The most vocal criticisms of successful women in the Russian North Caucasus often come from abroad. It’s time for these ‘keyboard mujahideen’ — refugees from Chechnya, Daghestan, and Ingushetia living in western countries — to realise that following tradition and religion need not preclude an active, empowered role for women in society.
‘No, we never had anything like it!’ members of the Chechen diaspora in Berlin said when they saw an image of Koka Tuburova on the cover of a Caucasian magazine with the headline: ‘Woman rules the mountains’.
Tuburova, a resident of Chechnya’s Shatoy District, had been chosen as head of her village shortly before appearing in the magazine. Childless and unmarried, she has worked her entire life as a teacher. During the war, she risked her life to work without pay because she was so devoted to her students. In her village, she is respected; she is an authority figure.
Many Chechens in Europe, however, do not believe that it is good for a woman to rule a village. Patriarchal views and a deep faith in tradition are the key to perceiving a female leader as a threat.
Women in positions of power
In such a patriarchal society, women are expected to stay within the confines of traditional, feminine roles, such as raising a family. Therefore, women in the North Caucasus who are in positions of power often face harsh criticism from men. ‘You are challenging traditions!’, such amateur experts say.
Madina Sadylkhanova, a Chechen woman who helps Caucasian students detained and abducted in Egypt, has repeatedly heard questions from surprised countrymen who ask, ‘Why is she suddenly so independent?’
Amina Sadulayeva, the executive director of Vayfond, a Chechen charity and human rights association based in Europe, is constantly forced to respond to Chechen and Ingush men on social media who tell her to go back to ‘the women’s place’.
Zagra Magomedova, a 2011 candidate for the Russian Duma from Daghestan, was shamed by her fellow villagers for entering politics: ‘Why are you trying to get in? It is ugly; politics is a man's thing!’, they said.
Amina Okuyeva, a Chechen woman who fought in Ukraine, was violently ostracized on social media before being killed in 2017, as well as after her death. She was a bright military and media person, the exact opposite of a laywoman, a homebody.
In Moscow, a friend of mine from Chechnya, who held a PhD, had a conversation with a fellow villager, also a student. He asked her what family member she came to the capital with, and when he found out that she was unaccompanied, he was very worried: ‘This is not the way it should be’. My friend was already 32; clearly she could afford to be independent.
These are just a few examples of the questions and judgement powerful women in the North Caucasus often face for stepping past the boundaries of traditional gender roles.
According to Daptar, 90% of Daghestanis do not want a woman to be in senior positions. Let the man be in charge, people think, even if this man does not quite meet the professional requirements of the position. Let us be ruled by someone unqualified, so long as they carry certain sexual characteristics, the respondents believe.
Female activists in the North Caucasus, who have long proven their complete independence from men, who have shown their ability to solve problems, and who are able to meet their family’s needs, must still ask permission from their husbands if they wish to do anything. Even though women know that they can accomplish things on their own, they continue to pay tribute to tradition, remaining within the framework in order to develop a career that will not face criticism from society.
However, when a man accepts a woman’s help, whether it be in the form of money, protection, or something else, suddenly, all the talk about the correct role of women subsides. For example, the lawyer who assisted in the case of a Salafi accused of preparing a terrorist act in Chechnya was never asked who accompanied her, why she was driving alone, or why she was not wearing a headscarf.
Some of the most ardent critics of women’s independence are North Caucasian refugees in the West.
To the harsh mountaineers in exile, it seems that the only way to preserve their national identity in a foreign land is to practice an even more rigid distribution of traditional family roles, leaving women stuck in the kitchen.
Most migrants in the West have a lot of spare time; they either don’t work much or they receive benefits. In addition, in Europe you can write anything on the Internet without fearing that you will be detained by security forces and face unpredictable consequences just for a careless like or share. Therefore, these people act as ‘keyboard mujahideen’, shaming powerful women for breaking tradition.
These moralisers will go on the Internet with a ruler and measure women: Is a woman allowing herself to talk too much? Has a woman put herself at the head of some important business? Does a woman think herself superior to men?
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, these moralisers hurry to the comments section. They might try to hurt the pride of the woman’s husband, blaming him for allowing his wife too much, or directly attack the woman herself.
For example, in the comments section of an interview with Sadylkhanova, an anonymous user wrote: ‘Do not make a hero out of a woman!’
Often it looks ridiculous: the ‘guardians’ of women are scribbling comments that are rife with spelling errors on Instagram or Facebook in an attempt to teach us how to live, imagining that their opinion is somehow important.
This is especially absurd because in reality, many of these critics themselves are now ‘in the kitchen’ — their life is concentrated around the home, soup, and dumplings. Brutal and bearded, some of these men fought in the Chechen wars against Russia; now, these men now look passive compared to entrepreneurial women.
Equal rights versus tradition
In the Caucasus, public disapproval of women’s independence, at least in terms of traditionalism, is in full force. This happens most often in Ingushetia and Chechnya, and sometimes in Daghestan.
Traditionalists say that religion and the mountain adats, a set of traditional customs, protect women, and explain that the need for control over the lives of sisters, wives, and daughters is for a woman’s own good.
It turns out, however, that tradition does not involve asking women themselves whether they want such protection — whether they want it at the moment, whether they want some other kind of protection, or whether they need to be protected at all. Knowing and taking into account a woman’s opinion regarding the concept of ‘protection’ is apparently not necessary.
As for the religion that Caucasian patriarchs like to refer to, in a number of Arab and other Muslim countries that converted to Islam long before the peoples of the Caucasus, society is ready to recognise women with much more rights and freedoms than, for example, in Chechnya and Ingushetia. For instance, though Turkey is an Islamic country, there are many women’s organisations and if a woman complains about her husband to the police, there will be an adequate response. In Egypt, local women can choose what to wear, whether it be a niqab or jeans and a t-shirt. So, it is clear Islam itself cannot serve as an excuse for the shaming of powerful women.
In addition, the concept of tradition is too vague; everyone can mean something different by it. If a woman is successful in politics and wants to be an MP, and she is shamed for it and driven home, what do the customs of our glorious ancestors have to do with this?
To be successful, independent, and active in these regions almost always means giving a reason for spiteful critics to name you an upstart, and blame you for loosening the foundations of tradition.
In addition to adats and sharia, however, there is Russian law. Clause 3 of Article 19 of the Russian Constitution proclaims that ‘Man and woman shall enjoy equal rights and freedoms and have equal possibilities to exercise them.’
However, in the Caucasus, this law is in conflict with the preferences of society. This affects many opportunities for women, including girls’ education.
Research conducted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation indicates that, due to a distorted understanding of the adats, women are increasingly not educated. This greatly reduces their chances of independence in the future. This naturally works in favour of conservatives, but not for society as a whole.
If Caucasian women are forced to leave politics, social activities, human rights organisations, independent journalism, and more, society will lose a lot. After all, men also leave; they are afraid to criticise the authorities openly, and rightly so, because they have an even higher risk than women to be beaten by the police or arrested at a rally or journalistic assignment. There will be no one left if women are kept out of these positions.
There are many more reasons why women belong everywhere, why the most enterprising and free of them should not be evaluated according to how well they comply with ‘tradition roles’. In turn, women should not be ashamed of their business success and should not apologise for achieving more than a man.
The opinions expressed in this article are author's alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.