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Book review: Veiled and unveiled in Chechnya and Dagestan

This new book aims to “unveil” society in Chechnya and Dagestan — instead, it’s a perfect guide of how not to write about the North Caucasus.

Chechen women cry watching a performance about Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens to Central Asia, Grozny, 2013. Photo (c): Associated Press / Musa Sadulayev. All rights reserved.When I was offered to review Veiled and Unveiled in Chechnya and Dagestan, I was thrilled. The book is based on a decade of fieldwork and interviews with many people in Dagestan and Chechnya. And as a researcher of the North Caucasus, I know how rare up-to-date data from the region is — and how difficult it is for outsiders to conduct field work there. 

Most universities refuse to sign off on ethical clearance to conduct fieldwork there, citing government warnings advising against all travel. Even if a researcher does make it there, a foreign passport can set off red flags, inviting unwanted government attention and harassment which can discourage even the most dogged investigator. Indeed, I’ve had my share of obstacles — I look somewhat local (Armenian), have a semi-local passport (Armenian), have family connections to the region and speak fluent Russian. I imagine the scrutiny the book’s authors, Polish researchers Iwona Kaliszewska and Maciej Falkowski, experienced over the course of ten years was much more invasive.

What piqued my interest further was the book’s presentation as a “portrait of life” that focuses on girls and women in the North Caucasus. With the bulk of popular and academic literature on the region focused on the macro-level dynamics of ethnicity, Islam, and war, I was looking forward to a book that would shift focus to women’s everyday lives.

“Eastern cults” and western myths

The book, however, is littered with orientalist tropes and two-dimensional caricatures of people. 

This is unfortunately emblematic of how many westerners write about the North Caucasus. Sarah Kendzior addressed this in her 2013 article The Wrong Kind of Caucasian, which a dissected the American media’s reaction to the revelation that the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers were of Chechen heritage. 

In it, Kendzior said: “Knowing nothing of the Tsarnaev’s motives, and little about Chechens, the American media tore into Wikipedia and came back with stereotypes. The Tsarnaevs were stripped of their 21st century American life and became symbols of a distant land, forever frozen in time.” In a similar vein, Veiled and Unveiled often turns its subjects into symbols of an “exotic” culture. 
Veiled and Unveiled often feels like a long moan about the various ways in which Chechens and Dagestanis fail to live up to the authors’ standards.  

Kaliszewska and Falkowski’s approach to the subject is perplexing, as the book has ample evidence of their deep knowledge of the region. The authors draw on historical issues that are significant and relevant to contemporary realities and present them in an engaging narrative. Not everyone can do this. They zoom in on the tensions between co-existing, yet contradictory narratives in the region rather than doing what most commentators do — to present one side or another to outside audiences. 

The authors’ discussion of the “mutual permeation” of Islam and Communism in Dagestan is a good example. Acknowledging that Bolshevism did not completely replace Islam, especially in Dagestan’s mountain districts, Kaliszewska and Falkowski show that the new order was synthesised with the old. People continued to read the Koran and children still learned Arabic. This is an important contribution because it goes beyond popular, taken-for-granted discourse about the rigidity and incompatibility of differing social hierarchies. 

Another example is the discussion about the allure among [contemporary] Muslim youth in Russia of rejecting Russia’s Central Islamic Spiritual Board (Muftiat), the successor to official Soviet-era Islamic institutions, in favour of radicalisation. While ideology is a factor in the embrace of political Islam by some youth, the authors don’t overemphasise its influence or divorce radicalisation from the local context. Instead, Kaliszewska and Falkowski contextualise the issue, highlighting the unpopularity of the Muftiat over its corruption and inability to accommodate diversity of thought, as well as the choice of global political Islam as a form of protest against the opaque Russian political system. 

Similarly, the authors attribute the rise of polygamy in the eastern North Caucasus to the fact that having multiple wives has become a way of gaining social capital at a time of extremely uncertain socio-political realities and high unemployment. It’s also a place where men are frequent targets of violence and humiliation by the authorities. The question of polygamy and men’s social stature in general is clearly more complex than simply attributing it to some irrational eastern cult. 

These everyday issues and social relations are presented in a nuanced way, highlighting people's everyday strategies for navigating a constantly changing world. 

Not wild enough

How then can the authors, who make such insightful observations and who have numerous personal encounters with locals, dispense such clichéd stereotypes about them? It is not only disappointing, it is mystifying. 

For example, the authors explain that “Wahhabis” are a stereotype imaginary — a political scapegoat used by the authorities to harass and profile — and yet they proceed to search for Wahhabis every place they go, in every person they meet. In Dagestan, they repeatedly refer to their hosts as “Wahhabi”, and when it turns out they are just devout, the authors continue to call them “Wahhabis”. (“It is time for the evening salah. Our ‘Wahhabis’ ask for a basin of water and a towel.”) 

Why is this necessary? Even if this is a sarcastic rhetorical device used to mock the dominant discourse, the audience has already been treated to lengthy explanations about the term’s political instrumentalisation. Why can’t we just move past this to learn about them as people? 

Kaliszewska and Falkowski set out the contradictions in their subjects’ statements. But rather than analysing these statements, they somehow feel the need to make moralising judgments. 

Mountain life through children’s eyes, as presented in an exhibition in Makhachkala, Dagestan, 2012. Image (c): Flickr / Mountain Partnership. Some rights reserved. They relay a story told by their Dagestani hosts about a local father who took his son to a sauna to help him lose his virginity. The father was unexpectedly greeted by his own daughter. Shocked, he killed his daughter and then committed suicide. The local then says of the father-murderer: “He was a real Caucasian man. He did the right thing.” One of the authors follows up with the question: “‘Hey, but what about father and son? Is it also a Caucasian tradition to take one’s sons to a sauna organised for sexual relations?’ - I wanted to ask, but ultimately didn’t.” 

Here’s the thing: facing a problematic respondent who literally justifies murder isn’t easy. But granting yourself presumptive moral authority as an author, especially without any presentation of your own moral code to your readers for evaluation, is not the way to go. This book is supposed to be interesting for the authors’ retelling of the full complexity of their (hopefully) unflinching and honest apprehension of life in the region, not for their moral estimations of their interactions. 

In fact, Veiled and Unveiled often ends up feeling like a long moan about the various ways in which Chechens and Dagestanis fail to live up to the authors’ standards. 

You can almost hear the authors snickering as they write that Chechens are “easily dazzled with fountains and new buildings”; that most Dagestanis “have no qualms about tossing chocolate bar wrappers out the minibus window (but not in Ramadan! God forbid!)”; that Dagestani society accepted the witch hunt for Wahhabis because it has been “conditioned by years of propaganda to accept simple answers to complex problems”; that Caucasian men flirt with “Natashas and Tamaras from Moscow”, only to return “obediently to their henpecking wives”. 

A lack of understanding of any region renders its people invisible, making it easier to excuse violent behavior against them 

Anyone who spends any amount time in and interacts with people from the Caucasus knows this is the most reductive of simplifications. Anyone with a conscience knows this is insulting and hurtful. 

One sentence is particularly telling.

“It is one of those places where something peculiar – an elusive aura – hangs in the air”, write the authors. “The village, the canyon leading up to it and the surrounding mountains are simply there. They exist. They’ve stood there, immobile and utterly silent, for time immemorial, shrouded in mystery.” This description could be about Bolivia, Spain, Turkey or literally any other place on earth that isn’t flat, but it is about Koroda, Dagestan. 

Other than being some of the worst prose I have read in a long time, it raises important questions. What aura? What mystery? More importantly, why? Painfully, it occurs again: “There is something uncanny about the connection that Caucasian highlanders have with their native soil.” What does this even mean? 

We deserve better.

Learning to listen

The North Caucasus is a complex region with little in the way of infrastructure in place to promote travel and research. This is another unfortunate obstacle to overcoming its presentation as anything beyond a set of orientalist clichés and stereotypes. 

The consequences, however, are dire. The North Caucasus suffers from the highest levels of state violence in Russia. A lack of understanding of any region renders its people invisible, making it easier to excuse violent behavior against them

Here’s my advice: Hire more local researchers and journalists who are familiar with the context and who won’t treat locals as anthropological oddities. Pay them. Connect them with international scholars and journalists. Promote and support the platforms that locals who are working on social and political issues use. 

The rest of the world deserves to hear these stories. As told by local people themselves.

Veiled and Unveiled in Chechnya and Dagestan was published by Hurst Books in January 2016. It was originally published in Polish as Matrioszka w hidżabie, and translated by Arthur Barys.

About the author

Karena Avedissian's research focuses on social movements, new media/communications, civil society and governance in the former Soviet Union, with an area focus on Russia and the Caucasus. Find her on Twitter: @KarenaAv. She writes here in a personal capacity. 


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