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Women in Arms: from the Russian Empire to Post-Soviet States - Book Reviews (3)

Paul J. Murphy, Allah's Angels: Chechen Women in War

Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2010, 294 pages
Amandine Regamey
Bibliographical reference

Paul J. Murphy, Allah's Angels: Chechen Women in War

Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2010, 294 pages

Index terms



Research Fields:

Political Science
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Full text is grateful to Keven Roberts who edited this book review

1After The Wolves of Islam, which dealt with Chechen insurgency and terrorism, Paul J. Murphy's new book examines the different aspects of Chechen women's experiences in the two wars that have devastated the country since 1994. Murphy, a former senior US counterterrorism official, asserts a balanced position, seeking to understand to what extent Chechen women have suffered from violence, but also how and under what conditions they have themselves exercised violence, including suicide bombings.

2The book’s prologue is dedicated to Natasha Estemirova, journalist and human rights defender, who was killed in 2009 after she had sharply criticized Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and his policies. The book can indeed be read as a tribute to the courage and resistance of Chechen women: its last chapter portrays several NGO and human rights activists and reminds the reader how women had to simultaneously protect and feed their families. Similarly, Murphy’s conclusion about the new battles for gender equity that Chechen women are fighting shows without doubt where his sympathies lie.

3The book covers the period from the First Chechen War to the years 2007/2008 and is based on broad documentation, the thorough use of available books, news articles and reports, as well as Murphy’s own interviews and contacts. Its undeniable asset is that Murphy does not see Chechen women only as victims of war, Russian soldiers and/or Chechen insurgents, but recognizes their agency as engineers of their own destiny.

4In his analysis of the reasons for suicide bombing, Murphy rejects the idea that the so-called “black widows” “ [...] are all desperate widowed housewives seeking revenge...”, and argues that we should first understand why Chechen insurgents chose suicide attacks as a strategy. He stresses the economic dimension of suicide terrorism (the cheapest method of warfare as well as a practical means of fund raising), the high killing power and precision of targeting that it allows and the psychologically devastating effects of this strategy. Though he falls short of concluding why women carry out bombing (they were “ [...] paid to become martyrs in the name of Allah, or were coerced or shamed into doing so, or did so willingly...”- he argues page 142), he underlines rightly that there is no single accurate profile of suicide bombers.

5Unfortunately Murphy’s commendable undertaking in writing this book is not sufficient to compensate for its methodological and analytical shortcomings.

6First, by seeking to provide a more complete picture of what Chechen women experienced Murphy reaches neither a comprehensive description nor a convincing explanation. The events and cases he refers to amount to a grim litany of what the Chechen woman did and what she was subjected to : “ [...] she’s been bombed, shelled, strafed, mined, shot at, robbed, left homeless, imprisoned, tortured, kidnapped, raped, victimized...”, etc. (p. 27). Cases are presented without reference to the gravity of crimes, and lead to generalisations such as “Wolves shoot and burn women alive who spy for Russia. They cut off their heads too (p. 89).” In several chapters, Murphy confuses key time periods in the conflict (first war, interwar, second war) as well as the perpetrators, Chechen insurgents and Russian soldiers. Cases of women killed by insurgents alternate with cases of car accidents or gas explosions (pp. 97-99), disappearances by Russian forces and kidnappings during the war. All these events are recorded as a continuous sequence.

7Giving names and cases one after another, Murphy is certainly driven by the idea that no single death is more important than another and that every case and every life is deserving of respect. However, from an analytical point of view, some cases are more telling than others, precisely because they were used as symbols by political actors in Russia and in Chechnya (the Budanov Case, Khava Baraeva’s death, etc.). Moreover, this enumeration does not allow the reader to understand the logic of violence, what drove the perpetrators and more importantly, what violence women were specifically subjected to. Even the idea that “ [...] the Chechen woman is the principal victim of war violence...” (p. 102) can be disputed. Russian forces targeted men as potential combatants earlier, more specifically and more systematically than women.

8Murhpy’s analysis of gender violence and rape is marred by his description of Chechen society as a traditional one where rape is “worse than death” for a woman. He does not consider any possible differences between discourse and social practices on this subject. Moreover, tradition is not an immutable framework, on the contrary, after seventy years of Soviet rule war has brought a “re-traditionalisation” of Chechen society that can be seen in, for example in the rise of early marriage. “Tradition” is an evolving notion mobilised in political discourse. Religiosity and the practice of Islam by men and women has also changed and the impact of this evolution on women should have been addressed.

9The most disconcerting and disturbing aspect of the book is Murphy’s use of sources. Though well documented, the book very seldom quotes its sources. Different stories taken from newspapers, books, NGOs and official reports are presented one after the other with little attribution. The fact that Murphy makes abundant use of some sources (Yuliya Yuzik’s Brides of Allah for exemple) cannot be held against him given that sources on Chechen women are indeed scarce. But regrettably there is no reflection on the way these sources were produced or on the authenticity of the stories they purport to tell.

10Murphy seems to take for granted some legendary stories like those of Chechen women snipers shooting Russian soldiers in the genitals. The author does not adopt a critical approach to information given in Russian official reports and counter-terrorism investigations and does not even hint that some justice decisions, such as the case of Z. Murtazalieva, were based on fabricated material. Similarly, can we reliably describe as “accomplices” of Chechen terrorists women that were arrested on such charges without taking any discursive or methodological precautions?

11Finally, the primary audience of this book is difficult to identify. Those already aware of the situation in Chechnya will probably not find anything new in Murphy's text. Those unfamiliar with the situation in Chechnya may find it difficult to follow the litany of facts and names without a clear understanding of the logic of violence and of the social, cultural and political changes that affected women’s lives since the early 1990s.

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Electronic reference

Amandine Regamey, Paul J. Murphy, Allah's Angels: Chechen Women in War The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 17 | 2016, Online since 05 October 2014, connection on 26 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Amandine Regamey

University Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne & CERCEC

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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