ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
Tonight I watched the BBC documentary This World: Stolen Brides, written and presented by Lucy Ash, a respected reporter with a background in covering Russian politics, warzones and women's issues. This programme was on the topic of forced marriages in Chechnya, a region with a complex and violence-ridden history, now struggling to recover after the Second Chechen War. Bride kidnapping has a long tradition in Chechnya, but it has seen a marked revival in recent years, with some estimating that up to 1 in 5 marriages begins with the kidnapping of the bride. Typically a young man and his friends snatch a woman off the street. They will then contact her family to negotiate for her hand. The marriage is usually agreed to, both to preserve the woman's honour and to prevent the need for a blood feud in a country where family honour is prized and where every man seems to have access to a gun. The narrative of the episode moved between the story of Zulikhan, a young woman snatched off the street and married a week later to a man she had met on only three occasions, and interviews with mullahs, human rights activists and ordinary Chechens.

I finished the programme feeling profoundly unsettled by what I had seen. There was a great deal to unpack from the footage, far more than could actually be analysed in the programme (though Lucy Ash gave a useful introduction to isues, she reported rather than analysed - which I think was probably more helpful in this context; it let the footage speak for itself). I sat in the bath, wondering why exactly it had upset me so profoundly. I see terrible things on the news every day, after all. Part of it, of course, was that there was a personal story there. Journalists know that a personal story is worth a hundred nameless casualties, and it would have been a stony-hearted person who wasn't moved by Zulikhan, a university student who suddenly had her career prospects and even her location taken from her as she was displaced through marriage to a near-stranger who moved them to remote Kazakhstan. Clearly bright and capable, Zulikhan had the air of a woman making the best of a bad situation; she liked her new mother-in-law (who enrolled her in a local university), and she described her marriage as "fate", but she had little to say about Bogdan, her new husband. Bogdan, meanwhile, was dismissive when asked if he thought his wife was upset about being snatched. Women, he said, just cried because they didn't want to leave home, but really they wanted to be married.

It would be easy to have gone away from the programme - with its men shooting guns in the air from the wedding cortege, mullahs exorcising women of demons that made them unhappy in their marriages, and grim statistics on women forced into prostitution and human rights activists murdered - thinking that Chechnya is an oppressive nation dominated by cruel, religious-fanatic men who are systematically crushing women's rights. Which in many ways is actually a fair assessment, but it's also a glib one.

One of the issues I have as a researcher on masculinities is the way so many people invoke the word "patriarchy" without actually understanding what it means. And before you ask, no, I don't know what it means either. I may have written a thesis on fatherhood, but I think I've only begun to understand what patriarchy really is. What this programme brought into sharp relief for me was the complex ways in which patriarchal constructs can shape, promote, and oppress. The people of Chechnya are victims of grotesque and repeated abuses of privilege. In 1944 the entire Chechen population was deported by the Russians. Half a million people were exiled to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and allowed to return only in 1957. Unsurprisingly, the ensuing years have seen continued bloody struggles with Russia. An increasingly radicalised Chechen population has in recent years moved away from seeking a western-style democracy independent of Russia and moved toward the ideal of a powerful Islamic state fighting for Caucasian independence - at almost any cost. The war with Russia is supposedly over, but violence is endemic, the unemployment rate stands at a third of the population, and a Médecins Sans Frontières survey in 2007 found that an astonishing 77% of respondents showed evidence of psychological trauma as a result of the war.

It is perhaps not surprising that in a nation that has been systematically brutalised and humiliated by a more powerful enemy that its citizens should seek ways of self-empowerment. It's all very well if we at home, comfortable in our privileges of peacetime and education, think it would be better if people sought productive ways to empower themselves. For many Chechen men, growing up with the expectation that their lives may be cut short by violence, ambitions stymied by economic stagnation and political corruption, an act such as bride-stealing may seem to them an exertion of personal choice and of vigorous masculinity. Patriarchal constructs tell men that they are not really men if they are not demonstrating their masculinity, if they do not prove their manliness. And of course the constructs of patriarchy involve not only the domination of women by men, but the domination of men by more powerful men. This isn't, by the way, all about gender; patriarchy's a lot more complex than that, and maybe sometime I'll have time to get into that. But for now - Chechen men have lived for decades as the whipping boys of their own government and of the policies of an autocratic and powerful neighbour. Is it surprising that a radical and conservative version of Islam which allows men to marry more than one woman, that allows men to make women cover their heads, that encourages men to take back their nation's independence, that neatly gives the blame for their problems to Russia and to the population's moral laxity. In many societies, patriarchal constructs subtly instil the notion that the household is a microcosm of society, and so the man who controls his household is a man who can take his proper place in a social hierarchy.

I couldn't warm to Bogdan, who seemed to have little interest in his new wife, and who did seem like the kind of cold misogynist you might expect. But Lucy Ash spoke to his father on Bogdan's wedding day. The father was visibly relieved; most people, he said, got married at eighteen or nineteen, but then the war came... And now Bogdan was thirty. There was in what he said a sense of an anxiety that went beyond a typical parental desire for a child to settle down and start a family. There is a sense in Chechnya of there being very little time; lives are borrowed, not owned, and this attitude makes snatching a wife - a custom that seems better suited to a more ancient time, not to a society with glossy billboards and a busy TV industry - make more sense. "I didn't want to wait," said Bogdan, and whilst his dismissive attitude toward his wife's ambitions was repulsive, it was easier to understand his anxiety to be married when an old man started speaking at the wedding reception. He discussed how he and his family were deported, how he saw his siblings die - a tiny fraction of the horrifying one-third of all deportees who died during transport or shortly thereafter. He talked about how women knelt down in front of Russians so that the fighting would stop, and how they were mowed down. Everything that the Chechen people have has been scraped together, fought for, stolen, wrung out. They are simultaneously absolutely certain of their right to be Chechen and absolutely uncertain of anything else that governs their own lives. They are fiercely proud of their race and nation; they are afraid of their government, of the future, of the shadow of Moscow.

"It's the law of our grandfathers," one man said about bride-snatching. "We have to respect our Chechen traditions." "Tradition" is often a useful cloak for abuse, and you may rightly sniff at men using dubious "history" to justify the abuse of women's rights - but in a society with an uncertain future and a distressing and bloody recent past and present, the concept of "tradition" is something to cling fast to. Whether or not it actually does anyone any good.


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January 2013

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