A socially-acceptable form of murder: honour killings in Russia’s North Caucasus

On the sweltering August week she was to die — choked to death by her own uncle — Mariam Magomedova had returned home to the village of Nechayevka in Dagestan, to celebrate her cousin’s wedding. 

Relatives on her mother’s side recalled their joy at seeing the tall, beautiful, serious 22-year-old — practically everyone remembered her thus — on a rare trip back from studying in Moscow. They had even helped her buy the ticket home. They couldn’t have known what lay in store. It was as much of a shock to them as it was to her.

The gods never looked out for Mariam, says her aunt, Patimat Abdulmuslimova. The girl’s terrible luck started two years before she died, when she was hitched against her will to a cousin 14 years her senior. The wedding went ahead, joyless, but everyone left crying. There was a terrible omen that day, says Patimat, when the wedding party crossed paths with a funeral procession being held the same day.  

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Nobody in Nechayevka knows quite why Mariam Magomedova was killed. There were certainly lots of stories, says Umarazat Magomedova, director of the local school.

The girl was already divorced, but for some reason relatives on the father’s side were animated by SMS messages she may or may not have exchanged with a man. No-one saw those messages, or could even say what they contained. 

When it came to court, the uncle offered a different story: Mariam had been seen wearing short sleeves and only knee-length dresses. There were rumours about amorality — only none of them were actually true. 

For two weeks, the father’s side of the family kept quiet about their role in Mariam’s disappearance. It was only when the body was found, complete with the scarf used to choke her, that the truth emerged.

That was only the start. It took Mariam’s mother four years to put her daughter’s killer in prison. Every step of the way, the authorities obstructed her. A suspicious death report took weeks to be filed. The investigation was drawn out for a year.  When it was returned to the district court after a great scandal, the uncle was acquitted. Eventually, that verdict was quashed. The uncle admitted his guilt and was sentenced to 7 years, just above the minimum tariff. 

“Eventually – we got there,” says her aunt Patimat. “We were motivated by her beautiful eyes. I still see them every day.” 

She says they no longer speak to the father’s side of the family.

“Not after they behaved like such animals.”

The story of Mariam Magomedova’s death is far from isolated incident in Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus. But it is worth telling in detail for two reasons: first, it went public, and then doggedly pursued in the courts.

It is far more usual for matters to stay well hidden, says the human rights lawyer Yulia Antonova, who with Saida Sirazhidinova co-authored the first major study on the issue. According to their researchers, families across the region were much more likely to close ranks, with local police, doctors and lawyers helping them to cover their tracks. If things ever did reach court, relatives usually requested the hearing to be heard in private. 

The taboo nature of the issue means another we have little idea of the true scale of the problem. The December 2018 report documents at least 36 cases over five years from 2012-17. But the numbers include only definite honour killings — ones that are documented and cross-referenced. Many cases of women “leaving” to Moscow or being involved in car accidents may have had uglier explanations. 

“The UN estimate the real numbers may be ten times higher,” agrees Antonova. “We may be looking at about 500 deaths in those five years alone.” 

Nechayevka, a depressed village with approximately 60% unemployment, has little tolerance for “Western” ideas of women’s rights. (Oliver Carroll)

Mariam’s death — suffocation by her uncle — was not particularly unusual. Suffocation or stabbings are the two main methods of choice, the researchers wrote; but shootings, poisons and even axes have been reported too. 

Most of the time, an individual is not acting alone, but on the authority of an all-male “family council.” Sometimes, the close family may be against the idea, but are bulldozed by a distant relative wanting to use the killing to enhance social or professional status. 

As far as the “crimes” are concerned, they range from adultery to gossip. In one case from 2015, an Ingush girl was suffocated to death by her uncle after he caught her smoking a cigarette. According to Svetlana Anokhina, a local journalist who has helped several girls from the North Caucasus to safety, men often hide behind twisted ideas of glamour and honour to justify their crimes. The absurdity of the killings is no guarantee against their social acceptability. 

“We need to untangle the concepts,” says Anokhina. “These are not honour killings, but cold-blooded murders, committed by people in positions of trust. It’s murder committed when all the guards are down.” 

The banner of “honour killing” has also been used to hide from some very dishonourable practices: from robbery through to rape and incest. 

One particularly disturbing case from 2013 involved the killing of a 14-year-old girl. Her father, referred to in legal documents as Abdula A. told investigators he had killed her in a fit of rage after finding out about her “amoral” behaviour. The reality of what actually stood behind it — two years of rape and abuse by her father — only emerged after an aunt came forward to say the girl had confided in her. Abdula was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison. 

The region’s corrupt law enforcement system  — serviced by bribes and who-you-know clan loyalties — adds a special burden on its women. Salimat Kadyrova, the lawyer who represented Mariam Magomedova’s grieving mother through court, says she still remembers how her killers seemed to enjoy special protection from the police. The place was full of “dirty lies,” she says. 

A look of anguish appears on the lawyer’s face. It was a tough job at times, she says. She had just come from representing another victim, she says —  from Novochurakh, a mountainous village barely 20 miles along the road from Nechayevka. The woman, a mother of two, had been gang-raped by nine men, who filmed the outrage and distributed the video over social media. What was more, the men then went to the victim’s family, said she had brought shame on their honour. It was left for them to fill in the gaps.  

No one was looking out for Mariam, says her aunt Patimat Abdulmuslimova (Oliver Carroll)

The family declined to act on such hints, and the woman thankfully is still alive. But she has lived under self-imposed house arrest ever since her attack. It is unlikely any legal process will get the woman the justice she deserves. The ringleaders of the crime belong to an influential local mafia gang, and all but one have already been released.

“These guys are used to getting their way,” says Kadyrova.  “Not even God can stop them.” 

For some activists, religion — with its influence on patriarchy and the region’s conservative traditions — offers one solution to the problem. Indeed, the official position of the main clerical leadership has been to implore against honour killings, insisting they are incompatible with Shariat law. 

But in other cases, religious teachers have played into narratives of honour and local traditions.

The preacher at Makhachkala’s main Juma mosque, for example, offered only a lukewarm criticism of honour killings. Imam Zainulla Atayev told The Independent that traditions were what kept Dagestan from “falling under moral destitution.”

“We don’t believe in same-sex marriage and we don’t believe in sex with donkeys,” he said. “Traditions are what keep us from that.” 

Had he come across any cases of honour killings in his own congregation? He insisted not. “Certainly not among our people. Religious people would never have such daughters.” What if the girl was a prostitute, or of loose moral values? “I’ve heard of fathers stabbing their daughters over that, yes, but it’s always in a fit of rage… ”  Has anyone asked your advice about what to do? “Well… we … always try to calm the sides down.” 

House number 15, a hipster cafe located about a mile and a half from the mosque would seem to have little in common with austere religion or traditionalist Dagestan. Imagine a Hackney cafe with bearded twenty-year-olds, oat-milk lattes, coloured hair, piercings, tattoos, cigarettes, the latest iPad pros, and the sounds of Althea and Donna’s ‘Uptown Top Ranking.’ In short: modern-day excesses that go beyond the knee-length “indecency” that according to one version cost Mariam her life. 

But even here, in the heart of Dagestan’s Bohemia, a survey of opinions returns unexpected results. Only 20-year-old girl rejects the idea of honour killings. The other dozen express neutrality — or even agreement “in some circumstances.” 

Journalist and activist Svetlana Anokhina has helped evacuate several women facing threat of honour killings. (Oliver Carroll in House no.15 cafe)

One young man, dressed in hipster black, says he was genuinely worried about the “decline in Dagestan’s moral values.” Before you could steal brides, he said, take away their honour and she’d be yours: “Now she can go back without the shame and neither her brother nor father will do anything about it!“

In Nechayevka, villagers say Mariam’s death had united them against the idea of “untimely, disgraceful, underserved,” killings. No longer could blood revenge be used for something “so obviously unproven.” Mariam’s mother was allowed to rebury her daughter in the first row of graves — right near the gate — and no-one would ever forget the shame.

An inscription written on the back of the dramatic gravestone reads, in the local Avaric language: “She was killed because of gossip.” 

A few rows back from the new grave, on the far edge of the cemetery, are another half dozen unmarked mounds. 

The local school director Magomedova doesn’t exclude that they may hide similar stories. 

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