Living in Fear: Women in Chechnya today

Dear Folks,

How are you all doing? I have been bitten by the bug, a girlie bug to be precise. I have dived into the sensation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love”. I picked it up yesterday from Waterstones, and I am really hooked. According to the cover, it has sold 8 million copies, and for so many women out there, it has become a real self-help book. I just love it!

However, lots of interesting things will be happening next week in Brussels. Soner Cagaptay will be coming to the parliament to discuss Turkey’s future and the Azeri foreign minister will be swinging by the European Policy Centre. Well, ok, perhaps only two things are happening; however the Parliament is beginning to come to life again after all the Strasbourg sessions. The parliament can really seem like a great  big university. 

Anyway, about two weeks ago I read an extremely interesting article by Times’ correspondent Mark Franchetti about the alarming problem of modesty gangs who roam the Chechen capital Grozny in search of “immodestly” dressed women, and  subject them to verbal and physical abuse. In some cases women are attacked with paint balls, whilst their assailants film them using their mobile phones. The Islamist gangs  have the backing of the  Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov: “I don’t know who’s doing this,” he claimed, although many believe it is his own supporters. ” But when I find them, I will express my gratitude. Today women in Chechnya are prevented from entering public buildings, such as hospitals without a headscarf. Many female civil servants have lost their jobs for refusing to comply. The president also endorses polygamy, and has said that women are their husbands’ property.

The 33-year old leader has been–without the hindrance of Moscow–transforming the tiny republic into his own little fiefdom.  Some have compared him to the late Saddam Hussein. For example, he keeps a tiger and lion as pets and his portrait appears all over Grozny.

“Everyone is terrified of him and his entourage”, said a woman who was reprimanded by men loyal to Kadyrov for not covering her arms in public”. I lived through the bombings–it was terrifying. But in many ways life now is more scary. You could speak your mind then. Now you can get killed for doing so. As long as the Kremlin turns a blind eye, it will only get worse”.

According to Franchetti, last year the president welcomed the execution-style murder of six Chechen women, who were believed to be prostitutes. Kadyrov has created a Centre for Spiritual  and Moral Education, and its officials are instructed to separate men and women in cinemas during erotic scenes. Taxi drivers are not allowed to take women who are not wearing headscarves. During Ramadan, gang members would stop women in the street in order to check that they were not hiding any food in their handbags. It is no wonder that so many Chechen women are petrified.

In a conflict situation, it is usually the most vulnerable who suffer the most such as women and children. Chechnya’s history is ridden with sadness, conflict and distress. Just like in Algeria, where women feared attacks by the GIAs, Chechnya’s women are facing the wrath of Islamist gangs who harass and abuse women with the explicit acquiescence of the president. Unfortunately intervening on their behalf seems almost impossible. As Franchetti mentions, the late Natalia Estemirova challenged Kadyrov on his insistence on headscarves. She was kidnapped and murdered by suspected members of the security services.

Moscow shows little sign that it plans to reign in Kadyrov. This is despite his statements claiming that the sharia trumps Russian law. In this small republic, women have little recourse.

Up to now, Chechen women had developed a reputation as fierce resistance fighters. They were willing to commit suicide missions in order to avenge the killing of their male relatives and husbands. However, since the installment of the Kadyrovs, it appears that some Chechen men are working to put women squarely in their place. This week The NY Times published an article similar to Franchetti’s. It reaches similar conclusions: under Kadyrov, women’s rights have deteriorated and there appears to be little that the international community can do. However, knowing about it is at least one step in the right direction.

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