ACHXOY-MARTAN, Chechnya — Chechnya's government is openly approving of families that kill female relatives who violate their sense of honor, as this Russian republic embraces a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam after decades of religious suppression under Soviet rule.
In the past five years, the bodies of dozens of young Chechen women have been found dumped in woods, abandoned in alleys and left along roads in the capital, Grozny, and neighboring villages.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov publicly announced that the dead women had "loose morals" and were rightfully shot by male relatives. He went on to describe women as the property of their husbands, and said their main role is to bear children.
"If a woman runs around and if a man runs around with her, both of them should be killed," said Mr. Kadyrov, who often has stated his goal of making Chechnya "more Islamic than the Islamists."
In today's Chechnya, alcohol is all but banned, Islamic dress codes are enforced and polygamous marriages are supported by the government.
Some observers say Mr. Kadyrov's attempt to impose Islamic law violates the Russian Constitution, which guarantees equal rights for women and a separation of church and state.
"We are a traditional, conservative society, but the government has gone overboard," said Lipkhan Bazaeva, head of the Women's Dignity Center, a nongovernmental organization promoting women's rights in Grozny. "They are declaring unacceptable limits on women — as an individual, she has no rights even if her husband beats her, despite Russian laws."
Though observers agree that honor killings are on the rise in Chechnya, the issue remains largely taboo among locals — making official statistics hard to come by.
"You hear about these cases almost every day," said a local human rights defender, who asked that her name not be used out of fear for her safety. "It is hard for me to investigate this topic, yet I worked on it with [human rights activist] Natasha [Estemirova] for a while. But, I can't anymore. I am too scared now. I've almost given up, really."
Estemirova, who angered Chechen authorities with reports of torture, abductions and extrajudicial killings, was found in the woods in 2009 in the neighboring region of Ingushetia with gunshot wounds to the head and chest. Her killer or killers have not been found.
Few dare to openly challenge Mr. Kadyrov's rule. But activists say some young Muslim women do so surreptitiously, placing themselves in a constant tug of war between two value systems.
Milana, a ninth-grader in Grozny, wears thick eyeliner, dons tight miniskirts, smokes cigarettes and dates boys: all things a proper Muslim girl is forbidden to do in Chechnya.
She said she has heard it from her father countless times: A Chechen girl who loses her virginity before marriage is a prostitute, and Allah will punish her.
"If only my parents knew some of the things I did," she said with a giggle. "My parents are too strict with me, but it is like that here."
Analysts say dating can be an escape for teenagers such as Milana who often live double lives.
"It is a great temptation to break from tradition when they are away from their family, said Ms. Bazaeva. "They have a good time, but it is not without consequences, not in Chechnya."
In this small Chechen village, residents talk about the teenage girl who was killed in early February after she spent a night at her boyfriend's house.
The 16-year-old's body was wrapped in a traditional rug and returned to her mother's house. Her relatives are suspected of killing her in the name of family honor.
To escape the strict mores, some of the young opt for early marriage, which they view as the gateway to independence, sexual activity and societal respect. That goes for young Chechen men, also.
Abu-Khadzh Idrisov, 20, married in his teens to simply experiment, he said. His first marriage at age 14 lasted barely a year. He married a second time at 18. He spotted his future wife at a park in Grozny and, with the help of his friends, kidnapped her.
"When I married her, I honestly knew only two things: her name and the school she studied at. We talked together once," he recalled. "But we have traditions and extremely strict rules in Chechnya, and you can't just ignore them. I carry my family's name, and if I tarnish it, I will have problems."