Broad Recognition


Martyrdom Usurped: Chechnya's Black Widows

Moscow Metrow bomber Dzhennet Abdullayeva poses with her husband Umalat Magomedov, before his death.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is panicking over the female suicide bombers who killed 38 and injured more than 60 on March 29. The authorities are troubled by the realization that the bombers belong to a movement: the “Black Widows, ” who have terrorized Chechnya for a decade. So named for the assumption that they are acting to avenge brothers, husbands, fathers and sons killed by Russian troops, the Black Widows have become a symbol of both independence and subservience, strength and weakness in a country that perceives its own destiny to be in the hands of unsympathetic foreigners.

Dzhanet Abdurakhmanova, one of the individuals responsible for the March 29 bombing, was the 17-year-old widow of a militant leader killed last year. Her accomplice at press time is thought to be Markha Ustarkhanova, 20 years old, and also a widow.

Nearly every month for the past two years, a Chechen has gone through with a suicide bombing. The recent subway bombing in Moscow is only the latest in a string of similar attacks – and, as with Chechen suicide bombings, Russian authorities have tried to chalk up the acts of desperation to Islam.

Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. There were 27 attacks from June 2000 to November 2004, and no attacks between then and October 2007. The 18 attacks that have taken place since then have been driven by the Russian effort to stamp out the remaining militants altogether via a counterterrorism offensive. This effort has exacerbated the problem. Russian authorities have abducted and imprisoned suspects and inspired support for their activities. Forced confessions have been rumored; suspects’ family houses have been burned. In February 2009, The New York Times reported extensive use of torture and execution in Russia’s counter-terrorism efforts.

Women play an unusually active role in the conflict. Since 2000, 43 different suicide bombings have been undertaken in the name of Chechnya’s liberation, involving 63 individuals – 40 percent of whom were female. Of the 43 people whose birthplaces are known, 38 were native to the Caucasus. The most deadly attack by a Black Widow to date was the coordinated bombing of two passenger flights in August 2004, which took 90 lives. Until the Russians’ counterterrorism offensive, the extremism of such attacks had diminished public support for the suicide bombers. The 2004 Beslan school massacre undertaken by Chechan extremists left hundreds of Russian children dead, to the detriment of the Chechan separatist cause. As a separatist spokesman said, “A bigger blow could not have been dealt on us. People around the world will think that Chechens are beasts and monsters if they could attack children.”

The desperation that led to the suicide bombings began in 1999, when the Russians invaded Chechnya and killed 30,000 to 40,000 civilians of a population of about a million. The first suicide attack took place in 2000 – and its perpetrators were female. On June 7, Khava Barayeva and Luiza Magomadova drove into a Russian Special Forces unit with a truck laden with explosives.

Women tend to be more effective than men in Chechnyan suicide bombings, killing an average of 21 people per attack, compared to 13 for males, according to The New York Times. They also tend to assume more risky missions; they travel inconspicuously to their targets, according to a July 2003 investigative report by the Russian magazine Kommersant-Vlast. Chechen women have carried out 8 of the 10 suicide attacks in Moscow.

Yet women’s assumption of the role of suicide bomber has not necessarily corresponded with a shift in opinion surrounding gender roles. Barayeva couched the reasoning behind her attack in gendered language – but she did not by any stretch of the imagination speak from a feminist perspective. In her martyr video, she exhorted Chechen men to “not take the woman’s role by staying at home.”

Another Chechnyan fighter, named Rosa, described her embarrassment about taking on the trappings of a male fighter: “At first, when the commander told me to put on fatigues I couldn’t do it. Then I obeyed him but put a skirt over the trousers,” she said, according to a report by The Toronto Star.

Any misdirected feminism at work beneath the surface of the bombings has been further subverted by popular assumptions regarding the attacks’ motivation. Despite clear evidence of unrest within Chechnya, the Kremlin has been quick to claim that the women were being actively exploited by (male) terrorists from abroad: “This is absolutely not characteristic of Chechens,” said Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a member of the Russian parliament. “Men never send their women to fight in wars. There is no religious aspect to this – it’s psychological . . . terrorists exploiting the misfortune of these women.” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called the male coordinators who planned the most recent bombings “beasts,” and announced, “We will find and destroy them all.”  Responsibility, however, may be difficult to allocate.

The Russians are deeply threatened by the idea that women are being drawn into the fight. The presence of females in the separatist movement seems to prove that the Russians’ control of Chechnya isn’t so beneficent, after all: if even women are fighting, the assumption goes, then Russian violence has permeated the home. This is not a characterization that the Russians are eager to assume, and it’s only natural that officials would attempt to shift attention back to the public sphere by claiming that the Black Widows are merely unconscious pawns in a political game.

By their very epithet, the Black Widows are defined by their male loved ones’ deaths and political intentions. Some feminists might insist that these women were independent actors,  and reject any reassignment of responsibility. It’s unclear how the women themselves saw it– whether their desperation was a peculiarly “feminine” one, whether they were proud of their unusual role as female militants (as suggested by a photo of Dzhennet Abdullayeva in which she poses defiantly with her husband and her gun), or whether their terrorism was, to them, ultimately genderless. Imagining these terrorists’ perspectives is an uncomfortable exercise– no more uncomfortable, though, than Russia’s pat dismissal of their crimes.

Annie Atura is a junior in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.

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