Although the University of Iowa offers thousands of classes for students to take, a new course offered beginning in the spring semester of 2020 brings an entirely new and different approach towards the idea of womens rights. This class is titled Women Unknown: Fight for Independence, and it is taught by one of the universitys amazing professors, Irina Kostina. Kostina, who was born and raised in Dagestan until the age of 12, received a Global Curriculum Development Award for the proposal of this course.
She has years of lecturing experience at the UI as well as other universities around the world; her primary area of study consists of the Russian language, religion, and culture. She is the director of undergraduate studies at the university and associate professor of instruction. Kostina teaches several courses at the university, so it is not impossible to have her as a professor during your time at the university. I was fortunate this semester to be in this course, which consisted of 32 students.
In this course, we learned about the past and current issues of womens rights in the Caucasus, which is a mountainous region located where Europe, the Middle East, and Asia meet. We studied how womens rights in the North Caucasus region violated in the past have changed over time. We looked specifically at the women in Dagestan. Dagestan is a republic of Russia, the capital and largest city is Makhachkala, located on the coast of the Caspian Sea. It is home to several ethnicities, languages, and cultures. However, the women there are faced with violations that women in America do not really have to think twice about.
Throughout the semester, we covered several topics that Dagestani women experience, some that are still very much practiced today. These topics included abductions for marriage, early and arranged marriages, polygamy, domestic violence, honor killings, women becoming instruments of war, blood feuds, and suicide terrorist.
A few of these topics were sensitive to discuss but were needed to be addressed to raise awareness for these women in Dagestan. Being from Dagestan, Kostina has a close connection to the Dagestani people with many friends and family who still live there. Her grandfather, who was a surgeon, was the first person to build a hospital in Makhachkala where he spent the rest of his life there saving many lives. She says that Dagestan is a wonderful land, with many wonderful people, the mountains are beautiful, and the air is clean, these problems that women face here need to be talked about.
Kostina made sure that we could immerse ourselves in the Dagestani culture by showing us many videos of her family and friends that she would interview about these sensitive topics. She would also show us several videos depicting the Dagestani culture and life from traditional dance performances to showing the process of an arranged marriage. To the interviews Kostina held with Dagestani friends and relatives, to the Dagestani music, movies, and guest speakers, the immersion did not stop there.
Everyone had the opportunity to interview individuals from Dagestan. Kostina has a cousin who is a professor at the Dagestan State Technical University, and she was more than happy to help set up these students to be interviewed by our class.
The amount of immersion in this class could not have been any better than what Kostina worked hard to do, and she delivered. This course is an amazing experience for learning the history, lives, and culture of the Dagestani people, but do not just take my word for it.
Before I decided to join Women Unknown: Fight for Independence, I was initially caught by the name of the class. It did not seem similar to just any womens studies class; Women Unknown struck me as a course with a far more unique perspective.
As a woman whos lived in America my entire life, I thought that I knew what women have gone through in the history of this country. But my knowledge was limited to womens history in the U.S. I had no insight whatsoever to the past and present obstacles that women of the Caucasus region face.
We learned about many topics regarding womens status in modernized areas of Dagestan through interviews with young men and women from the area. I easily empathized with these people since we were so close in age. Having been given the opportunity to speak with young Dagestani women and watch Kostinas interviews, I recall it being easy to identify with these women their opinions on social issues within their society were progressive and non-traditional.
When asked about their views on polygamy, a now rare practice in western society, these women said they have seen this occurrence or know someone who has been affected by it. They held nothing back, sharing that they felt if a man feels the need to have more than one wife for any reason, he must be able to support them all equally. However, they said they dont feel as if the modern practice is right.
Regarding womens role in the history of the Republic of Dagestan and the Caucasus mountains, there are many contrasting moments in which womens roles within different societies changed. In learning about the tradition of tattooing within mountainous villages, this was very prevalent. Three are many reasons that women would mark themselves with this permanent ink. Women were perceived to be closer to nature and would honor elements of nature at a far more personal level. These tattoos carried different meanings over time and in different villages. In some places, tattoos were used as face markings to make married women less attractive to other men.
The motivation behind these acts appears in many ways within communities in Dagestan. Another example is the Muslim traditions of hijabs. There are other commonly practiced wedding ceremonies that aim at concealing the appearance of women for the sole fact that they are not to be seen by men. In a fascinating case study of a Miss Russia model, her life was threatened and disgraced when she posed for the camera in just a swimsuit.
What I found interesting and disappointingly common within this and cultures everywhere throughout the world is that these comments can come from men and women alike, yet they all come from the long-standing ideology that men cannot control themselves around women. Therefore women are to blame and to cover themselves.
In all the global studies topics that I have covered in previous classes, I have never learned anything about the Caucasus women. I hadnt realized how closed off to such an immense and beautiful part of the world that I was.
What Kostina has done with this new course is just that, giving us her vision into a place that is so familiar to her as she plans countless interviews, gives first-hand accounts and forms of art to American students whose education of international cultures had been previously limited.
Personally, I feel as if I carry a much more insightful vision on feminism and the roles of women within a society that I didnt know existed prior to this course. The importance of this course and the possibility of more like it should be recognized further by the UI as it welcomes students from all walks of life to continue their education.
While the UI employs many brilliant professors from all over the world with their own stories and lessons to share, why should it limit education to the contents of just a textbook?
The largest differentiating factor between this course and others I have taken at the UI is the ability to interact throughout the semester with students from another country. We talked to them at three different points during the semester, and they were all honest and generous with their return messages about their lives. This is in a part of the world that most people do not know about, and it is certainly rarer to have an opportunity to interact interpersonally with people from the area. This class gave the opportunity to ask tough questions about the way the Caucasus culture and society treat women.
Despite the shutdown of global travel after the outbreak of COVID-19, students from Dagestan could still interact with our class, and even answer questions about what quarantine and the outbreak of a global pandemic looked like for them.
Through the interviews, they could tell us about what they liked and disliked about their country, their daily lives, as well as how they felt about certain traditions. Hearing their thoughts and opinions was an invaluable learning experience.
Not only did we interact with Dagestani students, but we also had the opportunity to interview an author who lived in Dagestan as well as participated in the UIs International Program. Alisa Ganieva wrote a realistic fiction novel about what Dagestan looks like today. In the original release of the book, it was published under a male pseudonym, Gulla Khirachev, and her actual name was never tied to the book until at a ceremony where she accepted an award for it.
When asked about the reception of the book in Dagestan in our interview, she mentioned that the reception by the Dagestani people was poor, but not because the book was inaccurate.
Her novel, which dives into the intersection of traditional Dagestani life in a modernizing world, was criticized for the way it portrayed Dagestan. Critics were upset because they did not want the rest of the world to know a realistic picture of their country.
They took it as airing their dirty laundry and werent supportive of Ganieva. However, her detailed writing, the care she puts into creating her characters, and the realistic picture she insisted on portraying, made her work celebrated internationally.
Talking to an author of this caliber not only about the work itself, but about her writing process, and her own life, was my personal favorite part of this course.
In addition to these interviews, as previously mentioned, our instructor was born and raised inDagestan for 12 years of her life and visits frequently. Because of this, she has live footage of conversations she has had with friends in Dagestan, as well as home videos and photos of the beautiful landscapes that come out of the Caucasus Mountains. We interacted with art, literature, and film created in Dagestan, most captioned, or translated by Kostina to make it accessible to us.
Kostina made every effort to bring the culture of Dagestan into our classroom. As a result of her work, she made a remote place of the world a tangible space that we could learn about. This class does incredible things to expand the worldview of a small section of the Midwest, and we were all grateful to be a part of it.
Around 90 percent of the Dagestani population adheres to Muslim faith. Yet, the values of this faith can sharply contrast some of Dagestans cultural traditions, such as the act of tattooing. In an interview with KGOU, Alisa Ganieva, a famous writer from Dagestan, discusses her book Bride and Groom and its depiction of Dagestan.
In the article, Ganieva explores the mix of influences present in Dagestan and says that, despite Dagestan being primarily Muslim country, women wearing hijabs was, only recently introduced to the area. Ganeiva notes, Women in Dagestan are accustomed to be the heads of their family and many older women smoke and have tattoos.
Dagestan is an area of extreme faith juxtaposed with Dagestans own steeped history and traditions. This contrast is perhaps best understood through female tattooing. According to Khabib Ismaliov, an ethnographer, the act of female tattooing swept through Dagestan long before the Muslim religion.
These tattoos carry meaning. Ismaliov gives the example of tattooed dots, saying: If an unmarried girl puts a dot on each finger that would mean: I am a rich girl, poor menstay away Indeed, Dagestani tattoos carry meaning which can tell others about the wearers status or intentions.
Chenciner et al, in Tattooed Women of Dagestan says Tattooed mountain women of often great age, modesty permitting, took pleasure in showing their tattoos. They revealed a sort of mysterious pride, mixed with insolence and an elusive slyness. In other words, they had an attitude.
In the areas practicing traditional tattoos in Dagestan, while both girls and boys can be tattooed during childhood, only women can be tattooed into adulthood.
The origins of these tattoos are varied: some are chosen by elders or other times it is chosen by the wearer. Additionally, the location of these tattoos varied.
In Chenciner et al., they say If she [the tattooed woman] had a beautiful face, the tattoo was on her face. If she had creative, masters hands, the tattoo was on her hands. If she had attractive legs or extraordinary breasts she was tattooed on her legs or her breasts. Furthermore, the tattoo itself could have meaning, such as a bird on the legs meaning as light as a bird
These tattoos are laden with meaning, and that they can empower the women wearing the tattoos.
This rich tradition reflects Dagestans storied history and its connection with nature. Yet, this historical practice and the history it represents reside simultaneously with Dagestans religious population, consisting primarily of Muslims and Christians. Both Islam and Christianity link tattoos with ideas of dirtiness. As writer Alisa Ganieva noted, Dagestan is a hodgepodge of different traditions.
This is perhaps most clearly understood through the intricate interactions between religion and long-lived cultural practices such as tattooing. In Dagestan, tattooing has served as an opportunity for women to regain the autonomy of their own bodies by choosing what goes on them. Yet, it can also be a way to reaffirm the womans status.
Not only is the cultural history of tattooing layered in its own battle of subjugation versus empowerment, but further complicated by the relatively recent influx of religions such as Islam and Christianity. This relationship creates the cultural hodgepodge which adds to the cultural diversity within Dagestan.
Guest Opinion | Reflections on the course Women Unknown: Fight for Independence - UI The Daily Iowan
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