Virtue and Honor: How Women’s Rights are Being Trampled in the North Caucasus

Human rights groups say women in the North Caucasus are being subject to oppressive fashion and beauty standards. Northfoto/Shutterstock.com

How did the Russian federal republics of Chechnya and Dagestan get to the point where a virtue campaign, bride kidnappings, child marriages and honor killings persist despite being illegal under Russian law?

In Soviet-era Russia, independent and career-oriented women were admired. Now, in a region where “50 Shades of Grey” was banned from being shown in movie theaters, fashion and beauty standards for women have undergone a radical change.

But recent decades have not been kind to the North Caucasus republics of Dagestan and Chechnya, due to armed conflict and ongoing violence resulting from struggles between religious and secular groups. And while these societies are left grappling with shifty politics, women’s lives remain in the balance and at the mercy of corrupt governments, religious interpretations and societal traditions.

CHECHNYA’S VIRTUE CAMPAIGN

After being sworn in as president in 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, instituted a “virtue campaign” that dictates the way women should dress and behave. This has served to emphasize societal standards regarding the definition of a “beautiful and proper” Chechen woman.

“It all started with his televised statements on the value of female virtue, how women should dress and not use cell phones and gradually escalated to the adoption of a quasi-Islamic dress code where women were to wear headscarves and dress ‘modestly,’” says Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director and senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“He also made statements promoting polygamy and to a certain extent, endorsing honor killings as a reaction to female lack of virtue.”  

According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, “You Dress According to Their Rules: Enforcement of an Islamic Dress Code in Chechnya,” Kadyrov has said the use of cellphones has a “negative impact on female morality” since they afforded the opportunity to “flirt with men and arrange dates.”

Reports of young women having their cell phones taken away by law enforcement surfaced.

In 2007, Kadyrov announced that all women working for state institutions had to wear headscarves. Public sector employees to television anchors donned them by the end of the year until wearing one even became a requirement for access to the state university’s premises, extending to non-Chechen and non-Muslim females.

Kadyrov’s wife, Medni Kadyrova, founded Firdaws fashion house in 2009, which sells Islamic-style outfits for women. On state television, programs have been devoted to instructing women about the proper look, where they are told to wear a headscarf, a skirt below their knees and a shirt with ¾ length sleeves extending below their elbows.

In the summer of 2010, human rights organizations began to receive reports of women being publicly shamed or even subjected to paintball gun attacks because they were not wearing what was considered proper dress.

In one incident, a 25-year-old woman described her experience of being targeted in a paintball attack while walking down Putin Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Grozny, by men who appeared to be local security officials:

“I was walking down Putin Avenue [the main thoroughfare in Grozny] with a friend. It was a hot day in June—I don’t remember the exact date. We were dressed modestly but not covered up—no headscarves, sleeves a little above the elbow, skirts a little below the knee.

“Suddenly a car with no license plates stops next to us. The side window rolls down and there is this gun barrel. I was paralyzed with fear and saw nothing but this barrel, this horrid black hole. I thought the gun was real and when I heard the shots I thought, “This is death.” I felt something hitting me in the chest and was sort of thrown against the wall of a building.

“The sting was awful, as if my breasts were being pierced with a red-hot needle, but I wasn’t fainting or anything and suddenly noticed some strange green splattering on the wall and this huge green stain was also expanding on my blouse. So, I understood it was paint.”

The woman, whose friend was also hit by the paintballs, says she has not dared to go out on the streets without a headscarf since.

The attacks were followed by threatening leaflets that appeared in the streets of Grozny:

Dear Sisters!

We want to remind you that, in accordance with the rules and customs of Islam, every Chechen woman is OBLIGED TO WEAR A HEADSCARF.

Are you not disgusted when you hear the indecent “compliments” and proposals that are addressed to you because you have dressed so provocatively and have not covered your head? THINK ABOUT IT!!!

Today we have sprayed you with paint, but this is only a WARNING!!! DON’T COMPEL US TO RESORT TO MORE PERSUASIVE MEASURES!!!”

While the paintball attacks were short lived, they were followed by reports of public shaming and ridicule, including one incident where a 19 year old girl was almost dragged into a dumpster by a group of men for displaying her long hair uncovered while wearing a clingy dress.

Several dozen women interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Chechnya told the organization that they found the virtue campaign deeply offensive but could not protest openly, fearing for their own security as well as that of their relatives.

The virtue campaign is not recognized by Russian law, and is prohibited under international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and CEDAW.

Irina Kosterina, gender coordinator with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, ledLife and the Status of Women in the North Caucasus, one of the largest studies to be conducted in the region in years. She says that women in all of the republics are traditionally accustomed to wearing more modest, conservative dress.

“Many of the women surveyed don’t see any freedom in the manifestation of women’s bodies, though a few have said it’s becoming more difficult to follow the Islamic dress code,” she says/ “One woman told me at the university where she worked that young security guards told her she was not dressed modestly enough.”

Although the feeling of being controlled was reportedly much higher for Chechen women than in other republics in the Heinrich Böll Foundation study, when asked about their response to the virtue campaign, most of the women did not register extensive complaints. Eleven percent of Chechen women from 17-30 years of age considered it problematic to adhere to the Islamic dress code.

VIOLENCE IN DAGESTAN

With a population of three million people and made up of various ethnic groups, Dagestan is hailed as the most heterogeneous of Russia’s republics and has sustained its Islamic practices for more than 1,000 years.

Yet not a week goes by without clashes between the police and insurgents, anti-terrorist Special Forces raids and explosions. According to Caucasian Knot data, of the 5,816 violence casualties between 2010-2014 in the region, 1,745 were in Dagestan. Forty-six percent of those surveyed by the Heinrich Böll Foundation reported ongoing concern over terrorist attacks.

While Dagestani women are not subjected to the same virtue campaign as their Chechen neighbors, their choices, dress and conduct are bound by Russian law, Islamic law (sharia) and traditional law. Domestic violence and honor killings are pervasive and prevalent.

“In Chechnya the government forces women to dress and behave by certain guidelines and punishes those not in compliance. In Dagestan the government fails to protect women from kidnappings, honor killings, domestic violence and rape,” says Lokshina.

Eighteen percent of the Dagestan women surveyed by the foundation reported facing daily manifestations of jealousy by their husbands. Twenty-two percent of women were sometimes forced to endure insults, such as criticism of their appearance, manners and intelligence, as well as not being allowed to dictate their own free time. Slapping or pushing had been experienced by 21 percent of the respondents and on 12 percent of cases, the women had endured beatings.

Women who dressed in a “Western” manner have even been subjected to attacks by radicals attempting to enforce a stricter Islamic dress code. In September 2011, the first Sharia-compliant beach opened in Makhachkala after bombing attacks on bikini-clad women on the central city beach occurred, one involving a school teacher who lost her leg when she stepped on a mine hidden under an outdoor women’s volleyball court. The bomb was meant as punishment for women who dared to wear revealing swimsuits.

“While Dagestani women follow mainstream fashions, religion and society often influences their perception of beauty. Many women are now wearing hijabs and other Islamic styles yet others still dress European,” says Zakir Magomedov, editor in chief of Daptar, an online publication resource for Dagestani women.

Magomedov started Daptar in 2014, becoming one of the only journalists writing about the risks and threats women were subjected to due to societal standards. Born and raised in a Dagestani village into a family of six children, he observed the patriarchal nature of the society through the struggles of female relatives.  
“I can give many examples of injustices I have witnessed from the organization I work for and my own life, especially in terms of honor killings,” he says. “I consider Daptar my small war against injustice. We pay attention to all issues via Russian law, Islamic law and traditional law. We are advocating for women’s rights within the confines of these three systems and a patriarchal society supported by women themselves. Not by their own fault, but because they perhaps don’t know any other way.”

The Foundation study corroborates the idea of strong patriarchy in both Chechnya and Dagestan. Fifty-one percent of the respondents in Chechnya agreed with the statement “women have fewer rights than men,” as did 42 percent in Dagestan.

A significant percentage of respondents believe that their republic does not protect women in cases of violence and injustice, including 35 percent in Chechnya and 19 percent in Dagestan. In Chechnya, 41 percent of women believe that their opinions are regarded as meaningless in their republic, while in Dagestan the figure was 24 percent.

If their governments won’t protect women, who will? In the republics, NGOs have been a source of help for many women struggling with violence, in addition to providing them with access to education. Now, these organizations are under threat by the “undesirable NGOs” law passed in Russia in May. Citizens or groups that have any involvement with NGOs deemed to be “undesirable” can be slapped with hefty fines or receive a prison sentence of up to six years. The National Endowment for Democracy recently became the first group to be banned.

“Many NGOs are closing right now. They will probably continue to operate as experts or as consultants but not as organizations because the government did what it could to stop their activities,” Kosterina explains. “This is more than sad; it is very dramatic but it is simply too dangerous for Russian citizens to accept money from a foreign source at this time.”

The law has also affected one of the most influential human rights organizations in Dagestan, Mothers of Dagestan for Human Rights, as they have been forced to close contracts with foreign funders that vital lifelines, since getting grants for their work in Russia is difficult due to its controversial nature. The group has a project assisting women with legal and psychological counseling in addition to helping find shelters for victims of abuse.

“All employees of MDHR are under surveillance and we often notice on business trips that we are accompanied by a car with tinted windows and the same car will be seen stationed next to our office. Our employees are also required to answer questions to police,” says Magomedov, who is currently the organization’s acting executive director.

With governments both inside and outside of Russia failing to act, the situation for women in the North Caucasus remains uncertain. And the pressure being exerted on NGOs is just compounding the precariousness of the circumstances faced by women in the region.