Having a tattoo or an unmarried sister or an Instagram account – all of these things can apply to women seeking custody of their children in the North Caucasus region of Russia, where decisions by local courts often reflect the community’s belief that children should be Side of the father belong to family.
In Muslim-majority Chechnya and Ingushetia, and to a lesser extent in Dagestan, deep-seated customs dictate that children take the father’s side after a divorce. And while Russian federal law has shown that such children prefer to stay with their mothers, city and district courts in the North Caucasus often go their own way in the name of tradition.
The subject is the subject of an extensive report by Current Time, which tells the stories of several women struggling to wrest their children from a well-established patriarchal system.
Nina Tseretilova’s efforts to be reunited with her three children have been thwarted for more than a year, despite a local court decision to deny her custody because of her “lifestyle” was overturned.
When Daghestan’s Kirovsky District Court took her children away from her in July, it was apparently influenced by statements made by Tseretilova’s ex-husband, Magomed Tseretilov, who argued that she had created an “unhealthy” moral and psychological environment in which to raise children.
As evidence, he presented photos and videos from his ex-wife’s Instagram page, where she had conversations about “sex” and unconventional relationships, and the court record found that tattoos were visible on her body.
Meanwhile, Tseretilova’s underage children testified that she hosted parties where young people smoked and consumed alcohol. The court was shown a music video by the Dagestani group Duet 11, in which Tseretilova plays a prominent role.
For her part, Tseretilova testified that she married her ex-husband when she was 18 and that he had beaten her regularly from the start. She said she left him after he hit her while she was pregnant with their third child.
The court, taking into account the established traditions of Russia and the Republic of Dagestan, found that Tseretilova led a lifestyle “that did not conform to the norms and rules of conduct of the majority” and granted custody of her ex-husband.
Tseretilova, who tells Current Time that her ex-husband “decided to punish her” after she paid alimony after her divorce in 2016, took the case to the Dagestan Supreme Court.
Although the Supreme Court ruled in her favor in March, her children have still not been surrendered.
Zhanetta Tukhayeva worked to get her eldest son back in an ordeal that she says began seven years ago when her ex-husband Ruslan Ibayev first kidnapped the boy and left her younger son with her only because she still nursed him.
In March 2020, the Leninsky District Court in the Chechen capital Grozny ruled in Ibayev’s favor that both of the couple’s sons should live with their father and that their parental rights were restricted.
Ibayev’s argument in the case he initiated against Tukhayeva emphasized the importance of “adats” – common practices observed by Muslims in the North Caucasus – and cited their “divorced sisters” and “silicone lips” as reasons for denying their custody.
In its decision, the court found that Ibayev was an observant father whose “social behavior” was based entirely on the norms of Islam and Chechen traditions “.
It also supported Ibayev’s complaint about comments Tukhayeva posted on Instagram criticizing the trial as “ridiculous”. She wrote that her religious beliefs prevented her from performing cosmetic procedures and accused her husband of “throwing mud and trying to intimidate her.”
The court said the post “shows what kind of person she is” and ordered her to delete her account.
The decisions were completely overturned by the Chechen Supreme Court just four months later, and Ibayev’s appeal was denied. But Tukhayeva has still not been reunited with her eldest son and does not know where he lives.
Russian Islamic scholar Akhmet Yarlykapov said that traditional and religious beliefs influence the views of North Caucasian communities on custody issues, especially those involving women who have married outside of their clan.
“After a divorce, the woman goes to her father’s house, goes to this clan. The children belong to their father’s family and accordingly stay in his family,” Yarlykapov told Current Time, the Russian-speaking network overseen by RFE / RL in cooperation with VOA . “With the grandmother, with an uncle, with anyone – but on the father’s side.”
In custody disputes, the influence of Sharia law often leads the local court to side with the father’s family, according to Yarlykapov.
Olga Gnezdilova, an attorney for the legal initiative project that helps people file cases with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), said it is common in these cases for local courts to question the mother’s “moral character”.
Gnezdilova says her organization picked up many such cases from the North Caucasus. She highlighted several cases where the fathers died but the local courts granted custody of the deceased man’s families.
The lawyer added that, referring to the 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, Russian courts have repeatedly enforced the Declaration’s article that small children should be separated from their mothers only in exceptional cases.
While Russia does not officially recognize Sharia law or the adats, in practice Islamic law and tradition often compete with Russian secular law in the North Caucasus.
Gnezdilova said that “regional judges have no legal basis to rely on in making such decisions, but know that the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation is reluctant to review decisions on family disputes in the North Caucasus.”
She says that in some cases the Russian judicial authorities have effectively confirmed the decisions of the lower courts in the North Caucasus to deny custody of the mother in favor of the father’s family.
In one example, Luiza Tapayeva’s four daughters were taken away by her husband’s family in Chechnya after his death in 2015. When she applied for custody and claimed that her four daughters had been kidnapped by their grandfather, the Urus-Martan City Court ruled that the children should stay with the grandfather.
To the surprise of the legal initiative, Gnezdilova said: “The Supreme Court of Russia has upheld this decision, although parents have a primary right in the upbringing of their children.”
In such cases, the Russian government was required to argue to the ECHR that the rights of mothers had not been violated by the courts’ trust in local customs.
“If the Russian authorities argue in an international court that the mother’s rights were not violated by a violation of tradition,” asked Gnezdilova, “what can we expect from district judges?”
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