‘What I want is a secular Chechnya’ More women are trying to escape violence and persecution in Chechnya. But fleeing to Moscow is no longer enough to ensure their safety.
In 2017, thanks to an investigation by independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the world learned about the repressions queer people face in the North Caucasus. Stories of torture and kidnappings appeared on the homepage of the New York Times, and Vladimir Putin had no choice but to comment. Soon, people began evacuating from Chechnya. The majority of evacuees in the first wave were men, but human rights advocates have since seen an increase in the number of requests from women, not all of them LGBT+. To learn more about the threats women face in Chechnya, Meduza spoke to two human rights advocates and two Chechen women who managed to escape.
Nowhere is safe
“There have been a lot of women [reaching out to us lately],” said human rights advocate Mansur Akhmetov, who’s been working to help LGBT+ people escape from the North Caucasus since 2017 and is currently working with the crisis group SK SOS (he previously worked with the Russian LGBT Network). “And while [...] it’s not always necessary for men to leave the country [because it’s sometimes enough for them just to leave Chechnya], that’s not possible for women. Because they’ll always be found by a brother or an in-law [who will try to bring them back].”
In recent years, Chechen security officials have begun receiving help from law enforcement officers throughout Russia. “In the past, these people [who have fled persecution in Chechnya and gone to other parts of the country] wouldn’t get caught in Moscow, and if they did get caught, it would be by their relatives,” said human rights advocate Svetlana Anokhina. “Whereas now, [security forces from Chechnya and other parts of Russia] work together, because it’s clear to everyone that Kadyrov has gotten the go-ahead directly from the Kremlin.”
Activists have noted that while it’s sometimes possible for gay men to find excuses to leave Chechnya — for they say they’re going to work abroad, for example — women don't have that option; their lives are tightly controlled by their families.
Below, Meduza is publishing excerpts from the monologues of two women who successfully managed to flee Russia with the help of advocacy groups like SK SOS. To protect the safety of everyone involved, her name and several identifying details have been changed.
24 years old, left Russia in 2019. Aminat is currently the only woman to have reported her relatives to the Russian Investigative Committee for abusing her. After her public complaint, more women from the North Caucasus began reaching out to human rights groups.
At some point in 2017-2018, my mother found some intimate messages with some men [on my phone]. After she found out about that, my relatives literally made my life hell.
My mom said that if I didn’t let her “check” my “virginity,” she would go and show the messages to all of my relatives. She made me lie on a bed, took a medical catheter, inserted it [into my vagina], and pulled it out, multiple times. I lay there on the bed for several minutes, sobbing and asking her to stop.
In August 2018, [my parents] forcibly sent me to [a residential psychiatric] hospital, where I spent 25 days getting injected with heavy-duty medications that made my blood pressure drop sharply.
My mom said she would have me locked up somewhere [in a psychiatric hospital] and would ask them to shock my genitals “so that everything would fall out.” She kept repeating that I had nymphomania, and that I was a slut and had brought shame on my family.
Chechen families only love boys. Nobody loves girls. Nobody will defend a woman if she tries to resist violence or tries to defend herself. There’s nothing, no [social] institutions, no services to solve these problems. If a person has marital problems or anything like that, Chechens go to shamans, psychics, or mullahs.
They took me to a mullah, too. In Islam, they believe that if someone is possessed by a jinn, the person must experience physical pain to get it out. The person should scream and writhe.
I was put on the couch and my father sat on my legs so that I couldn’t move. The mullah sat on the right, spit, screamed, read the Koran, and hit me with a stick. [He didn’t stop] until my solar plexus was swollen and red. They [mullahs] understand that they’re not likely to face any consequences.
It was then [after the “session”] that I decided I would try to leave. I was part of a group on VKontakte called Overheard Feminism [Note: the group was later deleted]. It had a list of organizations that help people escape. The only organization whose contact information I could find right then was the LGBT network, but I wasn’t brave enough to write to them. I’m straight and I wasn’t part of the LGBT community. But I needed help. I thought if I told them the truth, they wouldn’t help me [but human rights advocates from the LGBT Network ultimately did help].
I've often heard people say, “If we had Ichkeria [the unrecognized secessionist government of the Chechen Republic that existed until the Second Chechen War], our lives would be better.” But I’ve read interviews with Chechen commanders who supported Ichkeria, and one of them said, “I have four wives.” And he made no secret of his consumerist attitude towards his wives. They were like objects to him. “I got the first one, got the second one, and I also have a mistress. And why? Because I can afford to.” If we had something like Ichkeria, my position as a woman wouldn’t be any better. Do you know what I want? I want Chechnya to become a secular society.
24 years old, lesbian, escaped from Chechnya
From the time I was small, my father told me I needed to occupy my time with something “feminine” — that way I wouldn’t have to leave home. When I was 13-14, when I’d become seriously interested in sewing, I convinced my parents to at least study that, so that I could become a designer. And my father let me.
The problems began when I needed to go somewhere, to talk to people. When I was 15, I made an Instagram account and started searching for clients there. To be honest, I had no idea how to start a business. But I wanted to do a photoshoot — a real one, with models and a photographer. My parents said it was unnecessary. So I decided that instead of asking them, I would just secretly make arrangements with people. Once everything was planned, I just went to them and told them I needed to get ready for my shoot. It was incomprehensible to them. But my mom was very proud of me and tried to convince my father, and it’s only thanks to her help that things worked out for me.
My family never had money until I started working. I can’t quite say that I was providing for [all of my family members], but I paid for our groceries and for my parents to remodel their house. My mom or my dad would accompany me to work. Sometimes I would call a taxi with a woman driver — we’ve had those kinds of taxis in Chechnya for several years now. Even at the office, I was never allowed to be alone.
But at some point, I got sick of the overprotectiveness, of my inability to leave home [alone]. I was always dead set against getting married early, especially since I had only liked girls from the time I was a teenager. When men started coming to meet me, I thought, “Alright, I have to choose someone who will let me work, study, and live freely.”
I was married for three months. A month after the wedding, I opened my first studio. I was so happy about that. For my parents, too, I had finally become a “good daughter” [after the wedding]. I was happy to “please” them: no matter how much I studied, no matter how successful my business was, nothing made them as happy as my marriage.
But it was very difficult — inside, I was dead the entire time. I gave the money I was earning to him, for gas and all that. I paid for our apartment and bought our food.
Just a week after the wedding, he started keeping strict control over me. I was afraid to miss a call from him, because if I didn’t answer in time, he would become hysterical. He beat me and raped me. When I told him not to beat me, he would just explode even more and say, “You think this is beating? What, have you never been really beaten before?”
One day, my mom heard him yelling at me over the phone. She took the phone from me and turned it off. I started to panic: “What are you doing? I never do that, because he’ll come get me!” She said, “Nobody will touch you.” And that was the first time in those three months that I felt there was someone who would protect me.
That night, I told her everything — we talked until dawn. When I saw that my mom was willing to defend me, I said, “Please, do everything you can so that I don’t have to go back there, and so I never have to see him again.” Probably the only good thing my dad did [for me] was protect me then. He saw the fear in my eyes and protected me.
In Chechnya, there are Kadyrovites who focus on young people. They kidnap gay men, lesbians, atheists, and feminists, and “fix” them. They have a list of “undesirable” Chechens, and at some point, I ended up on it.
A friend of mine, who had a long debate with me about feminism on Instagram live, was kidnapped by the Kadyrovites. After that, everyone he knew started getting messages from his phone. I learned later on that when he was being tortured by the police, he told them I’m a lesbian and an atheist. I also got a message from his number; it was an invitation to meet up. And then they hacked into my Telegram account.
At that point, I’d long been planning to leave Chechnya. I was in touch with human rights advocates and had tickets. Someone [probably from the authorities] told my father about it after my Telegram was hacked. After that, I spent a long time locked up, no documents, no ability to work or leave. I spent the entire time reading about radical feminism, and I became convinced that I didn’t want to live like I was now, and that I needed to fight to take control of my life back and stop belonging to men.
I didn’t get my passport back for another six months — I told my parents that I needed my documents to go to the bank [and I escaped].
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale