On 29 October, the story of four cousins from Dagestan, whose parents regularly beat them, made them undergo circumcision, and even tried to make one of the girls marry her cousin, became known to the public. They ran away from home and spent several months hiding. Upon their attempt to enter Georgia, Russian border guards had detained the young women and had kept them at the border checkpoint under false pretences until their relatives, who threatened the girls with murder, arrived. Ten hours later, thanks to the public exposure of their story and the help of human rights defenders, the young women managed to leave Russia at last. Special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta Europe Irina Kravtsova talked to the girls — they spoke about what was happening in their native village and why they risked their lives for a chance to get out.
Sisters Khadizhat Khizriyeva and Patimat Khizriyeva and their cousins Aminat Gazimagomedova and Patimat Magomedova. Screenshot
In April 2022, 20-year-old Khadizhat Khizriyeva from the Dagestani village of Khadzhalmakhi got a video call from her mother, who was pleased to tell her that she was planning to marry her off to her cousin. Khadizhat was outraged; in response, her mother told her that if she did not marry her cousin, the next man to propose marriage “could be worse”, but the young woman’s opinion would not matter at that point. Her mother added that 20 was not an age at which choice was still a possibility, so it was time to get married and quickly give birth to children.
Khadizhat began to cry, because ever since her childhood, she has been terrified of being married off to one of her male cousins — “after all, this is incest!” She was much calmer to the idea of marrying a second cousin, because according to her, “everyone’s a relative of some kind” in her village.
Svetlana Anokhina, a human rights defender from the Marem project (which helps women from the North Caucasus facing domestic violence) says that closely related marriages are a common occurrence in Khadizhat’s village. According to Svetlana, there are villages in Dagestan where it has been an old tradition to marry girls off to “their own” kin.
In the past, this was done so that the land and cattle included in the girl’s dowry stayed in the family.
Nowadays, one of the girls Aminat Gazimagomedova explains, the logic is the same. Such marriages occur in their village because “wealthy people don’t want their money leaving the family and being received by outsiders”. Furthermore, a marriage between a daughter and a man from her family seems to them as “something reliable”. The parents think that knowing a future husband well — the most important aspect in a husband is for him not to drink or smoke, Aminat clarifies — is reason enough to marry their daughter to him. “According to them, this brings the whole family closer together,” Svetlana Anokhina adds.
According to Khadizhat, this is exactly what happened in her family. Her 24-year-old cousin told his mother that he would like to marry Khadizhat, because he liked her. Soon, Khadizhat’s mother and her aunt called their own mother (the grandmother of the future bride and groom) and decided that a wedding would be a great idea.
For two weeks, Khadizhat was beside herself. Her parents often made her come have talks with them. “Him being your cousin is not an argument against your wedding,” her father said. “If you don’t like him for some other reason, then do say so.” Khadizhat replied that to her knowledge he was a good guy, but he was still her cousin. Then, her father made her sit down and talked to her about their relatives that “are cousins to one another and live as man and wife, and they still live quite well”. Although they never ended up seeing acceptance on their daughter’s face, Khadizhat’s parents agreed to the marriage.
‘Without anaesthesia and without any ceremony’
Human rights defender Svetlana Anokhina says that Khadzhalmakhi is a religious (think traditionalists), well-off village with a very close-knit community, one and half hours away from Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Around 7,500 people live in the village. “Most of the population are Dargins, and they’re, to put it softly, quite the warriors, for whom power, money, and connections are what matters,” Svetlana explains.
The Khadzhalmakhi village. Photo: Wikimedia
Aminat Gazimagomedova says that female circumcision is a common practice in their village. Girls are made to go to old women’s houses, and those women carry out the operation “without anaesthesia and without any ceremony”. “You and your mom allegedly go to visit an old friend,” she recalls. “Then you’re told: ‘Lie down.’ ‘Oh, what have you got here?’ They pull off your tights, and then the scissors appear.”
According to the young women, they were circumcised when they were five-seven years old.
They say that no one talks about this practice in the village. “It’s considered something horrendous and dirty,” Aminat explains. However, if someone were to ask whether a young woman is circumcised and she replied with a no, then she would be looked at with disgust, because “it’s considered a dirty thing, or that a woman has some certain ‘wants’”, she adds.
The girls’ statement about female circumcision being a regular practice in the village raised doubts among her ex-colleagues, Dagestani journalists, Svetlana says. They told her that they have not heard of women being subjected to this procedure in Dargin villages. One of the comments under Svetlana’s Instagram post, where she describes the story of the cousins, is from another woman who lives in their village: she says that she also was circumcised but she has nothing against the procedure. “It’s very revealing to me that, in my comments, there are fellow villagers and relatives of the girls who allegedly exposed them and accused them of all sorts; but there was not one comment that said that they had lied about the circumcision. No one said that this had never happened and that the girls had made it up,” Svetlana notes.
Aminat explains that male circumcision is considered a “respectable” thing in the village. “After a boy is circumcised, guests come to his family’s place, he is given money and gifts, they get admired and felt bad for, that they had to suffer such pain,” Aminat says. However, discussing female circumcision is considered something “disgusting”, according to the young women. “Every girl has to undergo circumcision, but no one admires them for it, and no one sympathises with them,” Aminat adds.
‘You either run away or you kill yourself’
Back when she was 13, Khadizhat, her sister Patimat, and their cousin Patimat Magomedova decided that they would either “run away or kill themselves”. No girl had ever before escaped from their village — according to Khadizhat, “that’s a very difficult thing to do, basically impossible”. Furthermore, they agreed that they would only run away in 2022, when the youngest of them, Patimat Khizriyeva, Khadizhat’s younger sister, turned 18.
Their cousin Aminat is 24 years old; according to what locals think, her still not being wed does not reflect well on her. She is not interested in marriage; however, her mother always reproached her for not wanting to get married. At the same time, any interest in a man was condemned in their village.
It is in general very hard to “maintain the needed balance” in a way that does not make the villagers complain about you, Aminat says. “There’s no way to appease them, because there are no unique rules; if you’re a girl, you’re always in the wrong. You’re supposed to conform to everything at once, if you stand out in any way at all or have your own opinion, there will be a conflict, and your mouth will be shut, they will make you act the way they want you to act,” she says.
The young women at the Russia-Georgia border checkpoint Verkhny Lars. The photo wa provided by the human rights defenders
“Despite the fact that we’re talking about one village, there are many various opinions on what a woman’s correct behaviour should look like,” Aminat continues. For example, the girls from the Khizriyev family were strictly prohibited from wearing even slight makeup, although they were interested in cosmetics. Aminat’s mother, on the contrary, made her wear makeup, have long hair, wear dresses to be attractive, even though her daughter was not interested in men’s affections.
“When we attended a wedding, mother would take a makeup bag, sit me down in front of her, and start putting makeup on me: eyes, lips, cheeks. When I told her that I didn’t like any of it, she would scream at me. If I sat there quietly, but tears would be going down my cheeks, she would lash out: ‘Why are you crying! Open your eyes! Let me put makeup on,” Aminat recalls.
She says that girls from their village had to learn from childhood to cook, to serve men, to dress nicely, to go to weddings, so that they would be noticed by men, so that they would come and offer their hand.
“The most interesting part is when it’s finally done: during the matchmaking, your parents come to your room and ask you whether you want to marry that guy, you’re supposed to answer: ‘No, I do not want to, I’m too shy.’ Now that’s a green flag, because that’s the right answer. Then they will say: ‘Ok, we will still agree [to the engagement], you will get married, and you will be well.’ And according to the rules of this game, you answer: ‘Ah, okay, I agree,’” Aminat adds.
According to her, the situation often developed like this: during the matchmaking, a happy girl sits in her room surrounded by her girlfriends and awaits her parents’ knock on the door, so they can ask her about agreeing to the marriage, and then the girl, who is happy about her future betrothal, says to her friend: “Look, the adults will come in right this second, and we have to pretend that I’m not happy and am shy.” “It’s very weird!” Aminat exclaims.
If you live in the Khadzhalmakhi village, then you always have to “play along and pretend”. “If you tell them honestly that you want to get married, they will see it as you ‘wanting a boyfriend, wanting to have [sex]’, wanting communication, and that, in their opinion, also does not reflect well on you,” Aminat says.
Aminat adds that if she had to describe her native village to a person who has never been there, she would say that it is “a beautiful place surrounded by mountains, full of hypocrites”.
‘Beaten severely at home’
Strict upbringing that involves abuse is a normal practice in Dagestan, Svetlana Anokhina says. “If parents don’t beat their child, it just means that they decided not to exercise their implicit right,” she explains. “A daughter being beaten does not lead to public outrage.”
“Actually, physical violence as a method of child-rearing still does not cause outrage in most citizens of Russia,” the human rights defender adds.
According to her, it is not only parents who can raise their hand at a girl in Dagestan: uncles and aunts can do so too, and even brothers, including younger ones, because they are men.
Per the girls’ lawyer Leysan Mannapova, “the cousins were beaten severely at home”. Aminat says that her mother always beat her “for small things”. Her parents did not allow her to have her own money. Ahead of the 2015 New Years, she saved up 1,200 rubles (€19) and ordered half-heart shaped pendants for herself and her friend. Later on, she told her mother that the friend gave her the pendant, and her mother reacted normally. But later, having read her daughter’s texts and having found out that Aminat was the one to buy it, she put a knife to her daughter’s throat and made Aminat say a prayer that is usually pronounced before one’s death. Eventually, her mother pierced her neck with the back of the knife, and Aminat ran away. “The ritual of putting a knife or even a gun to my throat and screaming ‘Allah Akbar’ was done by my mother several times, including the times when relatives were present. She did it when I didn’t act in accordance with her rules or convictions,” Aminat says. In 2019, the young woman was hospitalised after her mother had broken her nose.
Her other female cousins were beaten by their relatives too. Novaya-Europe has received photos, showing the evidence of abuse Patimat Magomedova and Patimat Khizriyeva were subjected to.
‘You want to be flying across countries with men?’
In many families, girls are taken out of schools after sixth or seventh grade. This is what happened to Khadizhat Khizriyeva, her younger sister Patimat Khizriyeva, and their cousin Patimat Magomedova. “The norm here is that a woman has no use for education,” Aminat explains. “Furthermore, 13 years old is the age at which, according to the elders, boys and girls start getting interested in each other, so the girls get isolated,” she adds.
Aminat herself, by the will of her parents, graduated from a medical school. “But only because mother decided for some reason that, seeing as my father received a good medical education, so should I,” she says. “Considering the fact that I never wanted to be a doctor, I dreamt of becoming an interpreter.” Nevertheless, despite her education, she would never be allowed to work, Aminat is certain. “My mother always got angry at my dream, she said that interpreters fly on planes with big shots and deputies: you want to be flying across countries with men?”
The thing that alienated Aminat the most was the fact that other girls in the village thought that “everything happening was normal”. Her shock at everyone’s compliance is shared by Khadizhat: “Over there, it’s normal for everyone to marry their cousins. There are some who get surprised by it, but these are unique cases, and only in the new generation.”
‘I risked my life to get a chance at a normal life’
The day the four cousins were waiting for several years arrived on 1 August 2022: the youngest of them, Patimat Khizriyeva, turned 18.
The girls asked Crisis Group SK SOS for help: the group helps to evacuate LGBTQ+ people and their family members from the North Caucasus. On 7 August, the girls ran away from home. With the help of the human rights defenders, they arrived in Moscow. Knowing that the relatives would be looking for the young women, SK SOS volunteers changed cars several times along the way. The girls themselves, upon meeting the human rights defenders, got rid of their SIM-cards and deleted their social media accounts.
They lived in the Moscow shelter of the crisis group for three months, waiting for the youngest of them to be issued a passport. Afraid of being found by their relatives, the girls did not leave the shelter at all.
“Although we spent three months inside, no one beat or berated us,” Khadizhat says. According to her, it was not new for them to spend an entire day inside; in their village, they were allowed outside only for a short time and exclusively while chaperoned by their mothers or brothers.
The next day after running away, Aminat asked her cousins to cut her hair, something she dreamt of doing for a long time. She says that her cousins were very happy during those three months. “We ourselves decided what we would be having for lunch or when it was time to clean our room — no one ordered us around or made us hand them stuff and serve them,” she says. “We watched YouTube without being afraid of our phones being grabbed from our hands, them checking our phones, checking what exactly we were watching, berating us, restricting [our freedom], and endlessly interrogating us. Each one of us finally had our own life.”
Khadizhat Khizriyeva recalls that she was sure until the last moment that if she and her sister and cousins managed to escape, they would still be soon found and killed. Nevertheless, “we wanted to live like people for at least a little while”, she says.
Aminat emphasises that her running away was not preceded by some especially big fight at home. “It’s just that you’re prohibited from doing anything every single day. Sit here, don’t look over there. If you and your relatives go to a wedding, and you look the wrong way, it automatically means that you were looking at guys, which means you’re dirty. Wear these clothes, don’t you dare wear those clothes, you can look this way, you cannot look that way. Relatives read your texts; you get beaten for literally anything. And of course, no one ever apologises to you. You have to always be cleaning and cooking, God forbid you open YouTube and start watching something, there will immediately be a million chores for you to do,” she recounts.
“It’s just that I’m 24 already, and to continue tolerating this further is almost like depriving yourself of your own life. So, we decided to take a risk,” Aminat says.
The girl repeats over and over again that she did not run away to do “something bad”. “I just wanted to be free,” she explains. “I never wished to wear short or revealing clothes, talk to guys or even female friends, or do something else from this endless list of reprehensible things. I’m not interested in any of that. I risked my life just to get a chance at a perfectly normal life: go to work, come back from work, watch TV, use YouTube, go to sleep, and go back to work in the morning. I don’t need anything else. I don’t even want to take walks; I’m not interested in that. I just want to be in charge of my own life.” All of these things were mentioned in the letter Aminat left for her mother before the escape.
Still, she is not very hopeful that her mother will understand. “I told her this before, but she kept insisting that I had to get married, give birth to children, and in general [said that] I was already 24, I was old, and things were bad.”
According to Aminat, she and her cousins often felt bad because their parents would be worried once their daughters had left. They even seriously considered cancelling their escape plan. “But then we stopped ourselves and thought: we are not killing anyone; we are just leaving. We are all 18 [or older], I’m 24. I’m just leaving, I’m not doing anything bad,” she says.
‘We are not sorry, even if they kill us’
Since the girls’ escape, their parents have been trying to find them. Mother of the Khizriyev sisters even came to the Moscow crisis centre Kityozh that helps female victims of domestic abuse and told a made-up story of being a victim herself and needing help. She tried to find out whether her daughters were in that centre. However, she was soon found out.
Father of the Khizriyev sisters and his friend, while going through organisations that the girls could have asked for help from, connected with the human rights defender Svetlana Anokhina. She was aware of this story, although she was not the one directly helping the girls.
According to her, the girls’ father Gadzhimurad Khizriyev told her that no one had hurt them and asked for an opportunity to speak with them. He also swore by Allah that, in case Svetlana managed to get the girls to go back, “no hair would fall from their heads”.
“It’s a normal wish of any parent,” Svetlana says. “It’s another matter that they give themselves away at once. The friend of the family told me over the phone that the girls’ father loved his [18-year-old and 20-year-old] daughters so much that he wouldn’t let them leave the house on their own. For him, it’s a sign of love, but for me, it’s an indicator of the level of their lack of freedom and the pressure put on young adult women.”
“Thank you to everyone who supported us. Because of your publicity, we managed to escape,” the sisters said in a video address.
During the last conversation held between Svetlana Anokhina and the girls’ father Gadzhimurad Khizriyev on 29 October, the day the cousins were going to cross the Georgian border, he said that “he was going to bring his daughters back one million percent — and it’d be better if they returned by their own will”. Svetlana has shared the audio recording with Novaya-Europe, because she thinks these words contain a threat to the girls’ safety.
On 29 October, the young women accompanied by their lawyer Leysan Mannapova left for Georgia. In the morning, the lawyer made sure that the girls were not on any wanted lists and they were allowed to leave Russia.
However, at 1:40 PM, when they arrived at the Verkhny Lars border checkpoint and border guards checked the girls’ passports, they saw something on their screens and refused to let them through. Their passports were taken away, while the young women themselves were left in a locked room.
According to their lawyer, the border guards tried to come up with a reason to keep the cousins in Russia. Among other things, they said that there were “risks of the girls going to Syria”, and then — that the girls allegedly took out loans in Moscow, they still had unpaid debts, so they now had to remain at the checkpoint and wait for the marshals to arrive.
Just in case, the lawyer checked and found out that the girls were not listed in any debtor databases and that they were also not denied exit [according to official data].
The border guards responded that, yes, they did not have any debts, but the North Ossetia Department of Federal Security Service (FSB) agents were coming to get them.
“There’s no doubt that they were not allowed to leave Russia because they’re from the Caucasus,” their lawyer explains. “Young women [of age] are passing through, but a border employee approaches them and seriously asks them if they have their parents’ written agreement [for them to leave the country].”
The entire time the cousins, according to what they have said, were ready for anyone but their parents to arrive, because they were certain that their parents would take them home and kill them. When it turned out that the border guards were keeping them at the checkpoint to wait for their relatives’ arrival, the cousins agreed to the plea of their lawyer and made the circumstances of their case public.
To ensure at least some level of security, they recorded a video, in which they introduced themselves and asked not to be given back to their parents.
“This could be our last video,” they said in the recording. “It’s possible they will get us back and kill us.” “I would like for every girl from the Khadzhalmakhi village to open their eyes and realise what heartless, cruel animals live there and control the entire village and women’s minds. Although, there are women [there] who support all of this. [But] I would like for it to be the girls who open their eyes and realise that they can get out, even if we didn’t manage to. Let them at least do something. We went against the system, and we’re not sorry, even if they kill us,” Aminat said.
When the young women found out that their relatives were coming to the checkpoint, they started thinking about ways to kill themselves, because, as Khadizhat explains, they “knew that it was all over, and we would soon die”.
“We thought that we were talking to each other for the last time. And then we said that we love each other, and that these three months were the best [of our lives], and that we at least lived in the way we wanted to live,” she says.
The girls’ parents indeed came for them by nightfall, and despite the rules, they were let in to see their daughters.
Not long before that, the North Ossetia Commissioner for Human Rights Tamerlan Tsgoyev also arrived at the checkpoint and told the girls’ lawyer that they had been detained due to the Khizriyev sisters’ parents filing a police report, claiming that the four girls allegedly stole 50,000 rubles (€800) from them. During their conversation with the Novaya-Europe correspondent, the girls firmly refuted stealing the money.
The meeting with the relatives occurred in the presence of the policemen who had arrived at the scene and the girls’ lawyer. The Khizriyev sisters’ older brother ordered their mother to talk to the girls only in the Dargin language. They asked them to return home, but after everything that had happened the girls refused to even look at them. Then, Khadizhat and Patimat’s older brother told them that it “would be better if they returned home on their own accord”.
By that point, local deputies had also arrived at the Verkhny Lars checkpoint, while human rights defenders and journalists kept calling the checkpoint’s number, demanding that the border guards follow the law and let the girls pass through. In the early hours of 30 October, thanks to the public exposure of the case, the sisters were able to cross the border and arrive in Georgia. There, they were met and congratulated by people who had been supporting them online in the hours before.
If you reside on the territory of the North Caucasus and are facing danger due to hatred toward your sexual orientation or gender identity or due to being suspected of not being heterosexual, contract Crisis Group SK SOS by email: [email protected]. In the letter, describe the situation you are facing in detail.
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