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‘Threats are a familiar thing for me’ Dagestani journalist Svetlana Anokhina on covering women’s issues in Russia’s North Caucasus

Source: Meduza

On July 22, an unknown man phoned Dagestani journalist Svetlana Anokhina several times and threatened to kill her. The caller promised to “deal with feminists,” apparently referring to Anokhina’s work as the chief editor of Daptar.ru, an independent outlet that has been reporting on women’s issues in Russia’s North Caucasus region for the past six years. After she reported this death threat to the police, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called for a “swift and thorough investigation,” underscoring Anokhina’s need for adequate protection. In conversation with Meduza, Anokhina discusses the most recent threats against her and the reality of reporting on women’s rights in Dagestan.

Please note: The following is a summary of Svetlana Anokhina’s interview with Meduza correspondent Alexandra Sivtsova. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here

As the editor-in-chief of Daptar.ru, Svetlana Anokhina runs one of the only publications in Russia’s North Caucasus that exclusively focuses on covering women’s issues. “And victories of course,” Anokhina adds, when asked about Daptar’s work. “We don’t just want to talk about problems.” 

Based in the southwestern Republic of Dagestan, Daptar has set itself the difficult task of reporting on controversial topics in an ethnically diverse, majority Muslim region. “Dagestan is as patriarchal as it is the most courageous and defiant republic of the entire North Caucasus. Due to the fact that we are all very different [people] in a small territory — there’s some 45-odd ethnicities and nationalities,” Anokhina explains. “And the possibilities for journalism, self-actualization, boldness, and pushing the boundaries are even greater.”

The publication reaches a small audience, but has very little financial support. And on top of that, it often faces public backlash for its reporting. “We have a small group of [readers] and an enormous number of people who don’t like what we’re doing. They ignore the texts about the mountains and crafts, and the funny columns, but they really don’t like when we start to write about problems in the way that we notice and understand them,” Anokhina says.

“Threats are a familiar thing for me, it’s background noise. Everyone dislikes what we write if the material is critically focused,” Anokhina continues, explaining that the backlash is often directed towards her personally. “People forget that I am a Makhachkala native, I have four generations born here before me and another two after me — my daughter and her children. It seems to them [the critics] that I popped up out of nowhere, [that] I broke in and I’m smashing their foundations and ties, interfering terribly and getting involved in stories that take place in the city.” 

Anokhina has faced death threats before, particularly in response to her prominent involvement in local activism. “They promised to kill me, but mostly in personal [messages]. They either wrote direct messages or called from an anonymous number, promising to subject me to exotic and erotic torture,” she recalls.  

However, she says that the threats she received on July 22 were different for a number of reasons: “This was the first [time] that they called me openly. The man tried to get through to me diligently […] From the first second I felt that something was wrong and turned on a tape recorder,” Anokhina says. “He spoke clearly, he didn’t start with swearing, he made sure that it was me. And then he clearly said that ‘they were instructed to deal with feminists.’ This is new.” When Anokhina tried to question the caller, he gave her an “obviously fake name” and then threatened to kill her. 

Anokhina believes that a post she wrote the day before about the establishment of a new women’s group aimed at “helping women in difficult situations” could have prompted the threats, but she can’t say for sure. “I wrote that the goal of our group was any kind of aid, up to and including evacuation. So I don’t know […] what exactly triggered it. But I admit that it’s because I openly call myself a feminist,” she says.

“If you have dyed hair, if you’re active, organizing rallies, festivals and [marches], if you have an agenda far from the kitchen […] You don’t fit into the general pattern of female behavior for a Caucasian man,” Anokhina continues. “There are a lot of young people, who are excited by the idea of cleaning the holy land of Dagestan of the scoundrels who dared to do something wrong: to think differently, dye their hair the wrong color. Sooner or later all of this gets ‘real’.” 

The way Anokhina sees it, women activists and journalists working in the North Caucasus are under near-constant threat, but this is also something that many of them have learned to tune out. That said, the most recent threats against her were particularly unnerving because the caller spoke about having ties to law enforcement. “When I mentioned the Sovetsky District [Police] Department, he genuinely started saying: ‘I have a cousin working there.’ And he laughed. There was a sense that he had police backing, protection — it was very brazen,” she recalls.

She and her colleagues later discovered that the phone number was registered to Rashid Abdulmuslimov “[He’s] an odious character, who’s been arrested for reckless [driving] in expensive cars several times in Moscow and here [in Dagestan],” Anokhina says. “They found handguns on him registered to a police officer. This isn’t some kid from around the block.”

Anokhina reported the threats to the police and told them about the potential suspect (In conversation with Meduza, Abdulmuslimov denied Anokhina’s accusations and clarified that he had already spoken to the police about the situation). However, she also says that she received a second call from a man with a different voice. “The first call was at 18:58, and the second time he called me was at 22:40. The voice was different. The man said that he didn’t understand how it had happened, that no one could have called from his number, and that he was on the road,” Anokhina recalls.

The second caller denied everything, but Anokhina says that makes no difference. “It was two different voices. But what does it matter to me? If the voice is different that means you gave someone else your [phone]. I don’t understand why all of this [the police inquiry] is taking so long,” she maintains. “I have one explanation: if nothing has happened after a couple days [...] it means that someone from the police is protecting this guy.”

Anokhina’s case is a perfect example of why women in Dagestan are hesitant to label themselves as feminists, in addition to the fact that feminism often seen as incompatible with Islam. “Many will say ‘No, I’m not a feminist, I’m simply in favor of…’ and list feminist positions point by point,” Anokhina says. “They’re trying to distance themselves from the word ‘feminism,’ because it has became negative, not only in the context of Dagestani [discourse] but also in discourse across Russia.”

That said, Anokhina does feel that women in the North Caucasus have more platforms for speaking out about women’s issues and rights than they did just a few years ago, even if they’re largely limited to airing their grievances anonymously and over the Internet. 

“There are conduits of humanist thought — like Daptar and [blogger] Maryam Aliyeva’s portal. It would be good if there were another 10–20 like them,” Anokhina says. “Our government systems are backed by religion and preachers, who incite hatred towards women, urging [men] to keep them under control. All we can do is [say]: ‘Here we are and we’ll do everything that we can in our fragile power.’ We have free lawyers, free psychologists.” 

Anokhina believes that in this context makes it’s all the more important for her to pursue her case — and she even says she’s prepared to “fight the police” if need be. “A lot of girls are looking up to me,” she explains. “If I let the situation go and walk away, they’ll feel defenseless. If I lost my nerve, why should they cause a stir? And I want them to cause a stir. I want them to know that defending themselves is a possibility.” 

Tune in and help Meduza!

Interview by Alexandra Sivtsova

Summary by Eilish Hart

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