day. Still, she ended up being married to the man who’d kidnapped her. Zaira didn’t see her husband again, however: he promptly left town, leaving Zaira with his mother and sister. The short period Zaira spent with her new family was punctuated by several trips to hospital: a previously healthy young woman, she experienced poisoning symptoms and suffered from epilepsy-like seizures. Two months later, an ambulance finally removed Zaira from her mother-in-law’s house.


Zaira Bopkhoyeva. Source: Bopkhoyev Family / Pravovoye sodeistvie - Astreya.

There’s a lot of unpleasant details in Zaira Bopkhoyeva’s case. Khava Bopkhoyeva, Zaira’s mother, was prevented from initiating criminal proceedings on eight occasions. Zaira herself, meanwhile, remained utterly powerless throughout: kept in her husband’s house as a prisoner, she wasn’t allowed to contact her mother and had her phone confiscated. But perhaps the most appalling detail of all is the role played by Zaira’s relatives on her late father’s side.

Having learnt of her abduction, seven men – individuals on whose help and support the girl could ostensibly rely – lured her out of her home and took her to a forest.

Subjecting Zaira to an hours-long beating, they interrogated her as to whether she and her kidnapper had been physically intimate, and eventually came to a decision: Zaira would return to the man who’d kidnapped her and become his wife. They would play no further part in her fate. Zaira is now 27. She still hasn’t come out of her coma, and no one’s been punished for what was done to her – a perfect illustration, but far from the only one, of the “respect” and “protections” accorded to women in the North Caucasus.


Maryam Magomedova. Source: The New Times / Magomedov Family.

Divorced and living with her mother in Moscow, Maryam Magomedova was lured back to her home village of Nechaevka in Dagestan on the pretext of attending her cousin’s wedding. Kusum Magomedova found her daughter’s body in a freshly dug grave in the village cemetery. Maryam was killed by relatives on her father’s side. As in Zaira’s case, everyone around knew what was going on, but Maryam would have vanished without a trace had it not been for her mother’s tenacity. Violating an unspoken social contract that required her, at the very least, to remain silent, Kusum brought the matter to court.

Doing so, however, is often only half the battle. Lawyers representing defendants in trials on so-called “honour killings” have begun deploying a remarkable new rhetorical strategy. The fact that their client is sitting in the dock instead of accepting congratulations merely points, they claim, to the inadequacy of the law. Consider, for example, a speech made by lawyer Ilyas Timishev at the trial of Sultan Daurbekov, who confessed to murdering his daughter in 2015. Timishev wasted no time in denying the guilt of his client. Summoning the full force of his eloquence, Timishev explained that such murders are actually “a good custom”, and one “designed to protect the woman’s honour and dignity”. It’s all done for the victim’s benefit, you see: “He didn’t kill her,” said Timishev. “We ought to put it like this: he removed her from life so she wouldn’t bring shame on herself, on her father and on all her close relatives. That would be more accurate.”

There’s little novelty in Timishev’s arguments; the only novelty is that they’re being made by a lawyer during a criminal trial. But the general idea has long been entrenched in the public consciousness: “Woman! If you’re killed, you’ll have only yourself to blame, unmindful as you’ve been of the fact that every aspect of your existence is determined by your relatives – first by your father, your brothers, your uncles, and subsequently by your husband or even your son. You are their chattel.” And what rights are accorded to items of chattel? None: not over their own lives, nor their own bodies.

A few years ago, a court in Dagestan examined a murder case in which the victim was a 14-year-old girl. After a days-long search, some relatives found the girl’s corpse near her home. The deceased’s father, who played an active role in the search, went to the police that same day and confessed that he’d killed the girl in a fit of anger on discovering that she was “sleeping around”. Some time later, however, new evidence emerged, and the picture completely changed. This morally upstanding father, it turned out, had raped his child over a period of two years. And when the girl finally resisted and threatened to expose his misdeeds, he grew fearful that she’d go through with her threat – and strangled her to death.

Intra-familial sexual violence is a taboo topic. And perhaps Timishev would fail to see a direct link between the existence of a “good custom that protects a woman’s honour” and incest. But once the “right to take life” and the “right to inflict violence”, physical and psychological alike, are effectively enshrined in law, the “right over a woman’s body” is very quick to materialise as well.

“National traditions”

Honour killings are not a ubiquitous phenomenon, of course. But they do exist, and they’re justified on the basis of tradition, which renders any discussion around women’s rights absurd. Furthermore, there has been a recent tendency to make allowances for “national traditions” even in court, especially when it comes to post-divorce custody decisions. We’ve witnessed many cases of Ingush and Chechen women being forcibly separated from their children. So many, in fact, that one is tempted simply to focus on those where everything ended happily.


Elita Magomadova. Source: Instagram.

Having reviewed Elita Magomadova’s appeal, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in April 2018 that her right to family life had been violated and awarded her €15,000 in compensation for moral damages. This marks the first time that a case concerning familial relations in Chechnya has been resolved in such a senior court.

Elita’s son was returned to her only in 2016, three years after the boy was kidnapped and relocated from Moscow to Chechnya by her ex-husband.

Elita did her best to put up a fight. But the Russian court ruled again and again that the child would remain with his father. Even after the latter was killed in a road accident, his relatives still refused to give the child back to her mother. Though Elita managed to win the case following numerous legal proceedings, the court bailiffs spread their arms in a gesture of helplessness: we cannot find the child! Desperate now, Elita appealed to the ECHR, which sent an inquiry to Russia. As was to be expected, however, our country failed to recognise that any rights violation had taken place. The court’s decision not to return the kidnapped child to her mother and leave him in the care of his father’s family was explained with reference to “the national idiosyncrasies of child-rearing in Chechen families”.

People wishing to join the battle against “immorality”, whatever the meaning of that word, are a dime a dozen. But sometimes the participants in this battle go beyond the usual teenager users of Youtube and social media groups and include state officials. For instance, in 2016, Gadzhimet Safaraliev, the then head of the State Duma Committee for Nationality Affairs, recommended that one participant should never reveal that she was, in fact, from there. Why? Because Albina Ildarova had posed for swimsuit photos, as per the contest’s requirements.

“Patriarchal paradigms manifest themselves more strongly in the Caucasus than elsewhere in Russia,” Irina Kosterina, sociologist and coordinator of the Henrich Böll Foundation’s Gender Democracy initiative, explains.

“In certain republics, gender relations are strongly influenced by local traditions and customs that regulate social distance, interaction rituals and sometimes also people’s behaviour and appearance. Local researchers and journalists may enjoy writing about the ‘special role of women in society in the North Caucasus’, but they certainly don’t enjoy writing about the problematic side of things: washing your dirty linen in public, they believe, is a definite no-no. Men in the North Caucasus are particularly averse to the topic, regarding the slightest reference to women’s rights infringements as a potshot aimed in their collective direction and serving to undermine their reputations.”

A new generation chooses

Two years ago, a group of researchers from the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy conducted a study of the values held by Dagestani Muslims. Troubled though Dagestan might be, 60% of respondents felt “secure”, while 85% declared themselves to be “happy” or “relatively happy”. The questionnaire also featured questions about family and relationships with children. Older people, as it turned out, were generally in favour of the idea of working women, with 90% asserting that women could work as long as they had someone to leave the children with. The equivalent percentage among the younger generation was far lower – a mere 64% – and dropped to 59% among adherents of “non-traditional Islam” (so-called Salafis). But the latter group also proved more tolerant to the idea of women taking the initiative in the search for a husband, with 33% in favour (as compared to a mere nine percent among “secularised Muslims”).

Respondents were also presented with a hypothetical scenario featuring a ne’er-do-well son, a straight-A daughter and a paterfamilias who can afford to educate only one of his two children. 59% of all respondents suggested that he should accord this privilege to the daughter, but only 49% of younger respondents agreed. 40% said that the daughter should be given her own say in the matter, while 19% maintained that she be married off.

That young people hold conservative attitudes towards women’s rights was also evidenced during a Dagestani talk show on the subject at the time. The talk show’s interactive audience was made up of law school students, and only two of them answered in the affirmative to the question of whether “women in Dagestan have problems”. As it turned out, one of the two had misunderstood the question, while the second proved more unwavering and dug in his heels: “Yes, they do! Many girls don’t dress properly!”

The discussion eventually segued into a family-versus-career debate. The girls among the student audience were asked the following question: what would you do if your other half refused to allow you to continue your studies or go into work after graduating from law school? Not a single girl answered that she’d stand up for her herself and assert her right to have her own plans and forge her own way in life. They were then asked if the very wording of the question didn’t trouble and disconcert them. Did they really believe that anyone, no matter how beloved, had the right to give them – grown adults now – consent to do anything, or to withhold that consent? Cue an awkward silence in the studio – a silence interrupted by a sonorous, girlish voice: “Yes!” “Why?” “He’s responsible for me!”

But “responsibility”, as men in the North Caucasus understand it, isn’t about ensuring that women feel happy and protected. It’s about ensuring that they don’t step out of line. Which entails keeping them under control. A control that can be all-encompassing. A colleague of mine – a woman who’d been working in Chechnya for a couple of months – once made an obscure quip: if a young Chechen hasn’t checked his iPhone for an hour, his sister must be married! No one got what she meant. “Well,” she explained, “if his sister’s married, it’s up to the husband to make sure she’s kept in check. But if she isn’t, any ‘upstanding’ Chechen brother will monitor her every move through her phone’s GPS.”

“A different purpose”

Discussions around gender inequality tend to focus on the male-female wage gap, on “glass ceilings”, on the fact that a woman stands less chance of getting a job than a man with the same level of qualifications, and on the list of occupations from which women are legislatively barred. But in the Caucasus, this list is much broader than elsewhere, and people become acquainted with it long before they actively consider potential employment avenues. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” a five-year-old girl is asked. She answers – and confronts the reality of her world for the first time.

Zarina Beksalova, a teacher from Ingushetia whom I contacted for comment on this matter, didn’t confine herself to a two-sentence response. She sent me an extensive letter, and a very bitter and acerbic one. If we weren’t acquainted, I would never have believed that this young woman, who wears a hijab, could have written something of this kind. I’ll end by quoting two excerpts from Zarina’s letter, followed by her title. She insisted that I don’t omit the latter.

In my conversations with my students, I often tell them about the diversity of professions in the world: there are people who pick up penguins in the Arctic, marine biologists, archaeologists, animators, freelance correspondents, sailors in the navy, etc. The girls listen with great enthusiasm, ask interesting questions, express their concerns. Then someone pipes up: ‘I won’t be allowed to train as an archaeologist. I’m a girl and I have to choose a girly profession.’ She’s followed by a second girl, a third, a fourth, a tenth, all of them breaking out into bitter lamentations.

Girls are barred from many occupations because they serve a ‘different purpose’. Furthermore, ‘men are smarter and stronger / women must wholly submit to the will of their families / girls haven’t the right to study abroad / women’s opinions aren’t taken into account’. A woman can be forcibly married off at any time and to whatever husband her patrilineal relatives deem appropriate. Divorce proceedings, too, can only be initiated with the permission of her family’s menfolk. In our society, a divorcee loses even the little power she wielded as an ‘innocent’ girl or as a married woman.

The absurdity of it all is encapsulated by the fact that widow, divorcee and woman of easy virtue are all rendered by a single Ingush word – zhiiro. I don’t think I really need to expand upon how hard it is to be divorced or widowed in a patriarchal society where everyone can construe the meaning of ‘zhiiro-hood’ however they please. But the time has come for us women to decide what role we are to map out for ourselves in any of the world's communities, and how (if at all) this choice is influenced by this or that status.

Zarina Beksalova, zhiiro.

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