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Voice | ‘I have finally accepted myself’ — an Ingush woman’s coming-of-age tale

24 July 2019
(Samuel Silitonga/Pexels)

Growing up in Ingushetia, Zarina (not her real name), struggled with traditions that she felt restricted her. After fights with her family, a brief marriage, and a religious awakening, Zarina says she has now finally accepted herself for who she is.

‘When I was younger, I was not allowed to cut off my braid even though I was awfully sick of it. I couldn’t even cut my fringe. When I became a student, I was told: “Now you can have a haircut — just do it neatly, as we love”.’

‘So I went to get my hair cut just the way I like it — short, short, almost a boy’s haircut. I understood that I would have to hide it, and once everything was revealed, then no one could do anything about it.’

‘I knew for sure that my dad would not beat me, but my mother might hit me a couple of times so I wouldn’t repeat it. But I was ready for this.’

‘Anyway, I cut all my hair and left only the fringe. I put on a kerchief at home so they could see only my fringe, nobody paid attention to what was under my kerchief. And once everything was revealed, there was no scandal.’

‘My next decision was to wear trousers. I put the question to my dad: ‘Daddy, I will wear trousers, I want to’. He told me: “Now you will be my son, not my daughter”. That is, he was willing to accommodate me. Mum, of course, was against it.’

‘I wore trousers (which were wide and, moreover, with a tunic on top!) for two days. I could not stand it any longer. Everyone stared and whispered.’

‘Ingush women did not wear trousers and jeans even in the Soviet Union. Maybe on the road somewhere, where there were none of our own people. Inside Ingushetia, it has never happened. Now it’s easier for teenage girls, but if your father’s relatives notice you…’ 

‘My sisters and I ran with our hair loose. My dad didn’t pay attention to it but then one of our most distant relatives said to him: “Why are your daughters so dishevelled?” In the evening, dad said to us: “You need kerchiefs”.’

The hijab

‘I initially never heard that wearing the hijab was a duty for us, for Muslims.’

‘[In Ingush society] a kerchief tied back represents beauty, a good girl, an intelligent girl who listens to her parents, relatives, and friends. If you wear a hijab you will be seen as the opposite.’

‘[Because of the association of the hijab with extremisits] dad was afraid for me, he was afraid for his sons, he was afraid for the whole family.’

‘At first, I put on a kerchief but tied it back and began to wear long clothes. And then I myself decided that I needed a hijab. I’m lucky that I’m from a family where supervision of a woman’s every move is not acceptable. I managed to close myself in the hijab for three weeks before one of the neighbours denounced it.’

‘Mum said to me: “I will have a stroke, I will die”. I told her: “I know you very well, nothing bad will happen to you.” ’

‘A few years later, my father said to me: “Well done, they even praised you, told me how good you are that you wear the hijab!” ’

‘He wanted to cheer me up, but I felt bitter. Did he really need to hear the approval of strangers to be proud of me?’

‘I have my own attitude to the “forbidden” ’

‘In the 9th grade, I suddenly wondered: why is it impossible for me to go on dates? If they found me it would be the end. But for the guy — he will not be in any trouble, right? For him it would be like, well done, he pulled a girl!’

‘I read everything that was in the library. I wanted more, but you cannot find it anywhere. So I began to search for interesting people, which is like reading a new book. I met a guy a little older than me, we talked about everything.’

‘If we had met in secret, no one would have known about it. But we sat on a bench in front of everybody. This was important for me; if I do something, I don’t hide in the corners like a man committing forbidden acts. I have my own attitude towards the “forbidden”.’ 

‘I was very angry when they told me: “You must take care of your virginity because you should not let your family down”. Why should I worry that I might let someone down? Where is the connection between my hymen and them? 

‘If it did happen, I would not consider that I had been seduced, because it would be my decision, my choice, my responsibility. I did not understand then that I was criticising everything that people told me.’

‘For example, bride theft. If someone steals a girl, this means that she is so good, from such a good family, that they stole her. This is how it has always been among our people. Most recently, it was decided that someone who steals a bride must pay ₽200,000 ($3,200), like a fine for stealing a sheep.’

Love comes with habit

‘At a certain point, I felt so confined and limited that I started thinking about marriage. I had a friend who I was ready to marry in order to leave home. It would be convenient for both of us. We would both lead separate lives while we would be considered a married couple and everyone would leave us alone.’

‘At that time, polygamy was emerging here. I could fictitiously become his second wife. I made an agreement with my friend and he came to court me. But my parents didn’t let me marry him.’

‘At least my relatives told me that they consented to my wearing the hijab. I thought if they consented to a [hijab], why did I need to get married? I can still meet my love. I have always been attracted to people to whom I must reach out.’

‘And then a man appeared. He had a higher education and was ten years older than me. He came to our house for a meeting and we talked with him for about five minutes. I went out and said: “Well, yes, we can get to know each other, why not, it would be so interesting”.’

‘ “It would be very nice if you chose him”, said Mum. “What if suddenly you like him at least a little, marry, and then love will come with habit. There is no other way.” ’

‘No need to show up’

‘I got married. I expected that I would be good and correct. I woke up early in the morning, served everyone, even ironed socks. But my husband did not like that I was wayward.’

‘First, he forbade me to go outside in the yard to sweep. He said it is not good for a woman to go out, that women should not show off.’

‘He also had brothers and when they were angry with each other, and I served them tea, they would break me. I could not stand it and said: “If you have a quarrel between yourselves, solve it between yourselves, do not take this out on me — you have no right!” ’

‘For our people, it is unprecedented for a woman to open her mouth and say such a thing. Men cannot live with this kind of woman. My husband was advised not to divorce me right away, but to try to rehabilitate me. Literally, to “Break her legs so that she stays put!” ’

‘Dad supported me. Everyone got together and started to talk. He listened and asked my husband: “If you shout at her while I, her father, am standing here, what do you do when I’m not around?” ’

‘That time I didn’t leave; I allowed myself to be persuaded. The old men talked and decided that I would stay with him but that we would live a month apart from his family and relatives.’

‘For a whole month of testing, they pressured me, brought some mullahs to tell me how a woman should behave. My husband did not stand up for me.’

‘One [of my husband’s relatives] told me: “I live with my husband just for the sake of the children. You should live the same way, it will be better for you not to be divorced — that would be terrible. Hang in there.” ’

‘Nothing changed during this month. His relatives also knocked on our door, came in, and gave commands. I decided that old people and their decisions would no longer be a part of my life. I came to my parents and said: “I am getting divorced. If you don’t take care of me, I’ll take care of myself.” ’

‘This is all a part of her joy’

‘Even if two people get married for love, the woman still ends up getting up early, preparing the man’s breakfast, and serving him and his family. Yes, if you ask her she will say that it’s not difficult for her, that this is all a part of her joy.’

‘But ask her if she can refuse to do so? She cannot. As far as I am concerned, this is because she is already in a humiliating position. If a person really loves another person, he would not allow himself to serve only himself forever, they would stand together, on a par.’

‘When the system is built in such a way that a woman is placed lower, it is not enough for a loving man to just not kick his wife. He should […] take her to places where it is not customary for wives to go if she has such a desire.

‘Only faith saved me’

‘There was a period when only faith saved me. If I were not a Muslim, I would have become suicidal. I felt that my views were becoming more radical. I didn’t want to live for myself, I thought that if I could not commit suicide, I wanted to live for others. I stopped looking after myself, did not dress up, wore only one dress.’

‘Sometimes I thought: it’s probably not for nothing that these women are leaving to Syria, maybe there’s some truth in that. And the more I was pressured by my husband’s family and in connection with the hijab, the more often I thought about it. I  got off very easily with a divorce’.

‘This, you know, was like a wake-up call to stop! Slow down! And then everything made sense and fell into place very quickly, within a month, otherwise, it could have ended very badly for me.’

‘A lot has changed since then. Now, as if I’ve rejected all the excess, I feel like that old tearaway who gave no quarter and disobeyed all of the rules. I have reconciled with myself and seem to have finally accepted myself.’

This article is a partner post written by Svetlana Anokhina. The original version first appeared on Daptar, on 17 May 2019.

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