Reports that a Chechen schoolgirl may have been press-ganged into marrying a man around three times her age has sparked a media frenzy in Russia, and focused attention on marital practices in the North Caucasus republic.
The first report that Nazhud Guchigov, police chief in Chechnya's southeastern Nozhai-Yurt district, had threatened reprisals against the family of "Kheda G." unless they consented to the marriage once she reached the age of 17 on May 1, 2015, appeared on Kavkazcenter, the website of the North Caucasus insurgency.
The following day, Russian investigative journalist Yelena Milashina published an article in Novaya Gazeta in which she said residents of Kheda's home village of Baytarki asked her to publicize the situation after an appeal by the teenage girl's fellow students on her behalf to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov went unanswered.
Milashina also said that she had spoken by phone to Guchigov, whose age is variously given as 46 or 57. She quoted him as saying that he had never heard of Kheda; that he is aware of the ban imposed by Kadyrov in 2012 on underage marriages; and that he has been happily married for many years, and has no intention of taking a second wife. (In a follow-up article, however, Milashina -- who has since left Chechnya -- claimed that Guchigov had earlier sought once before to marry a much younger woman from Nozhai-Yurt, but her parents thwarted him by sending her away.)
Chechen officials initially denied that any marriage between Guchigov and Kheda was on the cards, and then rejected suggestions that her family was under any pressure. Kadyrov himself declared that, in light of the media coverage of the case, he had dispatched officials to Baytarki to clarify the situation.
They reported back that Kheda, her mother, and her paternal grandfather had given their consent to the planned marriage, which took place in Grozny on May 16.
Kadyrov did not comment on the fact that Guchigov is, by his own admission, already married. In subsequent remarks, however, Kadyrov sought to downplay the discrepancy in their ages, quoting a line from Aleksandr Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin when saying that "all ages submit to love."
The conflicting reports about Kheda's situation prompted the intervention of Russia's human rights ombudsman, Ella Pamfilova, who appealed to Kadyrov not to permit the marriage.
Presidential Human Rights Council head Mikhail Fedotov suggested that the prosecutor-general's office should look into the reports that a senior police official is seeking to take an underaged girl as his second wife. (According to Russian law, the minimum legal marrying age is 18.)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (right) with district police chief Nazhud Guchigov. (file photo)
Then, on May 12, LifeNews published an interview with Kheda G.
In this broadcast, Kheda -- prompted by her aunt -- said she had freely consented to marry Guchigov, whom she described as "a good man...courageous and reliable." She also said she had been acquainted with him for the past year. Neither Kheda nor any of her family clarified Guchigov's current marital status.
Polygamy is illegal in Russia, even though it is permitted under Islamic law on condition that both the first wife and any subsequent brides consent, and their husband treats them equally.
In 2006, Kadyrov, then Chechen deputy prime minister, and now Chechen Republic head, argued that polygamy was necessary in Chechnya to redress the imbalance between the sexes resulting from the 1994-1996 and 1999-2000 wars.
Three years later, Kadyrov similarly told an interviewer that "our customs and religion permit polygamy…there is no law [allowing it], but I tell everyone: whoever wants to and can afford to do so should take a second wife."
Unconfirmed rumors say that, in addition to the mother of his eight children, Kadyrov himself has a second wife, a former winner of a Chechen beauty pageant.
Whether or not Kheda has indeed consented of her own free will to marry Guchigov, her case is by no means unique, according to Caucasus experts.
Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya, who heads the International Crisis Group's Moscow office, was quoted by the Regnum news agency as saying that, with Kadyrov's backing, Chechen police and security officials are increasingly taking younger women as their second wives. She did not cite any statistical data to substantiate that hypothesis; indeed, it is doubtful that any exists.
Sokiryanskaya suggested that the women in question agree to becoming a second wife partly because the gender imbalance reduces their marriage chances, and partly because their prospective husbands can offer them "money and high social status."
Sokiryanskaya did not mention the fact that such police and security personnel, by virtue of their affiliation with Kadyrov, are in a position to exert with impunity the kind of pressure and threats that Guchigov is said to have brought to bear on Kheda's family.
Other analysts suggest that the women who are offered the opportunity to become a second wife are the lucky ones. Others, less fortunate, are simply abducted, raped, and then abandoned or even killed by members of the Chechen police and security forces confident that they will not be held responsible for their actions.
-- Liz Fuller