Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Circassian Family Values

The pagan customs of ancient Circassian tribes survive the depredations of the Soviet era
By I. Ibragimov

Of all the strange customs peculiar to the North Caucasus, the oddest is undoubtedly the practice of "shunning" which has survived in many families to the present day.


According to the age-old custom, certain family members living under the same roof are forbidden to acknowledge one another's existence. Physical or verbal contact is taboo; chance encounters are to be avoided at all costs.


In the cramped confines of modern living, the practicalities of shunning are mind-boggling.


The tradition, which is observed by the Abkhazian, Adygean, Cherkess, Abazin and Kabardinian peoples (the ethnic Circassians), has its roots in the distant past.


When the Genoese merchants first came to the North Caucasus, they found the indigenous tribes still worshipped a variety of pagan gods. Even the veneer of Christianity spread by later missionaries became imbued with the pagan traditions and ancient cults.


The same can be said for the Islamic faith which spread across the Caucasus from Chechnya and Dagestan - its tenets were diluted with the pagan beliefs leading to a range of unique social practices.


The essence of shunning lies in the fact that, in traditional North Caucasian families, three generations often live in one home. In the old days, this was a usually a detached house with at least two entrances; today it is more often a Soviet-era flat.


It particularly affects the wives of male family members, who are forbidden from coming into any contact with their father-in-law for a certain period of time after the marriage.


This obliges the young wives to lead a shadowy existence in some remote recess of the family home, hiding round corners, always checking to see if the head of the house is approaching.


Accidental encounters are a source of great embarrassment for both parties, with each pretending the other simply isn't there.


My mother remembers, "The first time it happened, I was very embarrassed and so was my father-in-law, Abubekir. He had just come into the apartment from the street and I was going from the kitchen to my room. He just pretended he was having trouble with the key - and I quietly slipped past him and hid in my chambers."


When the head of the household announces that the period of shunning is officially over, the family holds a special celebration during which the bride and her father-in-law are introduced.


After this moment, they are permitted to exchange a few words - but no more. Even then, it is considered immodest for a young woman to be seen in conversation with her father-in-law.


The Cherkess have an anecdote on this subject. The head of one family killed his prize turkey to celebrate the end of the period of shunning. It was a happy occasion and the guests drank dozens of toasts to the blushing daughter-in-law.


On the next day, however, the young girl abandoned all the household chores, sat down next to her father-in-law and chattered to him all day. Eventually, the man jumped up in exasperation and called to his wife, "I sacrificed a turkey in order to talk to my daughter-in-law, now I'm ready to sacrifice an entire bull just for the privilege of never hearing her voice again!"


I. Ibragimov is a print and TV journalist from Cherkessk, in Karachaevo-Cherkessia


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