In Chechnya there is official support for attacks on women when they are considered to have ‘flouted’ Islamic rules by not wearing a headscarf or covering up enough. Tanya Lokshina listened to some of the women’s despairing accounts. From openDemocracy.net
This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net
Tanya Lokshina is Russia Researcher, Human Rights Watch
“Even in the 90s at the time of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria it wasn’t as bad as it is now. After all I didn’t wear a headscarf then and, though the keepers of public morals would sometimes pounce on you, they kept their hands to themselves. You could say to them ‘What’s it got to do with you? I’ve got a father and brothers, so who are you to give me orders?’ They didn’t want problems, so they’d back off. But now you don’t know where to hide. They have the power and the strength and they’re everywhere.”
The pretty young woman in a straight, well-fitting skirt and crisp light-coloured blouse gestures helplessly.
“It’s so humiliating, but you have no other option – you have to put on the headscarf. If, say, they hit you, and that’s not unlikely, then your brothers won’t be able to leave it at that. They’ll have to take action against the aggressors, who will just kill them. You dress according to their rules not so much out of fear for yourself, but to protect your family.”
In June Madina and her friend were fired at from a paintball gun. At first they thought it was a real gun, even perhaps a sub-machine gun. They were walking along the main street in Grozny, talking and laughing. Suddenly a car with no number plates stopped beside them. The side window was wound down and the gun barrel appeared. The world suddenly shrank to the size of that barrel and was sucked into a black hole. Madina heard the shots, felt a sharp blow to her chest and pressed close to the wall of the house. She was sure she was dying, but for some reason she didn’t lose consciousness and the stain spreading over her blouse was not red, but blue. The wall was blue too. The skirt of her friend, who was paralysed with fear, was stained green. She caught sight of a pudgy grinning face in the car window. The man was laughing and pointing at her. He had a powerful arm and she could see the black uniform of the “Kadyrovites”, the president’s men. She thought his laughter would burst her eardrums.
Madina felt the pain a bit later, though it was actually a feeling of intense burning, which then developed into pain. Her friend came to her senses first and, seizing Madina’s hand, dragged her into the nearest shop. The sales assistant reacted with horror, clicking her tongue and trying to get the stains out with damp paper napkins. She massaged the bruises that were starting to spread and recommended putting ice on them when she got home. She called a taxi for the girls. It was while they were getting into it that they saw the splodges of red, blue and green paint on the pavement and the walls of the buildings. They realised that they had not been the only targets. On the road there were some yellow leaflets. Madina picked one up and only then grasped what this had actually all been about. The black letters danced before her eyes:
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 HAVE RECOURSE TO MORE PERSUASIVE MEASURES!!!”
The next day Madina put on a headscarf. She saw no other solution. Every crossroad and every corner were unbearably frightening: she seemed to see men dressed in black, the enforcers of morality and the law. For another two weeks these men were actually driving around the city, patrolling the central streets. Women no longer went out with their heads uncovered - especially as President Kadyrov himself clearly supports attempts to inculcate female modesty. He even said on TV that if he found the men who had sprayed the girls with paint, he would offer them his thanks.
By the middle of summer the peak seemed to have passed. True, rumours abounded that unmarried women would lose their jobs and not even be allowed to finish their university studies. But so far no one has been sacked, so perhaps these are only rumours… Girls have once more started appearing in the city centre with short sleeves and their heads uncovered. You wouldn’t go to school, the university or the office without a headscarf, but you could apparently pull it off when you’re just walking along the street.
Ramadan started in the middle of August, and the main prospect was full of men. This time it wasn’t secret service men, but people in Islamic clothing from the Centre of Spiritual and Moral Education affiliated to the Islamic High Council of Chechnya. They were distributing coloured folding leaflets to women, showing how Muslim women should be properly dressed. There was also a description of how a Chechen woman should look and behave. The authors’ instructions to women read: “Dear sister in Islam! Today Chechnya wants to uphold decency and morality. Your dress, dear sister, should be a demonstration of your purity and your morality, but mainly of your faith. Your clothes and your morality preserve your honour and that of your relatives and parents!”
The leaflets also urged men to take charge of how their women looked: “It has unfortunately to be admitted that a terrible picture is to be seen in the streets. We are not accusing women. The main fault is the men's. A woman won't lose her mind if her husband doesn't. Men, we need your help. Of all that we see, the worst is the way some women dress. But what is even more terrible is that the menfolk allow their sisters, wives and daughters to dress in this way and don't consider that it is wrong to do so.”
The morality zealots went around in groups. They surrounded women who had been bold enough to go out without a headscarf or in a skirt that was deemed too short. They upbraided them loudly, describing their behaviour as indecent and demanding that they should have some shame and “get dressed” forthwith.
Yakhita didn't really understand what was going on. She had been living in Moscow for a long time, only coming home to Grozny on holiday to see her family. She had, of course, noticed the prominence of headscarves: women reading the news on television, teachers, staff of various organisations, students, even girls in the first year of school had all suddenly put them on. Her friends talked quietly about how during the war men had not protested when women rescued them, protected them and worked until they dropped to feed the family. But now they've remembered they're men and that “a woman should know her place.” Yakhita nodded in agreement, but only half listening. It wasn't her problem, when all's said and done. But it turned out that it was.
She was walking along the prospect carrying her newborn baby and pulling her 3-year old son after her. It was very hot, so she had put on a knee-length skirt and a light T-shirt with short sleeves. She had actually put a hairband on – a headscarf folded over several times. Why not, really? Suddenly four men in Islamic clothing came up to her and started shouting, pointing at her bare arms and saying that she was behaving indecently and shamefully. Yakhita was so surprised, she was nearly at a loss for words.
But then she pulled herself together and started shouting that she was married with two children and had never in her whole life done anything shameful, so they had no right to make such comments. She repeated that she had a husband and a brother and that she would ring them up right now to come and sort things out. Seeing her reaching for her mobile, the men retreated. One of them said: “You don't need to ring anyone. Don't make a fuss. We have our orders from above. We've got to do this, do you understand?” Yakhita got the message and didn't want to stay any longer. The next day she bought her ticket back to Moscow.
Zealots in Islamic clothing were soon joined by aggressive young men. Some of them went as far as grabbing girls by the arms and pulling their hair. Law enforcement officers also took up teaching women morality with great pleasure. Fatima is 19. Her mother implored her not to go out without a headscarf, especially in the city centre. “Don't provoke them, oh please don't! They might even kill you. Yesterday a girl was walking along in Chernorechye district without a headscarf. She was bundled into a car and driven off. No one knows where she is now!” Fatima put on a headscarf so as not to upset her mother, but when she got outside, she put it in her bag. It felt too humiliating to cover her head just because she'd been told to. This was the very beginning of the month of Ramadan. Her hair was loose and she had on a long, but fairly tight, dress. It was new and Fatima had been admiring it that morning in the mirror.
At the corner there were two cars of Kadyrov's men – young, bearded, in black uniforms and armed. There were about seven or eight of them. They shouted at the girl, obviously trying to strike up an acquaintance. She pretended she hadn't heard and started walking faster. The lads leapt out of the cars and rushed after her. They surrounded her and starting talking smut. She tried to tell them where to get off, yelling ”Leave me alone!” Then they got even more worked up, saying that if she had been decently dressed and wearing a headscarf, no one would be pestering her. She was dressed in such a way as to attract men's attention and be a temptation to them. They told her she was a slut and belonged on the muck heap. They grabbed her hands and started dragging her toward the rubbish bin.
The girl was crying and trying to resist. She was being pulled by the hair. There were people in the street, but no one intervened. Only one woman of about 40 couldn't bear it any longer. She ran toward Fatima, grabbed hold of her and yelled: “What are you doing? Let the girl go!” The young men tried to shake her off, but she wouldn't let go and continued to shout even more loudly. Finally they let go of Fatima and left. The girl is still praying for her saviour, who doesn't herself understand how she didn't lose her nerve.
The woman probably lost her head. Her feelings of horror and pity were stronger than the instinct for self-preservation. She herself actually wears a headscarf, because she thinks it's right. She's been wearing it for many years, but now she sometimes wants to take it off: ”You see, this kind of behaviour makes even a woman who wants to wear a headscarf start feeling that it's choking her.”