Women Peace Builders In Chechnya Face Religious Traditions And The Pandemic

The reconstructed war-torn Republic of Chechnya, in the North Caucasus mountainous region, borders Russia, Georgia, and the Russian republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia. Amidst a pandemic, self-isolation is not a new phenomena for the 1.2 million Chechens who isolated themselves in basements for long stretches to survive the 1995-1999 wars with Russia.

The pandemic was another case of “when tomorrow was cancelled” for psychologist Inna Airapetyan. A native of Chechnya’s capital city, Grozny, she remembers how wars destroyed her once modern, multi-ethnic capital city, leaving the streets covered with corpses.

The Chechen’s strong sense of nationhood and indepdence, after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, split the Chechen-Ingush Republic into two republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya. After the first Chechen war with Russia, Chechnya gained a ‘de facto independence’. They restored the Russian federal control after the second Chechen War in 1999, after nearly 100,000 civilians’ lives were lost. While sporadic fightings still continue in the mountains, there is systematic reconstruction.

In 2012 Airapetyan’s work in mediating conciliatory outcomes to various conflicts from domestic abuse to honor killing to women’s rights and education, in addition to her war-time daring work earned her the International Young Women’s Peace and Human Rights Award from Democracy Today, along with Sofia Shakirova of the Movement of the Volunteers of the Stavropol (Russian Federation) and Kheda Omarkhadjieva. 

In response to the pandemic-related needs and escalated domestic violence within the fundamental Islamic patriarchal society, Airapetyan and Shakirova launched online psychological counseling. In May they held 170 online consultations–in June there were 200 new requests and the numbers keep increasing.

Tribal Laws Alongside Modern Laws

The predominantly egalitarian Muslim Chechens organize in local clans–Teips– where respected elder mediators are more effective than local authorities. The ancient tribal laws–Adat–still operate alongside the local police and government authorities.

“As a psychologist in the North Caucasus I’m immune to unexpected surprises,” Airapetyan explains how human rights defenders in the region use “emergency response algorithm” to send and receive alerts to secure their own safety and of the women they protect.

An “alarm” amidst the pandemic, on the life of an Ingush girl threatened with honor killing, led Airapetyan and other activists to take immediate emergency measures.

Bordering Chechnya, the Republic of Ingushetia, the smallest of Russian Federation’s “federal subject” is predominantly Muslim. The Ingush girl, detained at a police department, was put on a federal wanted list by her relatives. While the girl was in transit to a safe crisis center, Airapetyan maintained contact with her so “she felt supported” and educated the center’s specialists about traditions and customs of “honor killings.”

“It’s critical to build the right communication, not criticize traditions and customs by calling them barbaric or medieval, but focus on the victim’s feelings,” Airapetyan confirms the girl is in a safe space, has a job and housing and is once again socializing–all under the self-isolation state of a pandemic.

Balancing Cultural Traditions With Women’s Safety

Born in Grozny to an Armenian family, Airapetyan’s father celebrated her birth, following two older sons, saying: “One strand of my daughter’s hair is worth 10 sons.” The once peaceful co-exsitence of the diverse community of Chechens, Ingush, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Kumyks, and Avars changed in winter 1994 when as a third-year Biology and Chemistry university student, Airapetyan lived through the Russian military operations in Chechnya. In early 1995, Airapetyan’s father and brother were shot to death by soldiers. Neighbors helped bury them in their courtyard as bombings prevented a cemetery burial.  

Following a teaching career in biology, Airapetyan lived through the second military campaign in Chechnya in 1999, and returned to Ingushetia to work with refugee children in a peacekeeping program, before settling back in Grozny. Working for CARE Canada and later for ACER Russie she kept hearing of the long-lasting war ahead and the need for local grassroots organization to take over.

So in 2005, along with “five other young and active, but not very confident girls” Airapetyan formed a team, supported by Caritas France and other French foundations in providing psychosocial assistance to women in post-conflict regions as well as in healthcare, education, labor rights, emotional burnout prevention for partners, the Federal Penitentiary Service, social workers and doctors. While women’s role in the Chechen society changed during the war–as women took over male responsibilities, earning an income, working outside the house, becoming active, outspoken, independent and defending their rights–after 2008 the roles reversed. Men seized power again as authorities dictated new rules and norms of gender behavior. Women in religious marriages have no protection after divorce–according to adat, children, land, and assets are the property of the father and his family.

“The patriarchal system implies that men have the power and control–men too are humiliated and insulted, and all together these factors lead to increased societal violence where the primary figure to take it out on is a woman,” Airapetyan explains how women lacking strong relatives to defend their sister, daughter or niece don’t know where to look for help. In addition to men, mothers-in-law who experienced violence as daughters-in-law, pass on the violence from generation to generation. Her team transforms these stories into positive ones, empowering women to be a “center of power, not a center of violence.”

Chechnya’s prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov–pro-Moscow police chief who since 2005 has become the de facto leader of the Republic and in May was diagnosed with Covid-19–has promised 50,000 Rubles (nearly $700) for men marrying during the pandemic. Airapetyan fears that the rampant unemployment will drive men to take extreme measures just to earn the money–so her team plans to introduce a law on marriage contracts to protect women.

Awareness-raising activities continue to inform and empower women and girls of their rights, offering programs to eliminate all forms of illiteracy for women and girls. Collaborating with lawyers and in partnership with several organizations, Airapetyan’s team recently won the first high-profile incest case in the Chechen Republic–mother and two daughters now live in a safe place.  

Publishing reports in high profiled media outlets as DOSH magazine and the independent Word of the Woman magazine, Airapetyan’s team also provides such programs as:

  • Safe shelter for over 45 women and children.
  • Girls and Boys Need Attention program–the hallmark of gender equality program involves men in “responsible practices of combating violence against women.”
  • Cooperations with the Investigative Committee, accompanying minors during interrogations and training the police on methods of interrogating minors.
  • School for Mother and Child–in cooperation with the Ministry of Health, prepares pregnant mothers for childbirth.
  • Cooperations with city officials, like Elan Dinaev, Grozny’s former mayor, who issued permission for women to sell handmade crafts in front of the central mosque–lead  to increased entrepreneurial opportunities for women.
  • Sustainable Activism Program–helping men express their culturally uncommon paternal feelings. One attorney, following a training, called his daughters to openly express his love for them–admitted that ‘listening to your wife is a right thing to do –the woman who gave birth to your children and gave you joy deserves respect and joy as well.” Such testimonies by men before other men are critical to open dialogue.

With security of utmost concern for her team, Airapetyan takes risks while complying with security measures. While outsiders see Chechnya as a black hole, Airapetyan sees a place with resources.  

“We can make our work even more effective by not letting this war break the world we hold in our hands,” Airapetyan encourages.

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