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From Village Life to Prostitution in Dagestan

Women working in illicit brothels increasingly turn out to be from strict traditional backgrounds.
By Svetlana Anohina

When Radmila came to the Dagestani capital Makhachkala to study medicine, she was ashamed that her shabby clothes and meagre possessions betrayed her poor rural background to the other students.


“They were so well-presented,” Radmila said of her classmates. “They all had mobile phones and cool stuff, and I was wearing my sister’s hand-me-downs.


“I saw how easily other [girls] lived, and what fun lives they led. And what could I see in my village? Housework, the garden and the livestock to be taken care of.”


Although her upbringing was strict, Radmila – not her real name - abandoned her studies when she heard that prostitutes at the local saunas could earn 700 roubles (25 US dollars) an hour. She now rents an apartment with two girls she works with at the sauna.


Radmila’s story could be told in many towns across Russia. What sets it apart is that she lives in Dagestan, a largely Muslim republic where rural life is still governed by strict traditional codes. In the villages, women’s reputations can be tainted by the merest rumour of impropriety.


So the culture clash between such values and the fast pace, anonymity and rampant materialism of city life stands in starker contrast in Makhachkala than in most other Russian towns.


Exact figures on how many Dagestani woman have become prostitutes in recent years are not available but anecdotal evidence suggests they are getting younger and increasingly come from rural backgrounds.


While the decision to turn to prostitution would seem to be completely at odds with a strict upbringing, some psychologists believe rural women slip into the trade precisely because as children they were conditioned to be submissive.


Many of those from out of town are recruited at farmers’ markets, car washes and other places where uneducated and unskilled women from rural areas are employed. Exam times are particularly busy for brothel owners who find easy prey among girls who have failed their courses and do not want to return home to the countryside.


Some like Tamila, who has been working as a call girl for two years, insist they do it to pay the bills. She’s married and thinks her husband probably knows what she does several times a week at the local sauna.


“He hardly earns anything... and our relatives don’t help us out. We have a baby to take care of, and I’m still young, I want to be able to dress up, ” she said.


“The lads at the sauna have my phone number... and when a well-paying client turns up, they give me a call. If it weren’t for my earnings, it would be much harder for my husband and me to make ends meet.”


Experts say the temptation of easy money - a product of the new materialism that has sprung up since the Soviet Union collapsed - drives many into the saunas and onto the streets.


Aishat Magomedova, the head of a women’s hospital in Makhachkala, calls it the “cult of clothes”.


“I’ve been to many countries, and I’ve never seen people place such importance on material possessions,” said Magomedova. “Here in Dagestan, young women’s awareness and sense of status is based on having fashionable clothes. It raises their social status in their own and others’ eyes.”


Psychologist Elena Mkrtchian blames traditional Dagestani ways of parenting, which impose rules and restrictions on every aspect of a young girl’s life, creating the mindset that allows prostitution to flourish.


“A girl can be called a prostitute for no reason at all: coming home late, wearing revealing clothes, boys paying attention to her,” she said. “Right from the start she’s told that she’s unclean and guilty. Naturally, she reacts against this pressure. ‘Everyone’s been telling me off for ages’, she thinks, ‘so it may as well be for a reason.’”


Sergei Chipashvili, also a psychologist, finds fault with how Dagestani girls are raised, saying they are brought up to submit unquestioningly to men and their elders. Girls are treated as a commodity – often married off to someone they don’t love, or even know, in the interests of their families.


The result is that the girl has a “peculiar and negative attitude to her own body”, he said.


“This means that the internal barrier that prevents a normal woman from going to bed with someone she doesn’t want to is easily overcome in Dagestani women. It’s a short step from there to prostitution.”


In this highly traditional society, prostitutes find themselves stigmatised by their families and the public at large. A disgraced daughter is often thrown out of the house and her relatives will break off all contact.


Tamara became a prostitute at the age of 15 after being banished from her home by her father when he discovered she was pregnant.


“He beat me and threw me out. There was nowhere to go. My relatives wouldn’t have taken me in, because to them I was a disgrace. At first I slept in the entrance of our apartment block, until my father found out. Then he said he’d kill me if he saw me near the building again and told my sisters not to talk to me,” said Tamara, who works as a prostitute to feed her three children.


There have been some efforts to combat the growing problem.


Groups of Islamic clerics have visited some of Makhachkala’s 300 saunas to urge brothel owners and their customers to refrain from activities frowned upon by Islam.


Some religious figures, meanwhile, have suggested a more radical approach, photographing sauna owners and prostitutes and sending the pictures home to their villages.


The head of Dagestan’s clerical establishment, Magomed Abdurakhmanov, admits these efforts have so far been ineffective.


“People don’t have the fear of God in them. I can’t explain why, but it’s the girls from villages, where adat [traditional code of behaviour] is stronger, who become prostitutes most readily. They’re not even afraid of being found out and punished,” he said.


Radmila is still in contact with her family, but she conceals her new life from them.


“When my parents visit, I dress down and tell them I’m still studying, although I know they’ll find out one day,” she said.


“My brother will kill me.”


Svetlana Anokhina is a reporter for MK v Dagestane newspaper, and is based in Makhachkala. This story was produced as part of IWPR’s Women’s Perspectives programme.


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