Paintball Guns And “Islamic” Decrees Police Chechnya’s Women
AWID speaks with a women’s rights activist in Chechnya about the growing use of religious ideology to threaten, control and attack women there.
By Lejla Medanhodzic & Masum Momaya
In the summer of 2008, Europe’s largest mosque to date was erected in Grozny, Chechnya, a federal republic within Russia. Two years earlier, the land where the USD$20 million mosque was built saw intense conflict between Chechen and Russian military forces. At the mosque’s opening, the Kremlin-appointed President of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadirov declared his loyalty to both Moscow and “traditional Islam.”
All over the region, painful transition from Socialism has left populations without a top-down, uniting ideology, and this has threatened the authority of governments in the region. In Chechnya, Kadirov’s embrace of Islam exemplifies the search for new ideology to replace the old one – and control and maintain fear in the population.
Chechnya’s struggle for independence from Russia began in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It claimed between 100,000 and 200,000 civilian lives over the span of several wars. Thousands of Chechens have been maimed, kidnapped, tortured and executed. Over two decades, political and economic instability have fostered government corruption, armed banditry and organized crime. Countless numbers of human rights activists have died and disappeared in Chechnya and throughout Russia, leaving fewer to oppose the dictatorial regimes in Grozny and Moscow.
Alongside the mosque came Kadirov’s plan for “moral education” which includes a series of decrees requiring that all women employed in the state sector, and all female school and university students, wear headscarves.
In contrast, Russian law guarantees all women, including those in Chechnya, the freedom to choose how they dress as part of their constitutional right to freedom of conscience. To date, though, the Kremlin has taken no action to put an end to these decrees while at the same time keeping a heavy hand on all other affairs of Chechen Republic such as the political cabinet, economic reforms, and the education system.
A young women’s rights activist from Grozny, who asked to remain anonymous due to security reasons, spoke with AWID about the growing use of religious ideology to threaten, control and attack women there.
AWID: Was the building of the mosque symbolic in terms of shifts in attitudes towards and treatment of women?
Women’s Rights Activist from Chechnya (WRAC): Lots of money was invested in the mosque. It’s ridiculous. There is so much gold and everything is decorated very intricately. There are chandeliers that cost millions. And after it was built, many different Islamic spiritual representatives began coming to visit from various Islamic countries. And our president, Ramzan Kadirov, began this policy of Islamization of the Republic.
This has started to show itself, in particular, in the attitude toward women. And now a trend of violently radical politics has begun. In the summer, government officials began restoring “traditional customs,” including forcing female government employees and students to wear headscarves. And now in the media, in the papers and on TV, they have begun showing that it is not ok to be wearing short skirts and to have your head uncovered.
AWID: And how was this enforced?
WRAC: Initially, Kadirov put guards at the doors of all public institutions and simply did not allow any woman to pass without a scarf on her head. This included even very young students! Kadirov’s people are very tall, unshaven and extremely ignorant. In general they are uneducated and come from rural areas. They wear many weapons. And they produce fear in women.
At first, a good number of women tried to pass without headscarves. But they suffered from physical beatings and bodily injuries. Often fights happened; the guards did not care if a woman was young or old. Time passed. Women began to carry headscarves in their bags and, when in public institutions, at work, or in school, they wore the scarves. When they left, they put them back in their bags.
AWID: Was this the extent of the enforcement?
WRAC: No. This past summer, Kadirov’s men began driving around in cars with tinted windows with special license plates. When these cars are driving around the streets, it is very scary for everyone because they can do whatever they want.
The men inside these cars shot girls that had their heads uncovered with paintball guns. Yes, with paint. This stained their bodies and their clothes. Even today, there are many unwashed paint streaks on some of the sidewalks. And since there are few foreigners or journalists in Chechnya these days, these men were not worried about leaving behind proof of what they had done.
One day when I was at a hair salon getting my hair done, a guy and a girl walked by. The girl had her hair down; she was just an average girl. And a car stopped, and they began shooting her with the paint gun pellets. They were shooting at her whole body and her head. And they did not just get paint on her clothes, but she was physically injured too.
AWID: So this shooting with paintball guns still persists today?
WRAC: As more people started talking about this treatment and women and men started to be admitted to the hospital as a result of these altercations, Kadirov changed tactics. He put religious representatives on the main street corners and they started asking girls why they were not wearing head coverings. They would say things like, “it is beautiful. This is a revival of our traditions”. I guess Kadirov’s men were trying to be a little more lawful…
A leaflet was distributed with the following language:
“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 RESORT TO MORE PERSUASIVE MEASURES!!!"”
At the moment they are no longer at the corners. Maybe because it is cold outside. But women who work in government agencies still must wear headscarves.
AWID: Are there any moments of resistance possible in these situations?
WRAC: In that situation outside the hair salon, the guy that was walking with the girl, a strong guy, a Chechen, maybe her boyfriend, ran after the car. When he got up to the car, the men inside the car stopped, got out of the car and then began butchering him. And then another car pulled up, they shoved him into it and they drove him off to some unknown location. Probably they took and severely beat him. Beatings are common when someone stands up against the dictatorship, against the government. There is no tolerance of dissent.
Men in our country who are not pro-Kadirov are suffering. If you want a job these days and want to work in the government, you have to be pro-Kadirov. There are people who oppose the government and what it is doing, but they have limited choices these days.
Men are also being told by clerics and officials to “maintain their reason” and forbid their sisters, wives and daughters to dress in un-Islamic ways.
AWID: Is this recent violence against women consistent with a lack of rights for women in Chechnya more broadly?
WRAC: It is hard to answer this question and even conceive of the idea of women’s rights in Chechnya because there aren’t any. Government officials publicly say that women should not hold upper level or leadership posts. The best positions in society are left for men.
It is also considered unnecessary for Chechen girls to study. For example, ever since childhood, I’ve dreamed of going to study in England. I studied in a special English language school to prepare myself. Recently, the Chechen government negotiated an agreement with England to send some students but they did not send any female students. They said the Chechen girls might get married over there and that it was not necessary for them to have an expensive British education. We are supposed to be good homemakers and bear children and stay at home in the kitchen cooking.
AWID: What about access to health care and services for women?
WRAC: A good number of women still die in childbirth in Chechnya due to lack of good care. Also, abortions are not done openly. Women who have children outside marriage are rejected or punished by their families. If a Chechen girl has sex before marriage and her family finds out about it, it will be followed with consequences. Sometimes it can get very severe.
AWID: Have NGOs been able to support women in Chechnya?
WRAC: In the capital Grozny, there is a rehabilitation center for women called Women’s Dignity. It has a gynecologist, psychologist and a lawyer working there. The psychologist provides counseling to women traumatized by all of the conflict, violence and militarization. And the lawyer primarily handles pension cases, helping poor women navigate the intricacies of the corrupt government bureaucracy. In most cases, the government has refused to pay financial compensation to women disabled by the war, women who have lost husbands or for homes destroyed in the conflict. Legal services are prohibitively expensive, and those without counsel are often forced to bribe officials.
The center also offers various courses including computer classes and sewing classes. It helps women with their specific concerns, including providing safe transport to get what they need and go where they need to go. Many of the women it serves are from the mountains and small towns outside of Grozny, where there are even fewer services available to women.
This article is also available in Russian here.
Special thanks to Angelika Arutyunova and Saira Zuberi for their support with this interview.