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Women of the North Caucasus: Myths and superstitions

9 February 2017
‘It’s a hard work with values and attitudes’, says expert on gender issues Irina Kosterina about working on women’s issues in the North Caucasus. (F. Glyukman)

According to Daptar, women in today’s North Caucasus are surrounded by myths and superstitions that put them in a state of total fear and control. Opportunities for self-realisation are limited and change under the societal notions of honour, dignity, and quality of life. Researchers suggest that the situation will only become worse, as the growing number of divorces in the region suggests insurmountable difficulties in marriage.

Daptar discussed this and other issues with Irina Kosterina, expert in gender relations and coordinator of the Gender Democracy programme at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Moscow.

‘Honour killings’ are not a tradition

Irina, for the past two years you have studied the situation of women in the North Caucasus. Last year you presented the results of a comprehensive study of women’s situation in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Dagestan. How was data collection conducted and what difficulties did you encounter while working in the North Caucasus?

The most difficult part was to persuade women to fill in questionnaires, and even more so to record interviews. We, of course, guaranteed anonymity and security. Many women were still afraid, especially, to have their voices recorded. They thought that if they honestly talked about the violence they endure, their sex lives, or complicated relationships with relatives, someone could use these interviews against them. They could be condemned, cursed, or even killed. There were cases where a woman would talk for about forty minutes about her life, and then ask me to delete the file. We went through different measures in order to reassure them. For example, while collecting questionnaires, we had special boxes with us. Women could drop their questionnaires in these and they would immediately become mixed with other surveys. Many women felt relieved because of this. Even when filling out an anonymous questionnaire, it was important for them to know that there was maximum security and there was no way to identify them.

In the North Caucasus, it is believed that ‘moral values’ are placed almost higher than a human life. Did your research clarify what the phrase ‘moral values’ includes and how these values relate to women’s space?

‘Moral values’ are a very difficult concept. What kind of morality is in question: secular or religious? In which republic? Even in the [North] Caucasus, morality is not always associated with the ethics of Islam. There are much broader and more general representations of the ‘honour of a Caucasian woman’: she should be unassuming, modestly dressed, and should defer to elders and her male relatives, so that no stranger could say anything bad about her and, consequently, so that her family’s and kin’s honour is protected.


According to our data, Chechnya is the most conservative republic. The moral requirements there are rather strict, and they include not only behaviour but also dress code. In Kabardino-Balkaria, women are most secular, while in Dagestan, the picture is the most inconsistent.

If we discuss some specific behaviours of Caucasian women, there are many similarities with other regions of Russia. Many respondents had similar stories: they studied, got married, their husbands drank  or were abusive and controlling, they were forced to work hard, he would beat her, and then she would divorce him and find another one. There was nothing specific in their biographical trajectories. Yet there were some differences in standards of honour and humility. A woman who behaves ‘immorally’ (or however it’s perceived) can be murdered by her male relatives. This ritual is supposedly justified by local customs. But murder is completely forbidden in Islam. It’s a kind of a traditional thing which is attributed to the local adat (norms, customary law) and which was simply invented. Ethnographers, with whom I talked, confirmed that such a tradition was nowhere to be recorded. Nowadays, the concept of ‘moral values’ in the region is a huge complex of prejudices that have penetrated deeply into local culture, although they come into conflict with Islamic rules. For example, in Chechnya, which claims to be the most moral and religious republic, honour killings are constantly taking place.

To save family at the cost of one’s life…

Can we say that one of the most powerful myths in the Caucasus concerns specifically family values?

Historically, culture in these territories has contained strong elements of traditional patriarchal culture in which women are more susceptible to both public scrutiny and control within the family. There are also local traditions, called adat (or ezdel in Ingushetia). For the most part, these are rules passed on orally, never recorded, so no-one knows exactly what they should be in reality, yet people turn to this code when dealing with both domestic and moral issues.

Currently, there is a tendency to attribute everything to adat, as bearers of deep historical tradition. But then again, if you look at ethnographic sources, we can understand that women have never felt as unfree as now. As a sociologist, I can connect it to the fact that, in Chechnya at least, following the collapse of the USSR and the two Chechen wars, the population had to rely on some rules in order to build a new life. People decided that they would invent their own rules, as the previous ones had already been forgotten. For example, after divorce, children remain in the father’s family, and the woman has to leave. Since many marriages are religious (i.e. there is no stamp in the passport), it’s impossible to take the case to the court, as in the eyes of the law, the marriage doesn’t exist. Sometimes people turn to sharia, but cases are often decided by the power of the clan. If a woman has a strong clan, there is a chance that she’ll be able to stay with her children. Another example: after getting married, many women move in with their husband’s family, together with their new in-laws and other relatives. They enter their husband’s home when they are nineteen and have no rights there. They are  perceived as no more than a maid.

Some interviews read like stories from the Middle Ages: the young woman gets up at five in the morning, feeds the cattle, prepares breakfast for her husband’s whole family, takes the children to school, prepares dinner, washes dishes, and until the older generations finish eating, she isn’t allowed to sit down. Finally, she washes everyone’s shoes and is the last one to go to sleep. However, according to the study, the husband usually isn’t the main tyrant — it’s the mother-in-law. A man cannot stand up for his wife and justifies this by saying that he respects his mother’s words and decisions. There are also many cases where a husband beats his wife himself. There are now  a huge number of divorces among the younger generation in the Caucasus. I was at a meeting of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Chechnya, which was dedicated to the issue of family conflicts. In practice, they didn’t offer to resolve conflicts. They simply talked about keeping the family together no matter what. All that while women continue to be beaten and humiliated.

Patriarchal values and young people

Does the region’s closed nature affects the self-perception of women? Is it possible that if they were more mobile and able to travel abroad frequently or to receive quality education, these problems wouldn’t exist?

The scope of women’s life chances is in fact very limited. Nobody imagines a life other than in their respective republic. There is also TV, where they show Turkish TV series about a beautiful life. On the other hand, even if a woman get’s the chance to go somewhere and see that everything can be different, there is no way to transfer this experience home and to live ‘the European way’. No-one will allow her. Before she gets married, her father and brother control her life, including where she goes and who she communicates with, even on social networks. After she gets married — the husband does the same. When I was in Chechnya, I was amazed when I saw forty-year-old unmarried women, my colleagues, being called by their brothers every twenty minutes to ask what they were doing, who they were with and where they were.

When there are no good rules understandable to everyone, young women seek protection and answers in religion.

Is this the classical patriarchate?

No. It may seem so, but in fact this is only one of its shapes. If we talk about the economic situation of women, many earn more than their husbands. But none of this is respected — ‘give me money and go and wash everyone’s shoes’. During the Soviet period of modernisation, women became more financially independent and caught up with men. Other areas of life weren’t affected. In addition, even if a woman is a respected specialist, this has little impact on how men perceive her. It is also worth adding that this is clearly visible in the younger generation, i.e. people in their twenties and thirties. Older women are more free. Still, there are examples in our interviews where adult women have to ask their husbands for permission to go somewhere in the evening. I asked them to what degree they felt comfortable with it, but everyone answered that they weren’t against it. In Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria it happens less often. By the way, in Kabardino-Balkaria there were many surveys which made it clear that all important decisions in the family were made by the woman, including financial management. Very often the husband earns much less than the wife.

Can we say that it’s especially the younger generation that is seeking protection in traditional values?

Yes. As I said, in a situation where there are no good rules understandable to everyone, young girls, for instance, seek protection and answers in religion. Often they cover themselves up against the will of their parents and start wearing the hijab. Sometimes they decide to receive a religious education against the will of their elders. It’s their personal choice; they are looking for support in religion. Since there is a lot of injustice in the North Caucasus and they see that the law doesn’t protect them, there is a constant struggle between clans and people live by the principle of ‘might makes right’. They believe that they can find salvation only in religion. Allah will be their defender, and even if they fall victim to injustice, it was ‘the will of Allah’.

Domestic violence in the Caucasus

It is clear from the report, that respondents from Ingushetia talked a lot about domestic violence. How about other republics?

The highest percentage of victims of domestic violence are in Chechnya. Most cases involve women who are controlled, coerced, beaten, or raped. They either experienced this first-hand or have heard about it from their relatives or friends. In other republics, the situation is slightly better. Regarding the respondents’ readiness to talk, the situation was best in Ingushetia. Respondents were often afraid to discuss this topic, especially in Kabardino-Balkaria. They thought that it was indecent and shameful to do so.

There is no official statistic on domestic violence in Russia. There are some figures, but they aren’t supported by any sources. Is there any data on the North Caucasus?

There are very few statistics and it’s a major problem. For about ten years, a figure has been given by the Interior Ministry, but this figure is taken from the air. Women protection centres Anna and the women’s crisis centre in Saint Petersburg try to collect some data, but it doesn’t paint the full picture. In Russia, there is no law on domestic violence or victim protection mechanisms. Even if a man is arrested and then released due to ‘lack of evidence’, which the police is lazy to collect anyway, where will he return later? To the same apartment, to the same woman. And she will continue to suffer abuse. She is afraid that there will be no punishment to her abuser. and he’ll return to her. That’s the situation in the North Caucasus. Authorities said, for example, that there are ‘no honour killings’ in Chechnya. That’s all. As if an order from above could solve the problem! It only led to a situation where it became impossible to open a criminal case. The cases are dubbed into suicides or accidents. It’s strange to think that in such a situation, honour killings could stop.

The atmosphere of fear and desperation keeps growing

Is it possible to imagine that today’s situation can be influenced to change the position of women in society and to help them to overcome all these problems?

Few people can work on these issues and explain to others that the myths and misconceptions by which they live are dangerous. In order to explain this, you need to have some expertise and knowledge, while many people are themselves victims of prejudice. There was a case of a family who wanted to kill a young girl because they thought she had disgraced the family. The mother, in an attempt to save the girl, asked for an imam, who came and proclaimed: ‘She must be killed’. This despite all the restrictions which are set out in the Quran. Is it the case that the imam didn’t know the Quran? Or he didn’t want to know it? Currently this work is being carried out by public women’s organisations. First, they work with women, explain to them that there are laws and mechanisms to protect themselves. Gradually, some of the women who come to these training sessions gain the confidence to talk about their problems. But it’s hard work changing values and attitudes. It is, for example, more difficult to bring these lessons into schools — there are some teachers who themselves believe that it’s correct to commit ‘honour killings’. They say so in the classrooms!

At the same time there are big stories such as the murder of Marem Aliyeva or the wedding of Kheda Goylabiyeva. How are they discussed? How do such stories affect the mood of society?

After the case of Goylabiyeva’s wedding, many lost their footing. Cases like this devalue almost all the rules: if you have the power and the right connections, then you can take a girl as your wife in violation of Russian law, rape her, and face no consequences. But it also works in the opposite direction — people became more scared. The atmosphere of fear and despair after such stories keeps growing.

What will the consequences be if this continues?

We can assume that if resentment continues to accumulate over the years, it is possible that a social explosion will happen, which will destroy everything. Increasing religious fundamentalism, going underground, and so on. It is difficult to address this, and everybody is afraid. That’s why it’s important to look for allies now, with whom we can conduct basic education programmes, and give people basic economic and social skills to help them find jobs. It is important to cooperate with religious leaders and local authorities, with journalists, with civil society organisations, to conduct training on leadership, and to discuss life strategies. This is especially important for girls who are still in school.

Kseniya Babich

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