x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The changing face of Chechnya

The Chechen women who have less freedom now than they had under Russian occupation.

Shoppers in a Grozny boutique. There is growing pressure - sometimes violent - for women to keep their heads down... and covered. Diana Markosian
Shoppers in a Grozny boutique. There is growing pressure - sometimes violent - for women to keep their heads down... and covered. Diana Markosian

The paint gun came out of nowhere. Raisa Borschigova was crossing the street with a friend to grab lunch when two men approached in a black car. They fired a plastic pellet into her right thigh and she felt a stab of pain. Pink paint stained her grey skirt. Her friend got blue in the chest.

"They shouted: 'Put on a head scarf, whore,' " she recalls. "For three weeks I had a big bruise."

The incident last year was a cruel irony for Borschigova, now 31, who survived the privations of two separatist wars against Russia in the 1990s, only to face violence today for ignoring traditional dress. She can't count the number of times men have abused her for uncovering her long hair.

She is not alone. Memorial, a local human rights group, says vigilantes with paint guns shot at least nine other women last year and government supporters have made threats against numerous others in this North Caucasus republic, part of the Russian Federation. Human Rights Watch, in a report released last March, said many of the attackers were wearing military-style black uniforms, and accused the government of fomenting abuse.

The public shaming began in 2007, when the Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov started promoting a compulsory Islamic dress code. Local authorities demand that women cover their heads in government buildings. Girls must wear scarves in schools and universities. Women complaining to police about intimidation are often dismissed with more insults. In a widely quoted television remark, Kadyrov warned that women should behave "properly" or face killing by men.

The dress code is a violation of Russian law. But Moscow's silence is, analysts believe, a way to pacify Kadyrov, who was left in control after Moscow declared the end of its counter-insurgency operation two years ago and withdrew most of its forces.

No one keeps statistics on public abuse, nor on how the dress code is observed. A casual glance at Grozny's stylish female population reveals that about half accept the restrictions, with skirts down to their ankles and platoks, or scarves, fully covering their hair.

Many women in this Islamic society dressed conservatively even before the government campaign. But others, such as Zarima Timirgaeva, 41, an administrator at the Islamic University, only complies with orders. "I never wore a headscarf before I got married," she states flatly, "but this is our dress code now."

As a compromise, many women cover their legs and drape a platok around their necks that can be pulled up quickly if needed. The more defiant wear skirts just above the knee and a small kerchief called a kasinka. Or they put on long dresses that are so clinging one can see the thongs underneath.

Exposed legs bother the mufti of Chechnya, Sultan Mirzayev. The region's spiritual leader and a close ally of Kadyrov maintains that "a woman must cover her face and arms up to her wrists." For the mufti, the government rules should be broadened: "To walk without a head scarf is a sin."

Against all evidence, though, he insists that "nobody forces anyone" to wear a headscarf. "In the last two to three years women voluntarily started wearing them," he maintains.

While this new sartorial standard limits freedom of expression, many women, including some who accept the veil, have found another way to empower themselves. Increasing numbers are running businesses, a novelty for a culture in which the kidnapping of brides was only recently outlawed. In order to stabilise the renegade republic, Moscow has poured millions of roubles into reconstructing war-torn Grozny, and the new wealth has encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit in both sexes, generating an appetite for sushi restaurants and Prada dresses, as well as pampering, areas that attract the new business-ledyi (the Russian term for businesswomen).

Grozny is full of beauty parlours run by women eager to forget a time when they had only a cup of water to wash with while sheltering in bunkers under bombardment.

"What kind of salons could we even imagine during the war?" asks Aysa Hasihanova, a cosmetologist from one such parlour, the Egoistka (Egoist). "Now women want to feel beautiful and feminine."

A salon is the one place where women can literally let their hair down together - and scarves are left on the benches as both the modest and the modern get highlights. No official figures exist on the number of salons, but one sees dozens in a casual stroll around Putin Prospect, the main street plastered with huge portraits of Kadyrov. Before the war there were just a handful.

But Chechnya's women are not limited to running beauty salons. They are now heading up ventures such as car washes, fitness centres, taxi companies and even a construction site, although most stick to more ladylike pursuits. Grozny's most luxurious boutique, selling the republic's first brand, is the fashion house Firdaws. Launched by sisters Medni and Laura Arzhiyeva in 2009, the line - whose name means "seventh heaven" - attracts the elite, including Kadyrov's wife, Medina. Designers create clothes to order and are promoting a new collection specifically for women going on the Haj.

Zarima Yakayeva, for example, aims to put a hip spin on her clothes, designing epaulettes, intricate embroidery and even gathered waists and plunging necklines.

Kamila Lamanukyaeva, 23, a secretary, explains the appeal, as she ogles a bright pink number made of flowing silk. "I always try to buy my clothes here because the styles are modest yet chic," she says. What puts her off are the prices, which range from the equivalent of Dh370 to Dh27,500. "I usually save up for a few months before being able to go into the store," says Lamanukyaeva.

Borschigova and her circle say they are practising Muslim women who want freedom of choice and normality. Sitting in a tea shop, the women contemplate their new challenges. All lost close relatives during the wars, and all took refuge in basements, venturing out only to forage for food. They had to go abroad to study when Grozny was razed by bombs. Now they have to worry about showing their highlights.

"I refuse to buy a scarf. I borrow one from my sister when I need one," says Borschigova.

"I only put it on when I go to work," adds a friend, whose platok is draped around her neck.

Talk drifts to Chechen's Women's Day, a recent Sunday when government supporters went through the streets of Grozny handing out roses. As might be expected, Borschigova found trouble. "One man stepped up and said: 'Don't give it to her. She's uncovered,' " she says.

The women snort. Then they pay the bill and leave, with their shoulder-length hair exposed for all to see.