Aminat Lorsanova tried to run away from home five times before she finally made it.
Away from the family she said had abused her physically and psychologically since she was a child. Away from Chechnya, where women like her are supposed not to exist.
Ms Lorsanova is bisexual. She says she was beaten by Islamic healers, kept in a psychiatric clinic against her will and drugged there and by her own family because of her atheism and her sexual orientation.
Now in a third country we can’t name, the 22-year-old has filed a lawsuit with Russia’s investigative committee against her parents and the individuals she says abused her.
Image: Chechnya is a republic in southwestern Russia
“A woman is not considered to be a human being in Chechen society,” she says. “Her position is somewhere between an inanimate object and an animal.
“So if your family – your parents or your husband – torture you, you must bear it patiently. You cannot make your own decisions.”
In March 2017, the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta broke the story of a horrific crackdown on the LGBT community in the Chechen republic.
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Details began to emerge of mostly gay men being rounded up and tortured in secret prisons by Chechen law enforcement, of forced disappearances and honour killings.
Chechnya has always denied there is any truth to the allegations. Law enforcement officers have taken journalists around the police stations where some of those detained say they were kept and tortured.
Image: There have been reports of a horrific crackdown on the LGBT community in the Chechen republic
There is a hint of glee to the officers’ denials that any kind of anti-gay purge took place. They answer as one, like their president Ramzan Kadyrov – that homosexuality does not exist in the Chechen republic.
A handful of gay men who managed to escape the republic and find asylum abroad have spoken out but the voices of Chechnya’s LGBT women are rarely heard.
Women are mostly confined to the domestic sphere, entirely subordinate to the men in their families. According to Chechen tradition, they cannot even get a passport if they are not in the presence of a male relative.
That’s why Ms Lorsanova’s story matters.
Image: Chechnya’s LGBT women are rarely heard
Exorcisms are still widely practised in Chechnya. They are considered a standard cure for a variety of ailments believed to be caused by evil spirits inhabiting the body.
They are a feature of the traditional Islamic medicine on offer at the Islamic Medical Centre in Grozny, run by a friend of Mr Kadyrov. They are even advertised on Chechen TV.
They are also used for conversion therapy.
According to Ms Lorsanova, her parents brought in a local mullah three times to exorcise her demons.
“He pulled my shirt up and pulled down my skirt. He was beating me in the solar plexus with a thin rod for an hour, yelling the Koran in my ear. It was painful.”
Ms Lorsanova also spent weeks in the Dr Igor Boyev psychiatric clinic in Grozny where she says she was administered drop infusions and other medication for a prolonged period which left her flitting in and out of consciousness.
When she asked what they were, she was told it was confidential.
Image: Women find it harder to escape Chechnya due to their inability to move freely without a male guardian
The Boyev clinic in Grozny is closed now. We managed to reach its owner at a second clinic he runs in the southwestern city of Stavropol.
He said he had been treating Ms Lorsanova for psychiatric conditions but refused to comment further. He is named in the complaint she has filed with Russia’s investigative committee.
Veronika Lapina and David Isteyev, activists from Russia’s LGBT network, have spent much of the last few years helping LGBT men and women escape Chechnya.
They say that although the anti-gay purges have involved mostly men, women were rounded up too and thrown into separate cells in secret prisons.
For a woman to have had any kind of involvement with law enforcement is considered a sullying of their purity. “They usually don’t get out of there,” Ms Lapina says.
Image: Veronika Lapina is a Russian LGBT network activist
She explains that what happened to Ms Lorsanova is typical. “In Chechnya, they practice conversion therapy, exorcising genies, medical injections, psychotropic substances. This is not something new for us.”
Women are simply harder to help escape, because of their inability to move freely without a male guardian.
Greater visibility of the issue and of the Russian LGBT network’s own work has led to a doubling they say in the number of women turning to them for help.
It has also brought them to the attention of the Chechen authorities.
Dzhambulat Umarov, Chechnya’s minister for national policy and external relations, has accused the LGBT network of manipulating Ms Lorsanova and others like her to solicit false confessions. He also claims there is nothing wrong with exorcisms.
He said: “This shadow of medieval horror they try to throw upon the Chechen republic will not cover the Chechen republic.
“We have the right to fight for our rights, for our heterosexual rights, for our family rights, for our traditional rights.”
But it is not just Ms Lorsanova who told us of horrors inside Chechnya. “Sasha” and his partner fled before the 2016 crackdown on the LGBT community.
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Sasha is transgender. Growing up as a woman in Chechnya, he says there is no way he could ever return.
“If my family knew about my sexuality but it did not go public, I guess they would try to lock me up or they would make me marry someone. But if it went public I would be killed to clean the family’s honour.”
They managed to leave Russia last year and were hoping to hear word on their asylum application in a European country when COVID-19 hit. They are still waiting.
Ms Lorsanova also fled one lockdown for another. “She is isolated all the time,” says activist Mr Isteyev.
“First it was her home, then we had to hide her for some time as there are certain safety rules we had to follow. And then just as her life was getting back to normal, this lockdown happened. It is not easy for her.”
Source : Sky News