I assumed that wearing jeans was safer than a short skirt. That is not true.
Well, I guess, to be honest, "safe" is a vague term.
I am confident I was the only woman in the entire Chechen Republic wearing jeans. Oh boy.
If your goal is to fit in as much as possible, here's an easy guide based on my completely non-scientific, observational analysis:
Floor length skirts 90%
Mid-calf skirts 8%
Knee length skirts 1.9%
(mostly Russian tourists and me)
Pants .1 %
(literally only me in jeans my first night and one Russian tourist in classy white pants the next day)
Long sleeve tops 70%
Short sleeve tops 30%
Hijabs 20% (mostly young women)
Bare headed 40%
|Me trying to blend in...took this off immediately|
when I realized my jeans were a DEAD giveaway
(plus only older women wear their platki like this)
I was so concerned that my clothing or my foreignness or my camera would be equated with ignorance, indifference, spectacle-ism- that my very existence in my natural form would be offensive.
I dropped my backpack off at Aldar's apartment, and before we set off into the blazing hot Grozny day, he asked me if I had any other clothes I could wear...here it was, the inevitable moment I'd been dreading.
My outfit- a simple, loose, quarter-sleeve dress with open neckline (no cleavage, but collar bones), reaching just above my knees- was wrong. I had expected to stand out a bit, obviously a foreigner, but was shocked at just how undeviating these Grozny women were from their conservative fashions.
By wearing this dress, this stupid dress that seems overly modest in my American university town, I was showing a disregard for their Islamic tradition. I must be offending men by showing so much skin, angering wives with my pale, chubby limbs of temptation, and insensitively flaunting my freedom and independence to the women educated enough to realize they were being oppressed by Kadyrov's mandates and the cultural norms that are keeping Chechnya the retrogressive backwater everyone fears.
I was both embarrassed and defensive. I started rifling through my backpack, trying to piece together some sort of alternative, but I just hadn't brought to Georgia any skirts long enough or necklines high enough- it was summer, for goodness' sake! I hadn't expected to need this level of modesty. I began inventing outfits by wrapping scarves around myself and layering shirts to combine sleeves and high necks, but about ten minutes into this disastrous fashion show, I gave up.
"No," I told Aldar, "I'll just wear this," and as my spark of confidence waned, "it will be okay, won't it? The police won't yell at me?"
He just laughed, confused, "The police? Why would the police yell at you?"
Humans have a natural tendency to make analogies. Faced with unfamiliar problems, we rifle through our memory banks for a reasonable comparison in order to take some uncertainty out of the situation. Here, I was drawing upon my most recent experience in a conservative Muslim nation- my childhood in Saudi Arabia where the religious police, the muttawa, strictly enforced the Islamic dress code.
Grozny, however, had much less in common with Riyadh than I originally assumed.
The police here were friendly and cordial, excited by me as a rare tourist and never apparently finding me particularly irreverent, disrespectful, or offensive...one even asked me out...
While my clothing invited plenty of stares, I wasn't the first foreigner these people had seen, and I wasn't breaking any laws. My jeans or my knees or my collar bones were not the shocking Western intrusion I had expected. My assorted body parts would cause no revolution.
There were, however, two assumptions that commonly followed me- first, of course, that I was a foreign tourist; second, that I was a slut. I try not to be offended by this, it is simply the result of their reality. In Grozny, women dress a certain way. Always. That is the reality. Most women are, also, not sexually promiscuous, due to cultural norms, religious rules, and close monitoring from parents, brothers- the community as a whole, really. When a women then sweeps into town carrying with her an enormously different social reality, and her clothing reveals this cultural divide, it is only natural to assume that she is "easy". A similar phenomenon occurs in Georgia, another conservative society.
The American women on TV wear jeans, and they have one night stands and get wild in bars. I'm an American wearing jeans. If it looks like a duck...there's that analogy tendency again.
Anyway, Aldar laughed off my concerns of police getting involved in my fashion choices. I brought a scarf in my bag- I had covered my hair the night before in an apologetic attempt to offset the jeans and it had seemed to work, but I quickly realized that even here only about 60% of the women covered their heads, and of them, it was about 40/60 full hijab to Russian style platok (scarf) which leaves a slice of hair exposed above the forehead. Aldar did, however mention my cross. The small, wooden Georgian-style cross of Saint Nino hung on a plain black string. I hadn't even thought about it the night before in a high-necked shirt, but now it contrasted starkly with my pale, exposed chest.
"I can't take it off," I tried to explain, the knot on the string was permanently fused, and I had been wearing it for more than a year- I didn't want to cut it, "will it be a problem?" I asked, again imagining mobs of angry Chechens swarming me, decrying this intruder, tearing off my cross...but the vision passed quickly,
"No," he insisted, "of course not, but people might stare at you. I just don't want you to be uncomfortable," I tested this idea for a moment,
"People will stare at me anyway...won't they?"
"Probably," he shrugged his shoulders, "If you don't mind, it's not a problem,"
Turns out, once again, that I was neither as shockingly special as I thought, nor was Grozny a town of rigid, draconian, Islamists ready to pounce on any outsider who didn't conform to their social norms. I was probably only as or less controversial than a woman in Tbilisi wearing an abaya and niqab, or the girl who wore a crop top and chunky wedges to my politics seminar. I was breaking the rules, and almost no one breaks the rules in Grozny, so it's unusual, a little startling, maybe you want to snapchat your friends the strange new development in town, but no one is going to throw a fit over it.
I don't want to dismiss the issue of dressing appropriately in Chechnya. I was stared at almost constantly (which in part was due to my clothing and part just being a woman alone- especially in the evenings), and I did feel incredibly uncomfortable at times. It would not be difficult to come prepared with an outfit or two to blend in a little better- but if you don't, no one is going to stop you and ask you to change or yell obscenities at you. In fact, you'll probably just get catcalled or asked on a date. Maybe you'll even find a couple of locals to tour guide you like I did!
Either way, here is how young women dress in Chechnya, and what I suggest you attempt to wear:
- NO PANTS
- Long skirts (past the knee; mid-calf is fine, but full length maxi is most common and stylish)
- Cinched waists
- Belts or ribbons around dresses
- Shirts tucked into skirts with wide elastic waist bands
- Long sleeves (quarter or short sleeves can be seen in the summer, but no shoulders showing)
- High collars/necklines- no chest showing
Don't make the mistake of confusing modesty with not being fashionable. The young women of Grozny are extremely beautiful and many wear expensive, high end clothing in the latest fashions- often custom made dresses in the case of the wealthiest families. Their hair (if they choose to show it) and makeup are meticulous.
And if you want to wear a cross, go for it- there's even a big, pretty, new church in Grozny you can visit and, maybe for a moment, fit in.
**If you can read Russian, this is an interesting article about women's headwear in Chechnya**
Here are some pictures of people in Chechnya...sorry these pictures are poor quality, and definitely only show a very small slice of life, but they're authentic.
UPDATE: I just found this website that shows some Grozny street style! It's in Russian, but there are lots of pictures, and that's what's important.
|families enjoying the night outside the mosque|
|teenagers taking a group picture|
|my bichebi tour guides|
|high fashion on a Friday night at Grand Park|
shopping mall- the place to see and be seen