Adat (Chechnya)

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Adat
Location: Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and ethnic diaspora
Chechnya map.png
Author: Nicolè M Ford
Affiliation: Department of Government and International Affairs, University of South Florida

Original text by Nicolè M Ford

Adat is a term used to describe a system of Chechen customary laws and norms practiced in the North Caucasus amongst ethnic Vainakh and the diaspora. Although variations of the practice exist between different clans, in essence adat encapsulates what it means to be Chechen (nokhchalla). Heroic tales of war and the struggle for independence are an inseparable part of Chechen culture (Johnson 2008). Adat traditions influence several aspects of social life and inform practices of hospitality, relations between men and women, and the custom of blood revenge (ch'ir – see entry in this volume). While today Chechens feel their Chechen-ness and adat are under attack by Wahhabist influences and the power of Russian rule, adat remains paramount in defining Chechen social and cultural norms (Souleimanov 2015[1], Gendron 2009[2]).

The Vainakh, the ancient natives of the Caucasus, were pagan, probably Zoroastrian peoples whose religion centered on family and worship of ancestors (Cremer 2012: 198[3]). In the late fourth century, Christians were the first to attempt to convert these peoples, though they met with little success. Arabs of the Umayyad caliphate brought the Sufi tradition of Islam to the region in the mid-seventh century (Yemelianova 2014[4]); however, Islam did not become established among the Vainakh until the nineteenth century. Adat therefore pre-dates Islamic traditions (Cremer 2012: 199[5]). Over time, some elements of Islamic law (shari’a) became enmeshed in traditional adat, and some variation is found between clans (Yemelianova 2014[6]; Johnston 2008[7]). While similar customary laws exist in other parts of the Islamic world, including shari’a, the manner in which Zoroastrian and early Christian components were inter-woven with Islamic law (shari’a) resulted in a unique version of Chechen Islam and culture (Yemelianova 2014[8]).

Through a clan-based system of blood ties (taips) (relationships forged by birth), laws were upheld and agreements (ittifaqs) forged. All social conflicts were litigated in this way: from rape and murder, to the use of land and water resources, and importantly, pronouncements concerning the common defense of the land (Cremer 2012: 199[9]) Clans are further broken down into branches (gar) and yet further into families (nekye). This clan structure remains today. Each clan is autonomous and controls the affairs of their own blood members. No clan is viewed as having higher status than any other; there is no hierarchical leadership over all the clans (Layton 2014: 68-69). In contemporary Chechnya, loyalty seems to be increasingly displayed at branch level of gar or families (nekye) (Souleimanov 2015[10], Gendron 2009[11]). Given the horizontal nature of their society, adherence to adat is what maintains the Chechen social order in a society, which in their view lacks legitimate vertical authority. Individuals therefore assume a heavy responsibility for ensuring the honour of their clan and / or family (Souleimanov 2015[12], Gendron 2009[13]; Layton 2014: 69[14]).

Adat is seen as highly disciplined, and as such, outsiders are not expected to adhere to its laws and norms for themselves; it is a burden unique to the Vainakh. Modesty, self-restraint, and sobriety are key personal codes for both sexes. Mothers teach their daughters to cook, to serve their husbands and to keep the home spotless in readiness to receive guests at any time (Layton 2014: 77; 95-97[15]). Fathers teach their sons to take care of their future families, respect their mothers and elders, to be generous of spirit, and to be strong both personally and physically (Souleimanov 2015[16]; Layton 2014: 95-97[17]). Boys live at home until they have sufficient money to start their own family. They are not allowed to date, as doing so would dishonour the family.

Until marriage, virginity is a requirement for both males and females, though loss of virginity for a man is not considered as scandalous an event as it would be for a woman. A woman who lost her virginity out of wedlock, would as a consequence, be banished from her family, or in an extreme case (in violation of Russian law), if a family or group feels that their honour has been tarnished, the end result might be an honour killing (RFE/RL 2015). On the day of marriage the only exceptions made for the lack of female virginity are in instances of divorce or widowhood. It is customary for the family to arrange a marriage and a dowry is given which helps the new couple set up home (Layton 2014: 94[18]).

Adat is not strict in relation to religion. Embedded in the Chechen code of honour (nokhchalla) is the notion of the importance of personal freedom, as well as the freedom and independence of others (Johnson 2008[19]). As a result, issues surrounding religiosity are left to the individual. Chechen Muslims are allowed to drink alcohol, though women would only do so in private in the company of other women. It is understood that in society some people may be unable to, or have difficulty in praying five times a day; this is seen as an internal struggle for the individual concerned and privacy of individual choice in this matter is preserved. The main exception to this point of view concerns the celebration of Ramadan and the Feast of the Sacrifice. In these instances it is considered that the values these holidays instill exemplify adat in decrying greed and placing importance on generosity (Layton 2014: 71[20]). It is thus imperative that the collective should experience these shared religious and social events together. Even non-believers would avoid announcing that they are not honouring these holidays for fear of being deemed ‘weak in character’ (Layton 2014: 80[21]).

Hospitality, or siskal, is a key component of adat. Hospitality is extended not only to friends and family, and to strangers, but also to those who are deemed enemies. Siskal demands all who seek help or are in need of shelter must be taken in. This sense of honour and duty to others extends to all persons regardless of who they are. All guests are thus treated with the highest respect. This hospitality is extended for as long as the guest is in need; if applicable, enemy status applies once more only once the guest has left the home (Layton 2014: 77[22]).

The entrenchment of adat personal codes naturally transitions into laws governing society, that often conflict with formal Russian laws, rendering them informal. Severe mistrust of Russian rule, and the chaos resulting from political corruption in the region has resulted in the strengthening of adat laws and councils in an attempt to circumvent Russian federal rule (Malashenko 2014[23]). Legal matters, which are officially the domain of the Russian federal and regional authorities, are sometimes ignored in favour of adat.

For example, if a marriage is not arranged through family, or negotiated between individuals, a man may kidnap the woman he wishes to marry. Sometimes this is done playfully, and is entered into willingly by the woman who is also attracted to the man in question (Layton 2014: 105[24]). On other occasions the woman may be forcefully abducted, though this is less common. This is a violation of both human rights and Russian law. Women have few avenues of recourse and are often accused of encouraging the event by flirting, which is seen as provocation, leading to the abduction (Evangelista 2011 RFE/RL 2010[25]).

If a married couple separates, rather than seek mediation through the Russian courts, family members step in to resolve possible custody issues. Typically, the woman will keep primary custody of the children while they are still young and will turn over custody to the father’s family once each child reaches puberty (Layton 2014: 92[26]). On occasions however, women are kept away from their children, in violation of Russian law (Bazaeva 2013[27]).

Typically male family members handle other familial conflicts in the first instance. If the issue cannot be resolved in this way, it may eventually be brought to the council of elders (Mehk-Khel) for resolution. Inter-clan conflict can also occur. The ruling of one clan’s elders may be acknowledged as carrying validity, but it is not always enforced by the other clan(s) involved. Depending upon the severity of the alleged crimes, such as rape or murder, blood feuds (ch’ir) between clans can emerge. Russian law prohibits blood feuds, requiring all crimes to be dealt with by the official authorities via a fair trial. However, instances of blood feuds are often unreported due to another adat value: silence. Adat hospitality and silence make adjudication of these crimes near impossible, which is a threat to Russia’s legal authority in the region (Gendron 2009[28]).

Chechens feel their culture is under attack. Some point to ‘impure’ Chechens who have strayed too far from adat by adopting Russian behaviours and attitudes (Layton 2014: 34-35[29]). Another alleged cause is the influence of imported Wahhabism from the Arab countries. Wahhabism, a strict version of Islam, sees the Chechen-styled Sufi Islam and adat as incompatible with ‘true Islam’ and shari’a law (Souleimanov and Ditrych 2008[30]). Many young people have been attracted to this ideology after study abroad, or have been influenced by the teachings of local Wahhabist clerics (Gendron 2009[31]). Others blame the conflicts in society on Russia, whom they feel is actively trying to destroy their culture through war and propaganda (Layton 2014: 60[32]). It is noted, however, that adat makes it possible for Chechen society to function successfully outside the control of corrupt official government institutions (Gendron 2009[33]).

Examples of adat are found both in film and literature. Films in which adat is shown include Kavkazskaia Plennitsa (1966) and Prisoner of the Mountains (1996). In literature, famous examples include Lermontov’s description of adat practices in A Hero of Our Time (1841) and the portrayal of society in Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat (1912).

Notes

  1. Souleimanov, E. 2014. An ethnography of counterinsurgency: kadyrovtsy and Russia's policy of Chechenization. Post-Soviet Affairs, 31(2): 91–114
  2. Gendron, R. 2009. ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution in the North Caucasus’, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 3(4): 333–341.
  3. Cremer, M. 2012. ‘The Instrumentalisation of Religious Beliefs and Adat Customary Laws in Chechnya’ in G. Pickel (ed.), Transformations of religiosity: Religion and Religiosity in Eastern Europe 1989-2010. Wiesbaden: Springer VS: 197-212
  4. Yemelianova, G. 2015. ‘Islam, nationalism and state in the Muslim Caucasus.’ Caucasus Survey, 1(2): 3–23
  5. Cremer, M. 2012. ‘The Instrumentalisation of Religious Beliefs and Adat Customary Laws in Chechnya’ in G. Pickel (ed.), Transformations of religiosity: Religion and Religiosity in Eastern Europe 1989-2010. Wiesbaden: Springer VS: 197-212
  6. Yemelianova, G. 2015. ‘Islam, nationalism and state in the Muslim Caucasus.’ Caucasus Survey, 1(2): 3–23
  7. Johnson, H. 2009. ‘Ritual, Strategy, and Deep Culture in the Chechen National Movement’, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 1(3): 321–342.
  8. Yemelianova, G. 2015. ‘Islam, nationalism and state in the Muslim Caucasus.’ Caucasus Survey, 1(2): 3–23
  9. Cremer, M. 2012. ‘The Instrumentalisation of Religious Beliefs and Adat Customary Laws in Chechnya’ in G. Pickel (ed.), Transformations of religiosity: Religion and Religiosity in Eastern Europe 1989-2010. Wiesbaden: Springer VS: 197-212
  10. Souleimanov, E. 2014. An ethnography of counterinsurgency: kadyrovtsy and Russia's policy of Chechenization. Post-Soviet Affairs, 31(2): 91–114
  11. Gendron, R. 2009. ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution in the North Caucasus’, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 3(4): 333–341.
  12. Souleimanov, E. 2014. An ethnography of counterinsurgency: kadyrovtsy and Russia's policy of Chechenization. Post-Soviet Affairs, 31(2): 91–114
  13. Gendron, R. 2009. ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution in the North Caucasus’, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 3(4): 333–341.
  14. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  15. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  16. Souleimanov, E. 2014. An ethnography of counterinsurgency: kadyrovtsy and Russia's policy of Chechenization. Post-Soviet Affairs, 31(2): 91–114
  17. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  18. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  19. Johnson, H. 2009. ‘Ritual, Strategy, and Deep Culture in the Chechen National Movement’, Critical Studies on Terrorism, 1(3): 321–342.
  20. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  21. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  22. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  23. Malashenko, A. 2014. ‘Islam in Russia’, Russian in Global Affairs, 23 September, http://eng.globalaffairs.ru/number/Islam-in-Russia-17002
  24. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  25. Evangelista, M. 2011. Gender, Nationalism, and War: Conflict on the Movie Screen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  26. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  27. Bazaeva, L. 2013 ‘Application to call for submissions to OHCHR study on ‘Traditional values.’ (Letter to OHCHR published on the UN Website).
  28. Gendron, R. 2009. ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution in the North Caucasus’, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 3(4): 333–341.
  29. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  30. Souleimanov, E. Ditrych, O. 2008. ‘The Internationalisation of the Russian - Chechen Conflict: Myths and Reality’, Europe-Asia Studies, 60(7): 1199–1222.
  31. Gendron, R. 2009. ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution in the North Caucasus’, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 3(4): 333–341.
  32. Layton, K.S. 2014. Chechens: Culture and Society First. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
  33. Gendron, R. 2009. ‘Alternative Dispute Resolution in the North Caucasus’, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, 3(4): 333–341.