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Chechnya: War Is Reversing Men And Women's Roles

The war in Chechnya is changing the traditional role of the republic's women. Because many Chechen men are either fighting against or hiding from the Russians, women are increasingly acting as protectors of their families and their major providers. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 25 August 2000 (RFE/RL ) -- While the image of the first Chechen war -- from 1994 to 1996 -- was a machine-gun-toting rebel wearing a green bandanna, the second war in the separatist republic has another face -- that of women. Since the outbreak of new hostilities a year ago, Chechnya women have taken to negotiating with the Russian military at checkpoints, organizing meals in refugee camps, and making ends meet by selling cigarettes in the bombed-out market of the capital Grozny.

It's easy to understand why. Chechen men are the primary targets of Russian troops who, when they find the men, arrest them on suspicion of being rebels. So the men who don't fight, hide. That leaves it to their wives, sisters and daughters to earn money and keep the family together.

Chechen women are also the ones who bargain with Russian law-enforcement officers for the release of their husbands or sons from so-called "filtration" camps notorious for their systematic torture. The women haggle with the torturers over the price -- a few hundred dollars, a car, diamond earrings or sometimes just a wedding ring.

Chechen women say that masculine and feminine roles are changing, which puts a lot of pressure on them while leaving their men resentful of their new helplessness.

Take Madina, whom our correspondent encountered at the Adler-20 checkpoint between Ingushetia and Chechnya. Madina was waiting with her two sisters for a bus to take them home to Grozny. They often travel back and forth between the two republics carrying food, clothes or whatever they can sell in Chechnya to make a little money.

Madina is a good-looking, carefully dressed 30-year-old woman. She is especially proud of the beige handbag she managed to salvage from her old life when Aldi, her husband, was doing well working for a private company and when she was at home looking after their children.

But now Madina is the only one taking care of the three children, her parents and Aldi's parents. In addition, she supports -- in accordance with Chechen values -- an extended family of cousins and nephews scattered throughout Chechnya and Ingushetia, all living in varying degrees of poverty. She says:

"The source of money in the family is now the woman, it's really the woman. Only women can bring in a piece of bread since those few miserable men who are still there -- because many of them left, and there are practically none left in the republic-- well, the ones who stayed can't even travel form one checkpoint to the next!"

In the war-torn republic, where unemployment is rampant, Aldi can't find a job and hardly dares to leave their home for fear of being arrested by Russian soldiers.

"My husband is at home. He's a lawyer, has finished university, worked as a legal consultant -- but since 1994, he's been at home. He's a healthy man and doesn't know what to do with himself ! I'm the one going to the market to sell things. I go places and bring food home -- we try to survive. And for him, as a man, that's very difficult to live with. And that's the way it is for most of the population."

Chechen sociologist Abdul Khakim Sultygov thinks that this natural adaptation to war conditions could produce deep changes in Chechen families"

"The woman has become the real bread-winner, and changes in the economic order inevitably transform interpersonal relations and values. Women have begun to fulfill traditionally male functions. It's the start of a matriarchy, a kind of revolution."

Madina says that Chechen men's helplessness pushes them into the arms of rebel organizations: "No wonder some of them take up arms," she explains. "The Russians hurt their male pride."

Sultygov agrees, although he sees the central issue as survival rather than pride. "If a man can get paid at least a little by fighting," he says, "then fighting is, indeed, an option for some."

Madina insists that while Chechen women's new role may be emancipating, it's also quite destructive. She points out that Chechen families are being put under too much strain because both men and women have to change so quickly.

"You know, the big problems in our family are because of that. Actually, all our problems have the same source -- he doesn't know what to do with himself, and of course he gets angry with me. He's depressed because he's become a nobody."

Sociologist Sultygov fears that the reversal of roles in Chechnya might lead to the dismantling of what he calls "the nucleus of Chechen society" -- the family -- thereby creating a social void. He argues that men have a hard time coping with this new balance, and that it could provoke separations and divorces.

Sultygov goes so far as to say that the loss of Chechen men's traditional role in society -- together with the war's disruption of education -- could ultimately do more harm to the Chechnya's traditional social order than did the 25-year deportation under Stalin. "The deportation killed us demographically, people died of cold and hunger," he says. "But this war is actually doing more damage by destroying the Chechens' traditional society and values."