Zara Murtazaliyeva

MOSCOW (WOMENSENEWS)–Zara Murtazaliyeva spoke only one word after the Moscow City Court judge read the guilty verdict against her last month. “Nonsense,” the 21-year-old Chechen said, in a response picked up by TV crews filming the verdict.

Murtazaliyeva was sentenced on Jan. 17 to nine years in prison for planning to bomb an underground shopping mall in the center of Moscow.

Russian authorities say they found explosives in her bag during the arrest, as well as photographs of the escalator inside the mall. Since Murtazaliyeva was identified as a potential Islamic terrorist immediately after she arrived in Moscow from Chechnya in 2003, the police had bugged her apartment and listened to her private conversations. They say she had spoken of the war in Chechnya and of jihad, the “holy war” against the non-Islamic world.

Murtazaliyeva’s lawyers and human rights activists in Russia, however, insist that she was framed and that explosives were planted in her bag. They say Russian authorities are eager to present any young women from the southern Muslim republic that has been battling for independence as a potential suicide bomber.

“They wanted to show that they were able to identify a female terrorist and catch her before she did anything,” said Vladimir Suvorov, Murtazaliyeva’s lawyer. “But in reality, this is an imitation of fighting terrorism. Zara had no plans to bomb.”

Guilty or innocent, Murtazaliyeva has come to represent much more to both sides in the conflict between Russia and Chechnya. To many Russians, she justifies their rising fear of all women who appear to be Muslim–and wear black. Human rights advocates, while recognizing the rise in female suicide bombers, say many innocent Muslim-appearing women are suffering from a generalized apprehension about “black widows.” That is the term for a battalion of Chechen female fighters that was first organized in 2000 by Shamil Basayev, who has since taken responsibility for major bombings and hostage-takings in Russia.

To avoid suspicion, many women from the North Caucasus who work or study here purposefully wear tight clothes and keep their purses open to public view, all to prove they are not carrying explosives, says Leonid Kitaev-Smyk, a Moscow-based war psychologist who specializes on Chechnya.

To those who know the atmosphere in Russian and believe Murtazaliyeva is innocent, her case illustrates why so many from Chechnya have a deep antagonism toward Russia.

Series of Deadly Attacks

In the past four years female suicide bombers from Chechnya–many of whom had husbands killed during the decade-long fighting with Russian soldiers–have been implicated in a series of deadly suicide attacks across Russia that have left more than 300 people dead. In the ravaged Chechnya, meanwhile, around 100,000 civilians have died and thousands more have been uprooted from their homes in the course of the two wars that began in the early 1990s.

In June 2001 two women blew up a federal forces building in the Chechen town of Alkhan-Yurt and more than 80 people died. More terrorist acts by Chechen women followed in the heart of Russia, including a notorious hostage-taking of more than 800 people at a Moscow theater in October 2002. The group of terrorists included 18 women. In August 2004, two female terrorists blew themselves up and killed 16 civilians at a crowded music festival on the outskirts of Moscow. That same month, two women exploded bombs aboard two airplanes flying out of Moscow to southern Russia, killing 90 people. Another two female terrorists were spotted at a middle school in Beslan, where 330 people were killed in September 2004.

Female Chechen fighters

The authorities have reacted to this deadly series of attacks, say human rights activists and Chechen civilians, by increasingly scrutinizing Chechen women, leading to wrongful imprisonment, discrimination and abuse.

Russian military and civilian officials deny seizing women. When asked to comment on the abductions, Gen. Ilya Shabalkin, a military spokesperson, told a Washington Post reporter: “You’re a victim of [ex-Chechen president] Maskhadov’s propaganda. This is nonsense, complete nonsense.” He insisted that relatives who describe the incidents are inventing them to support the Chechen cause.

Veiled Singer Emits Shock Waves

Public alarm about “black widows” can be detected in the phenomenon of Nato, an enigmatic female singer who emits cultural shock waves here simply by appearing on stage with her face and hair covered by a black veil and scarf. Her producer, Ivan Shapovalov, does not allow her to give interviews and refuses to comment on her garb. “Nato is just a woman wearing an Islamic head scarf,” he says. “If the society is afraid of a woman wearing a black scarf, this society is ill and requires treatment.”

The emergence of female suicide bombers has also sparked public interest in the roles of women in Chechnya, where “adat,” a traditional system of laws, regulates the Sufi Muslim society. Under normal circumstances, adat forbids women from taking part in any kind of fighting. It does, however, say that if women are the last ones left in the family, they bear the responsibility for avenging the deaths of their relatives and killing the murderers.

“Suicide terrorism is not in our culture,” says Jabrail Gakayev, a historian at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a much-quoted member of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow. “Women occupy a special place in our society. They are mothers, keepers of the household, peacemakers. There are actually cases of women stopping wars in Chechnya. And only when a woman’s family is threatened, when all of the men are dead, can she take up arms. But only then.”

More than a decade of fighting has caused tremendous destruction, poverty and interminable suffering within the Chechen population, creating an atmosphere that accounts for the rise of suicide bombers, says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow.

The war has also pitted one Chechen against another. As many have joined the Russian forces while others have stayed with the rebels, the network of families and friends that help sustain traditional values has weakened, says Kitaev-Smyk, the war psychologist.

War Psychology Takes Hold

Kitaev-Smyk says the war has left thousands of widows to grieve over the deaths and the crimes committed against family members, creating what he calls “Chechen depression,” a war-induced psychological trauma defined by the collective feeling of desperation and hopelessness. With thousands of men dead in the war, women’s burdens are deepened by their own first-hand sufferings, which sometimes have taken the form of humiliation, torture or rape. Suicide gives them a way out, says Kitaev-Smyk, allowing for revenge and freeing them from further pain. “Women who come from such conditions become an easy prey for terrorist recruiters, especially if these women have lost all of their male family members.”

Kitaev-Smyk believes that in some cases, Chechen traditional values still prove stronger than the radical Islamic indoctrination, and suicide bombers can be stopped. However, he says that Chechen women may be increasingly wary about cooperating with the Russian authorities.

He points to the woman who came to the brink of committing a suicide attack, but then turned herself in to the Russian authorities and helped their investigations only to be subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison. In press reports she is widely quoted to have screamed after hearing the sentence: “Until now, I didn’t hate you. But now I hate you and when I come back, I will blow you all up.”

Mariya Rasner is a Ukrainian-born journalist working in Moscow while permanently residing in Fairfax, Va. She has worked for Internews Network and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

For more information:

Washington Post–
New Stage of Fear for Chechen Women: Russian Forces Suspected in Abductions:

Human Rights Watch
Russian Federation: Serious Violations of Women’s Human Rights in Chechnya – To Members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women:

Human Rights Watch–
Last Seen . . . : Continued ‘Disappearances’ in Chechnya:

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