The beach is crowded with men these days. Powerful, muscled Dagestani men, who practice martial arts and wrestle on the littered sand of the Caspian Sea shore in the capital city of Makhachkala. Some sit around, enjoying boiled ears of corn with butter and salt; others play soccer or ride on their buddies’ shoulders in the waves, competing to see who can last longest without collapsing into the water. Rare groups of shy women in long flannel dresses enter the sea holding children by the hand; their long skirts and colorful hijabs immediately soak up salty water, like sponges. Bikinis? There are almost none. The social change here has been fast and radical: just two summers ago, only a smattering of women swam in their long dresses and scarves on Russia’s Caspian Sea beaches. This year, public opinion in the region—the place with the highest level of terrorist attacks in Russia—decided to put an end to the "sinful" display of women’s bodies. The appearance of a rare tourist in a modern swimsuit elicits frowns, and a grumpy comment in the local language. One word is always clear: haram or “forbidden.”
To make life easier for both women who want to swim yet have no bathing robes (nicknamed burkinis), and for men keen on playing on the beach without violating the dictates of Islam, the state opened the first Sharia-compliant beach in Russia this month. Named "Mountain Woman Beach," it’s a gated community, open to women, girls and boys younger than 6 years of age. Visitors can rest in comfortable wooden shelters to escape the heat or swim in the ocean without the burden of burkinis. The beach is proof enough, if any were needed, of the rise of Islam in Russia. It’s also a security measure to protect women from a recent, gruesome spate of bombings at the Caspian shore.
On a clear morning last July, at around 6 a.m., schoolteacher Yelena Abduzhalimova met her colleagues on the central city beach for a round of volleyball. As the ladies changed into their swimsuits, a group of young boys began to warm up for wrestling exercises before their morning classes, right by the volleyball court. Other than the children, the beach was still fairly empty at that hour. Abduzhalimova walked onto the court with her friends and she stepped forward to serve the ball. Instantly, a powerful explosion threw her into the air, flying 10 feet above the ground. She had stepped on a mine hidden in the sand. It was the third explosion on the public beach that season, and one that cost Abduzhalimova her leg above the knee. The bomb was meant as punishment for women wearing swimsuits, she says. Now, she says she wished the Sharia beach had been open back then. “If only the guarded beach for women existed a year ago, I would have my leg now,” Abduzhalimova said, adding it was a lucky chance that she stepped on the mine before a child did.
Not all women are so positive about the Sharia beach. “First, they make deadly threats for wearing a bikini; next they will want us to stop wearing our shorts and jeans, then ban us from going to restaurants and universities,” says Bakanai Huseinova, a manager of a financial company in Dagestan. Huseinova fears that the increasing terror attacks will eventually start to pressure and control all spheres of a woman’s life—social, familial, spiritual. Terror attacks have been escalating not only against bikini-clad women, but against all symbols of secular Dagestani society. Just this year, there have been more than 200 terror attacks on Dagestan’s food stores, cafés, and saunas that sell liquor, as well as on religious centers and law enforcement. The attacks have killed hundreds of social workers, local deputies, police, high-ranking army officers, even imams. In addition, two school principals who spoke out against schoolgirls wearing the hijab were killed this year in Dagestan.
While the Islamist insurgency in Dagestan is trying to intimidate women into following Sharia law, in the neighboring republic of Chechnya, the leadership itself is taking the initiative. Unveiled women are banned from entering state buildings; teen-age girls are obliged to come to school with their hair covered. Last fall, women in sleeveless dresses and short skirts were harassed and shot by paint guns on the streets by the semi-official morality police. Leaflets distributed at Muslims girls’ schools this summer warned, “Behavior is important—Muslim women should not speak loudly or look directly into the eyes of men.” The initiatives are supported at the very top: Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed president Ramzan Kadyrov, pushes the new Islamic dress code, and his wife has a fashion house that creates Islamic dress standards. On state television, shows are devoted to instructing women about the proper look for a pure Muslim, and feature models in floor-length gowns with veiled faces.
It was the third explosion on the public beach that season, and one that cost Yelena Abduzhalimova her leg above the knee.
Other women feel pressure to adopt Islamic dress code from within their own families. On a recent afternoon, two women fully veiled in black—"Aisha," 22, and her sister-in-law, "Fatima," 24—sat on the worn carpet in the corner of their poor house in the Derbent region. The girls, former students from Moscow and Volgograd universities, preferred to keep their real Russian names anonymous. A few years ago, the two girls fell in love with Salafi Muslim men on the Internet and moved to Dagestan to start families with their religious husbands. “My husband wanted me to cover myself,” says Aisha. Only her eyes can be seen above her black veil. “I try not to walk outside any more. People point at me, call me a terrorist.” Fatima and Aisha have little choice but to obey their husbands. They know too well that men have full public approval to decide appropriate behavior for their wives. Two years ago, Moscow human rights groups tried, and failed, to get an official explanation for the deaths of seven women shot on a road in Chechnya. Kadyrov said the women had displayed “loose behavior” and speculated they were perhaps victims of "honor killings" by their own families. “We see a tendency for women to be forced into a humiliating social role in the North Caucases,” says Tatyana Lokshina, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Moscow. She said that courts traditionally have turned a blind eye to domestic violence in the region.
Last May, the U.S. State Department announced its intention to allocate $1.7 million in support of NGO programs in Russia’s North Caucasus, with almost half the money directed to helping NGO’s battle domestic violence. But it is unlikely that Western money will go far in changing local attitudes, and so authorities in Moscow will surely continue to struggle with how to protect women, whether at the beach, at the sauna or on the street, in Russia’s fast-transforming South.