Meet the Muslim woman who almost challenged Putin for President
If I asked you for the first three words that spring to mind when I say “Russia”, you’d be forgiven if “progressive” wasn’t up there. Notorious for its institutional homophobia, political oppression and the murder of journalists who dare to speak out against the government, the country has earned itself a reputation as a dangerous place to dare to be different. But one woman is hoping to change that - and she’s leading from the front. Well, she’s trying to.
Aina Gamzatova was hoping to run as an independent candidate in Russia’s upcoming 2018 Presidential election, which is due to take place in March. She confirmed her intention to run in a Facebook post, and two days after making it, hundreds of supporters gathered in Makhachkala, the capital of the Dagestan region from which Gamzatova hails, to celebrate the announcement. Initially, her application to run was accepted by Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC), the board which oversees federal elections and for a while, she was all set. But could a female, Muslim, from one of Russia's most contested regions, really take on Putin?
It seems she isn't being given the chance. On January 11, 2018, the decision to allow her to run was reversed on the grounds of “violations” in her application, including not submitting expenses for herself or her children. The decision came just as Gamzatova was beginning to attract international attention from major news agencies such as Al Jazeera; the CEC stated that they “did not notice” the violations the first time round. Currently, there are five women in contention for the top job, including a businesswoman, a singer-songwriter and a socialite and TV anchor dubbed "Russia's Paris Hilton".
It’s fair to say that Gamzatova is a woman with a list of achievements that puts many of us to shame. The 46-year-old journalist is already the head of Islam.ru, Russia’s biggest Muslim media holding, as well as being a successful writer and running a charity. The wife of Akhmad Abdulaev, the Mufti of Dagestan, the reigon's chief Islamic legal scholar, she also acts as his PR and government advisor. As a result of this last role, some had accused her bid as being little more than a PR stunt, citing the lack of concrete policies that she had expressed.
And with her campaign only in its early days, it’s true that it's hard to know in any real depth what she would have stood for with her early soundbites focused on topics such as national unity - heard in practically every election around the world. But it would be too simple just to write her off for this. After all, she had stated emphatically on Islam.ru that her decision to run was rooted partly in a belief that the Kremlin is not doing enough against fighters who want to establish a separate Islamic state in the North Caucasus, and whose actions had led to Dagestan being referred to as referred to as "the dangerous place in Europe." Gamzatova’s nomination was predicted by some Russia-watchers to lead to a higher turnout than ever in this volatile region, which would have renewed national attention on this issue.
But her chances were also scuppered by the issue of gender. Her decision to run for president raised eyebrows both within her own community and wider Russian society. In a country that prizes the notion of “Russian manlihood” - Putin’s cultivation of a macho-male image, riding horses and buffing his body, is considered to have heavily influenced his popularity - the idea of a female leader is, to some, problematic.
In a poll for Interfax news agency, 53 per cent of Russians said they would oppose a female leader, with a further 13 per cent “unsure” about the idea. Closer to home, there are those that argue that Gamzatova’s place as a woman is back at home: "What about the moral teachings that a woman can't even leave her house without her husband?" Patimat Ibragimova, one Muslim mother of two from Makhachkala, told Al Jazeera. "Or she can, and the law is for us, mere mortals?"
Although Russia is considered generally tolerant of Islam - it is the country's second most followed religion - Islamophobia is on the rise. A 2013 survey by VTsIOM, a state-owned pollster, found that almost one in seven Russians don't want to have Muslim neighbours and a quarter do not want to live near a Caucasus native, and the 2016 European Islamophobia Report concluded that this attitude also extended to politics, despite Putin's apparent fight against Islamaphobia: "There is no Muslim leader to whose opinion state officials and the general public in Russia would listen" it declared.
If we’re being realistic, then it’s true that there was little chance of Gamzatova winning; in the 2012 election Putin secured a third term in office in a landslide victory, winning 63.6 per cent of votes.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organisation charged with ensuring free and fair elections noted that: “The process deteriorated during the vote count which was assessed negatively in almost one-third of polling stations observed due to procedural irregularities.” But before she even got to this stage there would have been another mountain to climb - as an independent candidate she would also have had to collect 300,000 signatures from supporters from a range of Russian regions, endorsing her proposal.
Fortunately for Putin, those backed by a party already represented in the Russian parliament don’t need to do this. So why stand in her way? (Theoretically, of course). Well, by allowing her to run, attention would invariably have been drawn to the issues that she represents, inadvertently or otherwise, which Putin would rather not have floating around during his own election campaign. These include the ingrained misogyny in Russian politics, the growing Islamaphobia in the country and, as someone from Dagestan, the ongoing issues in North Caucasus. Suddenly "not noticing" those error until it was too late to reapply seems terribly convenient, doesn’t it?
Nonetheless, her image up against so many white men is a powerful one and shows that not only is there hunger for change in the world’s largest country, but that there are people willing to put themselves into the firing line for it too. And for other countries, it’s a reality-check too: that Russia, a country notorious for racism, sexism, far-right groups managed to propose a female, Muslim candidate before either the US or the UK speaks volumes about just how "progressive" our own societies are.