This project is helping bring together fathers and daughters in the North Caucasus

This project is helping bring together fathers and daughters in the North Caucasus

Family hierarchies in Russia’s North Caucasus are rigid and traditional. One online project is trying to break down gender barriers by asking daughters to write honest letters to their fathers.

4 April 2019

“The worst thing, dad, is when you tell us, your grown children, stories from our family life, but they are made up stories — the children in them are not us, and they come from a past that you imagined. In your version of the past you are a caring and loving husband and father, and you’re interested in your children. But that’s just not true, dad, these are lies.” These words come from a letter addressed to her father by an anonymous woman from the North Caucasus, identified only as R.Sh.

The letter was published, alongside many others, as part of a project launched in 2018 by two Dagestani journalists and activists, Aida Mirmaksumova and Svetlana Anokhina, called Otsy i Dochki (“Fathers and Daughters” in English). Mirmaksumova and Anokhina invited women from Dagestan and all over the North Caucasus to send in letters — anonymous or not — addressed to their fathers, writing about whatever had been left unsaid, whether reflections or grievances, in the traditional family dynamic. Female activists, journalists, and artists are then asked to read the letters in front of a camera. The resulting videos provide a concrete voice to the anonymous, personal stories.

“You were a horrible husband to my mother,” writes Z.A.. “You see, you married an incredible, smart woman who knew how to shoot, ride a horse, and could solve any maths problem that you put in front of her. And you’ve done everything to dull that sparkle: you left her at home with the children, you didn’t support her initiative to do a PhD, you made her feel guilty for having daughters not sons. There are plenty more examples like this that just kept snowballing until they eventually turned into an avalanche that destroyed her.”

“We want fathers to hear what their grown-up daughters really think”

Confrontational and sincere, this kind of familial communication is a rarity in the North Caucasus, Mirmaksumova and Anokhina explain. In fact, the father is often so far removed from raising the children, especially daughters, that he barely speaks to them. It is traditionally the mother who acts as an intermediary between the children and her husband: “In the North Caucasian hierarchy, fathers and daughters are like the North and South Poles — they could not be further away from each other.”

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At the same time, the father wields enormous power over the family, including the children; daughters are seen as particularly vulnerable, since they have the least power, not only in their family relationships but their lives in general. “Don’t forget we’re talking about the North Caucasus here: it’s not rare that the father decides whether his daughter gets an education or not, whether she marries that old bastard or not, whether she lives or dies.” While these kinds of stories may sound familiar to anyone in the world who has grown up in a dysfunctional family, it’s this power that men hold over women, especially daughters, that makes the topic so painful in the North Caucasus.

The project, though, is much more than a reaction against patriarchy: for all the indifference and abuse, many stories published on Otsy i Dochki also describe relationships that are filled with love, trust, and respect. “We want fathers to hear what their grown-up daughters really think,” Mirmaksumova and Anokhina divulge, “to see the instances where their fatherly authority and power ruined lives and other stories where their support gave their daughters strength.”

One example of the latter is a letter from A.Kh., who writes: “Hugging your father, asking him if you can go on a date (because mother is not at home and you’re not allowed to leave the house without asking your parents first), or just discussing current events with him — all of these things are so regular for you and I, but sadly not all Chechen girls can confide in their fathers, or even talk without having the mother play the role of a go-between.”

Anokhina and Mirmaksumova have both written extensively in their journalism on the topic of gender relations and violence against women in the North Caucasus, and worked as activists organising legal support and mental health counselling for victims of domestic abuse. Otsy i Dochki was partially born out of the North Caucasusian media project Daptar, edited by Anokhina, which focuses on issues of domestic abuse, honour killings, FGM, kidnapping, and forced marriages. “In our stories on the website, the woman was always a victim of men, who were always the villains; or she came out as a winner despite the horrible circumstances of her life. And we got tired of it. This did nothing for the dialogue,” Anokhina confesses. “What we decided to do is to provide men with better examples of behaviour.”

“Today, five years since you passed away, I realise that you have given me everything: you’ve given me freedom, and made me who I am today,” R.Kh. writes of her father. “You never preached, never told me off, never even told me what to do. But you were always ready to talk, discuss anything, and we could talk for hours. […] Discussions that in any other Chechen family could never take place between a father and a daughter happened so easily with you.”

Some of the letters received were turned into a series of short animated films, which have become an ongoing series by illustrator Asya Dzhabrailova. One of the first ones to be published recounts the story of a father who sees that his daughter is stuck in an unhappy marriage and helps her escape. The letter reads: “I couldn’t ask my dad to take me home. My husband didn’t drink and didn’t beat me up, he worked. Unhappiness is not a reason for divorce in Dagestan. But my father understood it all.” There is a film about a father saving his daughter from life in the Islamic State in Syria, and a film about a bride who is kidnapped only to be freed by her father — both of which are true stories.

As the name suggestions, daughters only make up one part of the project. The founders hoped to publish letters written by fathers too, but as the launch date crept up, none were sent in. Before the project went live, Mirmaksumova and Anokhina organised focus groups in their native Dagestan to see how the videos would be received. Once they found out the videos were about gender issues, many respondents dropped out immediately. The response to Otsy i Dochki has been mixed, with positive feedback coming predominantly from other women. The first letter by a father was published 11 months after the project was launched, and since then only one more has appeared on the site.

The founders are certain that this still represents progress. Men have written to Mirmaksumova and Anokhina saying that the videos changed their mind about their own relationships with their daughters, young and adult. Changing the world is not the end goal of the project. Instead, Mirmaksumova and Anokhina would like to make small steps in the right direction: “We want to get daughters talking, and fathers listening.”

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