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“The girls who write to us make excuses for being raped.” How female human rights defenders save women in the North Caucasus

Last fall, four sisters from Dagestan escaped from domestic violence but were later apprehended on the border with Georgia. The women were eventually released due to the efforts of volunteers and human rights advocates from Marem, a group that assists women in fleeing abusive situations. One of the sisters, who had fled, has recently returned, surprising everyone. The Insider interviewed human rights activists who support women in the Caucasus to learn about the reasons that drive young women to flee, why some decide to return, and how to ensure their safety.

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Content
  • “We just wanted the girls to stop crying.” Svetlana Anokhina, Marem Group

  • “The girls come back because they believe things will change now.” Maryam Aliyeva

  • “Female circumcision is sometimes done even without the mother's knowledge.” Aminat [name changed]

  • “The entire Chechen people is being held hostage.” Lana Estemirova

“We just wanted the girls to stop crying.” Svetlana Anokhina, Marem Group

The way the system is built in such a way that women are constantly preyed upon. The state and even their own family members often act as predators, leaving only a small group of women who are trying to save them. We are the ones who support these women and refuse to blame or judge them for their situation. Instead, we stand by them and help them to escape without making them feel guilty or obligated to return.

Male human rights activists from Ingushetia and Chechnya tend not to assist women because they believe it's inappropriate to interfere in someone else's family affairs. They view women as property, rather than individuals with their own agency. Helping women escape from violent situations is considered a complicated and sensitive issue, and not something that can be easily resolved. When a man wants to leave a family, there is no need to investigate who is at fault or try to reconcile differences - the focus should simply be on helping him escape.

And the most distressing part is that after experiencing the support of male human rights activists, such as during Oyub's trial, you may suddenly find yourself isolated when dealing with a woman like Patimat, who has suffered severe abuse, including having her teeth and ribs broken, and is now contemplating suicide. The solidarity of the human rights community may seem non-existent when it comes to helping women like her.

Svetlana Anokhina
Svetlana Anokhina

Our hallowed government's behavior mirrors that of a patriarchal household head who loses his power and authority, leading to the oppression and subjugation of those beneath him. The religious leaders' statements about a woman's role and place, and their obligation to obey, are often celebrated and printed in the media. This is a reflection of how our government views us as citizens: as inferior, intellectually disabled individuals, particularly women.

I'm scared all the time. But the scariest thing is when they try to snatch away from you a person whose hand you held 10 minutes earlier saying, “We won't give you up to anyone. I promise you, we won't give you to anyone,” as happened with Lima <Khalimat Taramova - The Insider>. She was afraid we would just hand her over. And we didn't give her away.

Despite being subjected to physical violence, abuse, and even death, as long as you can stand on your feet, raise your hands, and scream, your voice echoing with a mixture of anguish, despair, powerlessness, and rage, you can still make a difference. You can hold the f*cking door and refuse to give up, knowing that there is no other option but to keep fighting.

In the Caucasus, it is common for Muslim girls to have limited access to education. As a result, they may lack basic knowledge about Islam. Their understanding of the religion often comes from their male family members, who may not inform them of their rights as wives. For example, they may not know that according to Islamic law, wives are not obligated to perform household chores and that their husbands are responsible for providing for them. They may also not be aware that they can set the marriage gift (mahr) at any amount they choose, which serves as a safety net in case their husband dies or abandons them.

The fundamental rights of women in Islam, which are protected under Sharia law, are frequently disregarded. Islamic feminists advocate for the establishment of mechanisms to safeguard their rights. In Islamic tradition, there is a criterion known as zulm, meaning oppression, which is being perpetrated against women who have the right to divorce and other entitlements but are denied them.

To me, burnout means feeling lost and having the urge to scream, which happens more and more often

The Muftiyat in Makhachkala includes a department dedicated to regulating family relationships. However, I was informed by one of the mufti's employees a few years ago that women do not have the right to divorce, which contradicts Islamic principles. Islamic feminists advocate for the proper recognition of women's rights under Sharia law. Despite this, both Caucasian women and men, as well as radical feminists from major cities, criticize them for their stance. There is an ongoing debate about whether feminism can coexist with Islam. It can. In my view, feminism is about protecting women's rights, and if these rights are advocated for within the confines of Islamic canon law, it is still considered feminism.

To me, burnout means feeling lost and having the urge to scream, which happens more and more often. Previously, our encounters involved helping individuals who needed to be relocated to a safe place, but now we hear of cases where these individuals try to reintegrate into society but are hindered by the state.

You also experience this immense pressure from masculinity, an overpowering force that crushes you, a vulnerable individual who screams like a hare because you no longer have the means to defend yourself. And no one hears you out. You lose sleep, become disoriented, and unproductive. And undoubtedly, you need to take a break.

We had to become human rights activists and sue the cops. And we didn't want to, we just wanted the girls to stop crying.

“The girls come back because they believe things will change now.” Maryam Aliyeva

Alieva, a writer and human rights activist known for her work in defending victims of domestic violence in the North Caucasus, co-founded the Marem Group with Svetlana Anokhina and authored the “Diaries of a Mountain Woman” blog. Despite the challenges of difficult, lengthy, and costly evacuations, Alieva has observed that victims of domestic violence often return home voluntarily. One such case was that of Leila Gireeva, who sought help from Marem Group activists in November 2022 while hiding from her relatives in St. Petersburg. Although the activists were able to prevent Gireeva's family from taking her back home, she ultimately returned to them on her own two months later, at the end of January 2023.

Maryam Aliyeva
Maryam Aliyeva

The girl has lived through a nightmare of abuse at home. Initially, she experiences a sense of relief and freedom when she walks away from the abuse. However, this feeling of freedom is short-lived because she doesn't know how to handle it. At home, there were set rules and punishments, and now that she is free, she struggles to make decisions without a structured environment. Having experienced violence from a young age, she lacks the mental tools to guide her decision-making and is left alone with the burden of responsibility. This new experience can be overwhelming, and fear sets in. Returning home seems like an easier option as it was a place where everything was predictable and clear - there was a schedule for punishment and moments of leisure: take a beating at 4:45 p.m., watch a movie and get scolded for it at 7 p.m.

Girls who leave home due to abuse are often persuaded to return by their relatives, husband or parents. They may keep in contact and start reminiscing about the good things, forgetting the abuse they suffered. They may also believe that their family has learned their lesson and will not repeat the abuse. The hope for change motivates some to return, but others may leave to punish their abusers rather than to end the abuse.

“Female circumcision is sometimes done even without the mother's knowledge.” Aminat [name changed]

I came to know Sveta [Anokhina] when I decided to bring attention to the issue of female genital mutilation in an Orenburg clinic. This had happened to a distant relative of mine. The case had become scandalous as the circumcision was done without the knowledge of the girl's mother, who was divorced from the father.

The clinic included circumcision as a service on their price list, but when a patient arrived, they did not sign a contract for medical services, and payment was made in cash, making it difficult to prove the procedure occurred. This practice is common in private medical clinics. When the situation came to light, the clinic was able to manipulate the evidence. Although Sveta Anokhina wrote an article about the incident, the clinic was not held accountable.

Then came the emergence of the Marem group, which was not formed through any public announcements seeking volunteers to aid women. Rather, it arose from a close circle of trusted acquaintances, consisting of around 10 women. I acted as the coordinator, linking these individuals, communicating with them, and relaying information. The chats I managed contained highly sensitive information that, if disclosed, could put someone's life in danger. I spent approximately a year doing this work, all from the confines of my home in Grozny.

I always feared that the authorities would find out about Marem and my involvement as a Chechen woman

In our country, it is not uncommon for feminists or those who do not conform to traditional norms to be targeted. That is why I always feared that if the authorities found out about Marem and my involvement as a Chechen woman, they would confiscate my phone. So, whenever there was a knock on my door, I panicked and rushed to delete all our chats. This was not just for my own safety, but also for the safety of many others involved in Marem.

My parents hope that I would abandon my human rights work and live a peaceful life. This may be a common desire among many parents, particularly those in the Caucasus region. I am concerned that my activities may impact my family in some way. Therefore, I am constrained in my speech, my actions, and my visibility. We used to keep the fact that a Chechen woman was involved in Marem hidden before we left the country.

Our approach is as unbiased as possible. We do not hold any preconceived notions or biases towards anyone seeking our help. We do not care about one's background, identity, or morality when they are in need. This is in contrast to other organizations in the Caucasus, which many women fear due to the possibility of being judged or blamed for their experiences. As a result, some girls who write to us may even make excuses for their experiences of rape or abuse out of fear of being judged.

Do I plan to go back to Russia? If it seems safe to me, yes. But so far, it's not even close.

***

Marem activists have been living outside of Russia for over a year now, but they still work remotely to coordinate the evacuation of domestic violence victims. One of the activists opened a shelter in Tbilisi in March 2022 to provide refuge for Russian journalists who had fled their home country. Then in September, she opened another shelter for Russian men who had escaped mobilization.

“The entire Chechen people is being held hostage.” Lana Estemirova

Natalia Estemirova, one of the founders of the human rights center Memorial, was kidnapped and murdered 13 years ago in Chechnya. She had been investigating cases of abduction, torture, and extrajudicial executions in Chechnya. The Insider recently interviewed her daughter Lana.

For decades, Chechnya has been marked by a state of lawlessness, which has been created by the Chechens who were installed by Russian authorities. The Kadyrovites have adopted tactics such as torture and kidnapping from the federal government, but they have also implemented psychological torture. Being a Chechen himself, Kadyrov knows how to intimidate and suppress people not only through physical violence such as beatings or rape but also by taking his entire family to the police station or prosecutor's office and holding a gun to their heads.

In Chechnya, the family is considered the most cherished and valued aspect of their culture, and their entire mindset and customs are centered around it. People will do anything to protect their family, even if it means behaving in a cowardly manner. For instance, when someone's child is abducted and the kidnappers threaten to kill the child if any action is taken, it becomes an excruciating experience. It is a highly intricate form of torture.

Lana Estemirova
Lana Estemirova

At present, the entire Chechen people is being held hostage, and it appears that in Russia, turning a blind eye to this situation is a norm. However, I am not under any illusion regarding the strained and unresolved relations between Russia and Chechnya, which are still characterized by considerable animosity.

The entire system in Chechnya revolves around the personality cult of Ramzan Kadyrov, which leaves women with no hope for a better life. The prevailing conditions are characterized by an absolute sense of lawlessness and helplessness, to the point where parents are unable to safeguard their own children due to concerns about the welfare of their other relatives and children.

Despite migrating to other countries, a large number of Chechens still have family members residing in Chechnya, including uncles, aunts, cousins, and sisters. For instance, consider Akhmed Zakayev, who has been living in exile for decades. Not long ago, there was yet another scandal where Kadyrov's supporters brought out some of Zakayev's brothers or relatives, who had stayed back in Chechnya, and coerced them into defaming Zakayev. Kadyrov considers Zakayev a punching bag.

The entire system in Chechnya revolves around the personality cult of Ramzan Kadyrov, which leaves women with no hope for a better life

Currently, in the Chechen community scattered across Europe, many people lack trust in one another, to the point where they don't even know who they can socialize with over tea. Kadyrov has his own network of spies and organizations operating within this diaspora. He is even attempting to wield his so-called soft power by constructing mosques and establishing centers named after his father. Kadyrov's ambitions extend beyond Chechnya, as he seeks to exert his authority over Chechens worldwide, and not just within his own territory.

I haven't been to Chechnya since 2012 <Lana Estemirova went to live in Britain after her mother's death - The Insider>. And I am unlikely to go there while Kadyrov is in power. I don't have any reason to go there anymore. I'm just disgusted.

Now I'm writing a book about my life with my mother in Chechnya. I am speaking openly, I have nothing to lose. The dearest thing I had was my mother. It was just the two of us, it was my whole family. And on the day my mother was killed, my whole family was killed.

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