“Allah’s Angels: Chechen Women in War” by Paul J. Murphy

Allah's Angels

The Chechen wars (1994-6 and 1999-2009, sort of) were brutal for everyone involved. But for Chechen women, they were particularly devastating. “Allah’s Angels” documents their participation and their suffering.

Getting hard data about almost any aspect of the Chechen wars can be an exercise in frustration–even things that are supposedly monitored carefully by the government, such as Russian troop casualties, are underreported and vary wildly, depending on whom you ask–and so it is not surprising that this book does not have a lot of numbers to it. While it would have been nice to have some more statistics, especially a gender breakdown of casualties and participants in the wars, Murphy admits straight out that such information is impossible to come by, and so he relies largely on anecdotal evidence, providing numbers when and where he can. This makes it difficult to draw too many conclusions from the book, but it is still an impressive piece of research–he spent several years interviewing subjects and tracking down information, and the book is full of stories that otherwise would have remained untold, giving another perspective on these wars. Although it is largely a compilation of stories and incidents rather than a single narrative, and as such is more of an academic read rather than a literary one, it is full of fascinating information for anyone interested in this topic.

It’s also highly disturbing. Chechen women have traditionally experienced, and continue to experience, a number of conflicting problems that not only prevent them from governing their own lives, but often put them in physical danger. Chechen society has traditionally been highly patriarchal and male-dominated; women and girls are said to be valued–providing they remain chaste, obedient, and devoted to their families. In such cases, they are to be provided for and protected from physical harm, and even have the ability to stop fighting between men by their very presence.

The reality, of course, is different: even women who scrupulously maintain their chastity and obedience can end up married, often at a very young age, to abusive husbands, with no recourse for divorce or escape, and the presence of women has in no way stopped the fighting that has racked Chechnya for the past 20 years. Women who are labeled promiscuous can be kicked out of their homes–or worse. Bride kidnapping has been and continues to be a significant problem, and once a girl has been kidnapped, her chastity is suspect and she may be forced to marry her kidnapper even if she has no wish to. And that’s just during peace time.

With the wars, things became dramatically worse. Murphy chronicles how many, many women became accidental casualties of the violence: Russian forces carried out massive strikes against villages and towns, largely populated by noncombatants, and Chechen forces retaliated by committing terrorist bombings in urban areas. Furthermore, with many Chechen men off fighting, and the rest under suspicion, it was women who were the primary point of contact with Russian forces, which led to widespread abuse from Russian soldiers, and accusations of impurity from their own men as a result. Some women feared sexual assault so much, and quite legitimately, that they carried hand grenades tucked in their clothes, planning to commit a murder/suicide if Russian troops attempted to attack them.

Most disturbingly of all, perhaps, was the increasing involvement of Chechen women in the Chechen resistance movement. Not because I believe that women fighting is any more disturbing than men fighting, but because many of the women were brought into the movement against their will. Murphy recounts several instances of teenage girls being kidnapped, or even sold by their families, and then forced or brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers, sometimes after they had been raped by their own men in order to make them desperate enough to kill themselves. Other women, including a number of the women who participated in the siege at the Dubrovka theater, had been set up with arranged marriages to male fighters, who then considered them their chattel and required them to cook, clean, and when the occasion called for it, fight and die for the Chechen resistance. There were also women who did volunteer to become suicide bombers or snipers, either for money or out of religious and patriotic conviction; many of them ended up dead too, sometimes as the result of grotesque sexual torture at the hands of their Russian interrogators.

Nonetheless, these wars, just as WWI and WWII did for Western women, did give many Chechen women a certain amount of empowerment. With the men absent, many women took on more control at home and become financially and emotionally independent. Other women–perhaps the most powerful–gained influence, paradoxically, through their devotion to Wahhabism, and rose high in the ranks of the Chechen resistance movement. In either case, Chechen women, like their sisters the world over, proved themselves to be more than capable as heads of household, business managers, and fierce guerrilla fighters.

Unfortunately, the results for women have not been altogether good. Even the most influential of the female fighters on the Chechen side were still subordinate to their male leaders, and many of the women–young girls, really–were nothing more than sacrificial pawns. This is particularly unfortunate given that it is hard not to wonder if, had women had more direct decision-making power, some of the worst excesses could have been avoided. Almost half the hostage takers at Dubrovka were female; eye witness accounts say that many of them did not want to die themselves, nor did they want to kill their hostages, and they tried to reassure the hostages and make their situation easier by giving them water, bathroom breaks, and so on. And in the end, the women did not set off their suicide bombs, possibly because they couldn’t, but also possibly because they didn’t want to. Later, at Beslan, the two women known to have participated in the hostage taking there died early on as the result of an argument with their commander over killing children: the women were staunchly against it. Although I doubt that having more women in charge would have prevented the wars or the terrorist incidents entirely, one can’t help but wonder if they would have been less likely to deliberately kill children. As for the Russian side, having all-male units perform the cleansing operations and interrogations was a recipe for disaster on multiple levels.

Be that as it may, the wars are over now, and Chechen society is starting to rebuild. Murphy describes the anti-war movements run by Chechen women, and their attempts to be involved in the rebuilding of their nation. Unfortunately, now as earlier, they are caught in a double bind: Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime has instituted a number of oppressive and exploitative measures, including mandatory headscarf wearing and official proclamations that women are their husbands’ property and must be meek and obedient. Chechen men, devastated by the war and angry and unnerved by the changing gender roles it brought about, have by and large been happy enough to go along with this rising tide of misogynistic oppression. Women therefore have to choose between a show of loyalty to their Chechen traditions at a time when the nation is just starting to rebuild after a two-decade holocaust, and standing up for their own rights.

Murphy’s interviews paint a grim picture of Chechen women’s past and also their potential future, but give a necessary perspective on the experience of a nation whose influence on current events is all out of proportion to its geographical size. Certainly a must-read for anyone interesting in Chechen studies.

Buy links: Barnes and NobleAmazon

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