Love, North Caucasus style
Many members of Russia’s older generation associate love and romance in the Caucasus with the 1967 Soviet comedy “Kidnapping, Caucasian Style”, a film full of wild passions and fine age-old traditions and customs. But for the younger generation, the phrase is more likely to evoke issues around infringements of women’s rights, abduction trials and so-called honour killings.
Generational differences in gender relations and ways of life are easy enough to see in the region itself. Arranged marriages used to be the norm here, with families deciding who should marry whom and the young couple meeting for the first time on their wedding day. Many of the people I’ve talked to in the Caucasus tell jokes about how their parents got married. Muhammed, from Ingushetia, recalls his father’s story about coming back from the fields one evening and bumping into his mates, who told him that his family had found him a bride and set their wedding day. The lad was totally shaken by the news: who was the girl and would he like her? When he got home, he was delighted to discover that he knew her - they were neighbours; but Muhammed never got round to asking his father whether they actually hit it off together. This kind of story is rare nowadays: young people would rather choose their own partners and marry for love. But there is still the odd young man who doesn’t trust himself to choose a wife and turns to his mother or aunt for help.
The theme, or rather storytelling, of love and romance has always existed in the North Caucasus. Every culture has its fine legends of local Romeos and Juliets, and many families can tell tales about how their great-grandmothers and -grandfathers met and married. Inevitably, some of the tales involve forbidden or thwarted love, parents who refused their permission to marry, partings or forced breaks with families (a common enough occurrence, especially if the loved one came from another ethnic group or religion). Listening to these stories, you can feel like you’re watching a Turkish TV epic, where passions flare, tears flow, horsemen gallop around on their steeds and women spend their evenings sitting sadly under a mulberry tree. At the same time, many cultures still preserve in real life an unspoken (and in some cases reinforced by local codes of behaviour) taboo on any public show of feelings or emotions. This particularly affects men, who are not encouraged to show signs of love and affection towards not only their wives, but even their children, in public. Emotions are supposedly only for women. And these same rules regulate other aspects of relations between men and women – courtship, acquaintance, meetings, proposals and even behaviour at one’s own wedding.
A system of rituals, honed down to the smallest detail, was in place in the Caucasus long before the Bolshevik Revolution and stayed in place all through the Soviet years. It dictated how couples could meet during their courtship, the distance to be left between the man and the woman, and everything else, including the need for separate men’s and women’s tables (or even rooms) at weddings. However, over the last twenty years, with economic slumps and endless armed conflicts in the republics of the region, these rules have declined in importance and been replaced by Islamist precepts, on the one hand and secular values, on the other. Nowadays, gender relations in the Caucasus would remind you of a patchwork quilt, assembled from a variety of pieces that don’t always go together: traditional attitudes and the harsh requirements of pre-Islamic rituals can co-exist with European lifestyles; and young couples keeping the required distance between them on dates doesn’t stop them flirting on Whatsapp.
Romance or pragmatism?
It’s clear from our research that dreams of European-style “romance” are more widespread among young girls, who live in expectation of beautiful love stories, gallantries, attention, gifts and bouquets. These new expectations are largely the result of watching foreign TV programmes: in the 90s it was all Mexican soap operas, followed by Indian films and finally, Turkish serials. Men, on the other hand, laugh at these expectations and at the first notes of a serial signature tune roll their eyes and hurry out into the courtyard, where then can stand around enjoying male company. The code of masculinity in the Caucasus derides unnecessary sentimentality, and even young men deep in love are afraid to seem too sensitive. Some claim not to understand these mysterious feminine creatures, or know what they want, preferring more pragmatic relationships to reckless love. So they ask their female relatives to find them a suitable wife, by which they mean a home-loving girl from a good family and with an unblemished reputation.
An acquaintance of mine from Dagestan admitted to being seriously anxious about finding a suitable wife – it was time he settled down to a comfortable existence with someone who would take care of his every need. I argued that not every young woman longs to spend her life cooking and cleaning, and revealed that my husband happily irons his own shirts and cooks for himself, as he likes meat and I prefer vegetables, and that given I travel a lot in my work, he has the role of househusband. My acquaintance looked more and more shocked as this conversation went on, and I could see that at any moment he would not be able to stop himself asking, “Then why on earth did he marry you?” I had to talk myself up and persuade him that my husband loved me, not for my domestic skills, but because I was beautiful and clever. He was not convinced – looks fade, but you always need food on the table.
Caucasian male pragmatism does not end with choosing a wife almost exclusively for her fitness to breed children and keep house. When I asked men what they considered the most romantic gesture in a relationship, some declared that it would be very romantic to abduct the girl they fancied. It would not, however, be a stranger who would be carried off on their white horse, rolled up in a carpet.
These days, such abductions are usually arranged between the participants – it’s so much cheaper than a wedding. The couple agree on a time and place for the young man to seize his bride with the help of his mates. YouTube has hundreds of videos showing young men driving up to a university, grabbing a young woman and throwing her onto the back seat of the car, while she screams and pretends to struggle. After this they inform their future in-laws that they have their daughter, and if the bride herself confirms that she’s not complaining, everyone goes home happy. The family save the couple of million roubles they’d have had to lay out for a flash wedding for all their relatives. But there are of course real abductions, when the bride is carried off against her will, and then the problems begin – you can end up with long term hostility between two family clans.
The young women, it must be said, are less than keen on being abducted. They want a a white dress and a big wedding, preceded by a proper courtship with flowers and extravagant gestures. But given the unprecedented unemployment figures and low wages in the Caucasus republics, not many people can run to such extravagance. So girls have to fall back on a new type of romance based on attention and caring on the part of their loved one. “I’m not hung up on flowers and presents”, says 30 year old Chechen Madina. “But getting me medicine if I’m ill, or saying ‘why don’t you go and lie down, and I’ll get on with the housework’ – for me that’s the height of romance and what I want from a husband”. Some women also believe that men only give them flowers because it’s “the done thing”, and would appreciate the gesture more if it came out of the blue, and not just on Valentine’s Day or 8 March, International Women’s Day.
What makes women happy?
One of the main questions we asked respondents in our study was, “Do you feel happy”? To our amazement, people, especially of an older generation, were very unwilling to answer it and unclear about what it meant. At best, we were getting general, unfocussed responses, such as, “Well, of course, I have my family and children – what more do I need?” The importance of the family in the region is so great that unmarried men and women have a lower social status, as though they haven’t yet begun to live. So as people come up to their 25th birthday, friends and relatives become ever more insistant in their questioning – “When’s it going to be, then?” Having a family is seen as the most important thing in life, the main goal, and unmarried women are especially pitied and tutted over. In some republics a young unmarried woman is also a burden on her brother, who according to tradition is responsible for her honour until he can hand her over – safe, sound, and naturally, virginal – to her husband.
Young women today are, however, beginning to protest against this state of affairs. Having seen enough unhappy marriages and consequent divorces among their older sisters and other relatives, they are deciding to get an education and become financially independent before thinking about getting married. And many are rejecting marriage completely, despite strong pressure from their families and society at large. Others are determined to look outside the Caucasus, to find a life partner more egalitarian in his outlook. But there are also young women who only go to university because a bride with a degree is more likely to catch a well-off husband – and investing in expensive clothes and cosmetic surgery (a nose job here, a bit of lip plumping there) doesn’t go astray either.
The rapid urbanisation of the last decades has brought another change – the decline of the extended family and a desire on the part of young couples to live on their own. And this has meant the growth of individualism, a wish for independence and the ability to take charge of their own lives. It’s becoming harder and harder for public opinion, that formidable instrument of social control, to intrude into a self-contained flat that is home to a young family. So there is a growth market in various “gender contracts” regulating such phenomena as responsible fatherhood, two-career families and daily nannies.
If I were a Sultan
Men have worked out their own shortcuts on the road to romantic relationships. If love used to be mostly a synonym for gratitude and attachment, or existed separately from family life in the form of affairs “on the side”, now, with polygamy becoming more common, the role of “girlfriend” can be played by a second wife. A man who married on the recommendation of his family and has fathered the appropriate number of children can now become romantically involved with a young girl.
Sometimes this second bride only finds out about the existence of the first one at her wedding ceremony. Sharia Law permits a man up to four wives, so long as he can share his attention and assets equally among them.
For me, polygamy was always one of the most contradictory of the Islamic practices I rebelled against, arguing that if you have polygamy, you should also have polyandry – otherwise there’s no equality between the sexes. But other young girls were always were always ganging up on me, hotly defending their right to be a second (much loved) wife.
Many people I’ve talked to, including a friend who was a second wife at the time (and had a child by her husband), argued would argue that “in Russia, men have affairs, live with their lovers for years and then dump them; and they have no comeback. Sharia law, on the other hand, protects second wives if they are divorced”.
At the same time, while many young women say that they wouldn’t mind becoming second wives, no one envies the lot of first wives. As I was writing this article, a close friend was trying to cope with the fact that, after two years of marriage and the birth of a child, her husband had acquired a second wife, a very young girl from a rural area. She now has to decide whether or not to leave him. Our study has shown that the appearance of a new wife is the second most common reason for divorce in the Caucasus (the first is domestic violence). In most cases it is the first wife who, unwilling to come to terms with the new situation, breaks off relations and takes her children back with her to her parents’ house. In Chechnya, however, tradition demands that children be left with their father’s family, and if their mother leaves after the appearance of a second wife, she leaves alone.
Today, love and relationships in the North Caucasus are more chequered than a patchwork quilt, with traditional practices and rituals happily co-existing with European ones, romanticism with pragmatism and polygamy with monogamy. Family relations are regulated not only (or not so much) by tradition, but by new ideas about love, respect and fairness. It is increasingly common for a man, despite the rules laid down by tradition, to take the side of a woman, intercede on her behalf and defend her from attack by other family members. And young men are more and more keen to have a “real marriage” to a woman they love, and not just because “it’s time you had a wife”. As Fatima, 40, from Dagestan told me: “People in the Caucasus have been living as they liked for ages – but keep that to yourself!”
This article draws on the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s 2015-16 study of lifestyles and relationships between men and women in Russia’s North Caucasus, as well as other projects carried out in the region over the past six years. Our research covered four Caucasus republics: Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia. In terms of methodology, it involved a questionnaire survey and in depth problem-orientated interviews. There were 160 respondents – 80 of them women and 80 men, and the survey included questions on family life, values, religion, life strategies etc. In all cases our most important task was to get people’s trust and guarantee their anonymity. Afterwards, many respondents admitted that the first time they had ever thought deeply about their lives and spoken aloud about not only their family values and local traditions, but their own desires, feelings, hopes and failures.