Meet the Dagestani Instagram Influencer Fighting Racism and Sexism

In Dagestan, fighting for representation while confronting sexism is not without its challenges.

By: Mikhail Yakovlev

Maryam Alieva [Марьям Алиева] is not your typical Instagram celeb. 

Born and raised in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority region in the North Caucasus currently administered by Russia, Maryam uses her platform to raise awareness about the widespread racism faced by Russia’s Muslim minorities and the taboo topic of sexual violence against women and girls

Today, Maryam’s account @dnevniki_goryanki (“diaries of a mountain girl” in Russian – a reference to the Caucasus) has almost 90,000 followers and counting. 

But, how did it all begin?

“We had just moved to Moscow, I had to take care of the house, the children. My husband was at work all day. When he came home, he fell off his feet. To give him his due, no matter how tired he was, he tried to take us out for a walk. But he didn’t want me to go out on the streets of Moscow without him,” she explains in an interview with Eto Kavkaz [This is Caucasus].  

This was not a case of Maryam’s husband wanting her to stay home because she is a woman. It was racism. Women and girls in hijabs in Christian-majority parts of Russia face regular discrimination and even attacks. For Maryam, it was a stark departure from her life in Dagestan, where she regularly participated in everything from dancing to acting classes. In Moscow, she was trapped at home.

“It felt as if I fell into a coma” – Maryam continues, describing her four years of staying at home instead of participating in public life. 

So, she started a page on Instagram—a space where she could express her love of beauty and celebrate her culture by organizing photoshoots in traditional Dagestani dress. 

In another interview with Radio Liberty’s North Caucasus network, Maryam admits to feeling “disillusioned” by the ignorance and prejudice of the average Muscovite. She wanted to counter the racist trend she saw around her in the Russian capital—where many assumed Dagestanis were uneducated savages, rather than representatives of a unique culture with roots going back to the Persian and Byzantine Empires. These racist stereotypes can be traced to Russia’s colonial wars in the Caucasus and Crimea during the nineteenth century. But have become revitalized by post-Soviet Russian state’s propaganda effort to erase indigenous and minority cultures, and replace them with a homogenous Russian one—something Media Diversity Institute covered in our review of the film Ága

Eto Kavkaz is a case in point. This Russian-language media portal runs stories about Russian-administered countries in the Caucasus – Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya, Karachay-Cherkessia, North Ossetia, Chechnya – and Stavropol Region. Part of the state-owned TASS [formerly, Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union] group, Eto Kavkaz appears to be one of the Kremlin’s ‘soft power’ projects designed specifically to promote allegiance to the Russian state among peoples of the Russian-administered Caucasus and to enable the Kremlin to define the narrative about this multicultural region. 

Despite all this, Eto Kavkaz is probably the only federal-level media that brings voices from the region to other parts of Russia …as long as these voices don’t cross any red lines. Of course, Maryam was only interviewed by Eto Kavkaz because of her Instagram popularity. 

More recently, Maryam has put this popularity to use raising awareness about a darker aspect of life in Dagestan and other North Caucasus Republics – sexual violence against girls and women. 

An independent feminist webzine from the North Caucasus, DAPTAR reveals that Maryam came to this activism by accident. The story of a close friend experiencing a brutal sexual assault—and then living with the stigma, and hiding this ‘shame’ from her family — pushed Maryam to start writing about women’s issues and gender-based violence. 

“When I learnt about this, I felt suffocated.” Maryam elaborates that her friend came from a strict Muslim family and did everything by the book, to the point of going straight home after school instead of hanging out with Maryam and her friends. Maryam was sure her friend did nothing to ‘solicit’ this abuse, despite popular narratives in Dagestan and other parts of Russia that blame victims of rape and sexual assault for dressing provocatively or flirting with men.  

“I wrote a post about this simply out of powerlessness and horror. And then it all began. Over a hundred messages came to me in a week. Girls from all over the Caucasus wrote to me. Each has so much pain, so much trouble.”

At first, Maryam did not know what to do with this information. Eventually, she found a psychologist who agreed to offer online counselling to the girls and women who approached her. Next, she started writing regularly about the topic to raise awareness, break the taboos surrounding it and pressure the police and child protection agencies to take action.

More and more stories came pouring in. Last year, Maryam published seven of them in a book titled Do Not Be Silent [«Не молчи»]. In the first ten days from publication alone, the book was downloaded more than 5000 times.

But many of Maryam’s followers from the Caucasus disapprove of her insistence on breaking the taboo by speaking about sexual violence. Men and women alike comment on her posts and stories suggesting that the girl was to blame. Others criticize Maryam herself for bringing dishonour on Dagestan and other North Caucasus Republics. Some even label her “the shame of Dagestan”.

Of course, there are issues with the Russian media’s reports on gender-based violence in the North Caucasus. Many are sensationalist, and attribute violence and the abuse of women’s rights to Islam. At the same time, they hypocritically ignore the epidemic of domestic and sexual violence across Russia

In 2017, Russia’s federal legislature decriminalised some forms of domestic violence. This was done with the explicit blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, it campaigns against any attempt to reinstate the law, helping to normalise violence against women as a legitimate part of Russia’s Orthodox Christian heritage. Last year, MDI ran a summary of the tragic case of three sisters Khachaturyan accused of murdering their father who had kept them locked in his Moscow apartment where he abused them sexually. This case kick-started the #мне_нужна_гласность [#I_need_glasnost] solidarity campaign – the local version of #MeToo – on Russian, Ukrainian, Belarus and other post-Soviet social media. But, mainstream media handling of this case clearly demonstrated their entrenched willingness to doubt any woman and exonerate any man who perpetrates sexual violence, especially when he is White and Christian. 

As such, it is understandable that communities in the North Caucasus want to combat these negative stereotypes. Unfortunately, this means that women who speak out about sexual violence in their own community often fall victim to stigma and shame at best, and honour killings at worst. Even if a woman is brave enough to report her assault, police in Russian-administered Caucasus and elsewhere in the country rarely take it seriously.

Trying to get the police to fulfil their legal role is an important part of Maryam’s activism. In a series of recent posts, she shared a harrowing story of a minor who had been repeatedly raped by her own brother. Eventually, she reported this to the police who refused to do anything about it. Now, the girl’s parents are threatening to kill her. Maryam had been trying to reach the local police, the Ministry of the Interior of Dagestan and the Republic’s Child Protection Authority with no success. Finally, she persuaded a local policeman to remove the girl from the custody of her parents. Unfortunately, the Child Protection Authority is intent on sending this girl back home to an uncertain fate.

This lack of protection experienced by most victims of rape and sexual violence in Russian-administered Caucasus is what makes the ‘safe space’ of Maryam Alieya’s Instagram so special: it combats the racism of the Russian state, and the patriarchy of the North Caucasus, without having to compromise one for the other. 

Maryam summarized her position effectively for DAPTAR – 

“I am comfortably living in tradition, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else is obliged to do it. When I say “traditions”, I want to show their beautiful side. But, this does not mean that I like absolutely everything. One way or another, we need to take into account the time in which we live.”