As a Russian state, Chechnya is subject to the laws mandated by the Russian Constitution. Based on the Russian Constitution, racial and gender discrimination is illegal. However, under the secondary leadership of vice-premier/head of state/president Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechen women face a different kind of reality.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the “traditional conservative society” that state leaders are stubbornly trying to instate and maintain is murdering those who are seemingly tarnishing their family reputations. These are honor killings that in the last year have been publicly condoned. Women are murdered and their mutilated bodies are discovered scattered throughout various parts of the countryside with an alarming frequency. “Here in Chechnya if a woman is running around and a man is running around with her, then both of them are killed.” Kadyrov proceeds with what can only be described as a self-righteous shrug: “I’m simply talking about our customs.”
His “virtue campaign”—initiated in 2006—has in the past a year and a half grown increasingly more intense (for lack of a better word). State officials have been known to hand out pamphlets, some designed for men and some for women, in the streets of Grozny. These illustrate how a woman should dress and act in public; they also hold men accountable for women’s appearance. It is their right—nay, duty—to ensure women’s modesty. Essentially, this translates into a state-imposed dress code—again, illegal under Russian law.
Oh, but the Chechens! The Chechens are much cleverer than that: over time they have figured out a way to force virtue upon their women. In the summer of 2010, hundreds of complaints filed by young women who described being shot at from cars with paintball pellets were duly ignored. A woman is but a man’s property, you know. Once more, Kadyrov—the wily wordsmith that he is—revered the anonymous vigilantes, claiming that granting them awards would be far more fitting than punishment. One of the victims of these pellet attacks was hospitalized for two weeks.
Let us complicate matters a bit (to counterbalance the repulsion): although Chechen polity under-the-table quietly encourages gender discrimination, the women are relatively more emancipated in certain senses than some of their Arab sisters. The Soviet legacy of gender equality has not entirely died out. During peacetime, women attended institutions of higher education. In the professional sphere, they were somewhat free to pursue what they wished. This changed after the Second Chechen War where 90,000 Russian troops invaded, wrecked, and reclaimed Chechnya as a state of the Russian Federation. Part of the reason there has been a return to more traditional gender roles is a direct result of the consequences suffered by the war.
Losing independence merely six years after having won it naturally destabilized the polity and fueled radical sentiments. A nationwide recognition of a Chechen identity called for something to be done. In the meantime, the moderate nationalists were busy intellectualizing, while the rebellious radicals let out the wail of the banshee. Women did not exempt themselves. In fact, the Black Widows (or Shahidki, meaning “witnesses” or “martyrs”) form one of the most prolific and dangerous female terrorist networks today.
They consider themselves warriors, but they are in essence suicide terrorists. Two scholars at the University of Tel-Aviv, Anne Speckhard and Khapta Akhmedova, published a study on what pushed these women to become active terrorists. The overwhelming majority, with the exception of one scenario of coercion, were cases of voluntary post-traumatic commitments.
“A huge part of the healing process in response to psychological trauma [of losing a husband, father, brother, etc…] is to reconstruct both a personal narrative and a worldview that incorporates the traumatic event. A religion-based terrorist ideology that incorporates national tradition and even the obligation to avenge a family member can serve this need. […]”
Of a series of 42 suicide bombings by terrorists from the Caucasus between 2000 and 2010, over 40% of the shaheeds carrying out the attacks were women. The woman who had begun the trend, Khava Barayeva, who blew herself up at a Russian Army base in 2000, has become something of a popular icon among the youth. For women, reality is unsurprisingly disenchanting: as widows, they might struggle with their lives cast out of their own homes, rejected by families who no longer bear the responsibilities of caring for them. As “soiled” and “stained” women, few bachelors would desire them for remarriage. However, as Black Widows, they honor the ones they have loved and lost to the war against the Russians. In truth, in the view of the women who engage in violent acts of separatism, many do it eagerly and with a light heart. It is their chance to fight for their brothers and sisters; politics aside, the Chechen case shows that a national identity still unites despite domestic travails, in hopes of evicting the invading foreign unwanteds.