The Boston Globe’s Big Picture feature, one of my favorite things on the Internet, has a post up today about young women in Chechnya. It’s mostly a photojournal of teenage girls’ lives: high school classrooms, snowy walks through the village, lunch with friends, cell phone conversations held while smoking a cigarette or pulling on a stocking. The photos, by Diana Markosian, are beautiful and evocative. But as Westerners tend to, Markosian focuses her lens on the headscarf as the symbol of repression, and the small space allotted for text means the nuances of Chechen religion, state and society are glossed over.
One theme that remains largely unexamined is the disparate forces pushing girls toward covering. There’s no doubt that many women feel enormous pressure from the authorities – and let us remember, here, that Chechens are living under the rule of a petty dictator of questionable sanity who is loyal to (and was installed by) their oppressors – to cover up, as Human Rights Watch detailed in a report issued a year ago. But several of the photo captions reference the growing popularity of Islam among youth, and show girls who cover up against their parents’ wishes. This is really interesting: the government is moving toward Islam, and the youth are embracing it at the same time.
The reasons for the push from above and the groundswell from below are vastly different. For the youth, this is in line with a larger turn toward religion in Russia, by Muslim youths in the Volga region to the famously disaffected Russian Jews to the country’s Orthodox Christian majority. It is also a lasting effect of Chechnya’s brutal war for independence, which flowed seamlessly between patriotic freedom fight and jihad; a reflection of money and mullahs sent to the region in the last 20 years by rich Islamists in the Gulf; a result of the conflation of Islam and ethnonational identity; and an effect of Chechens’ outsider status in mainstream Russian society. (Even the liberal political opposition in Russia has been known to rally around the cry, “Enough with feeding the Caucasus!”) The government’s promotion of Islam probably also plays a role. And, perhaps, too, it reflects the simple desire of each generation to be unlike their parents.
Another nuanced issue that gets glossed over is bride kidnapping. This is a problem, yes. In some regions, like rural Kyrgyzstan, it is more popular now than it ever was in that shiny idealized ethnically pure pre-Russian past. In almost any form, it is dangerous, sometimes traumatic, and unfair to girls and women. However, it is worth noting that many “kidnappings” are prearranged, either by the girl and her lover or with the involvement of both sets of parents. There is a negotiation phase, in which the girl’s parents have the right to refuse her hand and take her back if the groom is unsuitable (or, one hopes, if the bride is unwilling). Official statistics are hard to come by, as the practice is illegal, which means that it is actually a bit meaningless to say that girls are “often” kidnapped off the street by men they don’t know. In any case, tragic stories like the one Markosian profiles in photo 32 are by no means the majority of weddings.
Unfortunately, the complexities of life in Chechnya can’t be adequately conveyed by girls in headscarves alone. But Diana Markosian’s photos do serve, in conjunction with good reporting, as sensitive, humanizing illuminations of Chechen realities.