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Genesis: Historical research

The system of power and subordination in the family of Kabardians and Balkars in the XIX – early XX century

Konovalov Andrei Anatol'evich

PhD in History

Associate professor, Department of Russian History, Kabardino-Balkarian State University named after H. M. Berbekov 

360004, Russia, respublika Kabardino-Balkariya, g. Nal'chik, ul. Chernyshevskogo, 173

Other publications by this author

Zhurtova Anzhela Arikovna

PhD in History

Associate professor, Department of Ethnology, History of Ethnic Groups of Kabardino-Balkaria, and Journalism, Kabardino-Balkarian State University named after H. M. Berbekov

360004, Russia, respublika Kabardino-Balkariya, g. Nal'chik, ul. Chernyshevskogo, 173

Other publications by this author

Podgainyi Vladimir Nikolaevich

Master, Department of History of Russia, Kabardino-Balkarian State University

360004, Russia, Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, Nalchik, Chernyshevsky str., 173






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Abstract: The article is devoted to the analysis of power family relations in the traditional society of Kabarda and Balkaria in the XIX – early XX century. Its purpose is to study the system of gender-role relations between men and women and the functioning of the "power-subordination" mechanism among Kabardians and Balkars during this period. The study analyzes the traditional model of the family in Kabardian and Balkar societies, its structural organization and historical types that existed at the time under consideration. Much attention is paid to the study of the status of the head of the family, the contradictory position of women, children, gender ideology, which constructed stereotypical behaviors. The developed dual structure of power relations is shown, where interaction on the female half of the family according to the formula "power/subordination" was formed, similar to the male hierarchy, i.e. the wife of the older man acquired the status of the head of her female part and controlled various forms of social practice. On the basis of the studied material, it is concluded that the idea of the slavish or oppressed position of women, as well as the despotic power of the father among Kabardians and Balkars has no sufficient grounds. The father's large amount of power was compensated by the democratic beginnings of family life, and a woman in a formally subordinate position had a set of opportunities for explicit and implicit influence on decision-making. The novelty of the article is to create a more complete picture of the system of power relations in the traditional societies of Kabarda and Balkaria. The main research model was the structural-functional approach developed by T. Parsons and J. Murdoch. The field of application of this research can be social and cultural policy in our country, which allows us to harmoniously combine traditions and innovations, as well as teaching humanities in universities.


gender, power, gender asymmetry, family, gender division of labor, kabardians, balkars, traditional society, patronymy, patriarchal family

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

IntroductionThe relevance of this topic is due to the course proclaimed in modern Russia to overcome gender inequality.

Public and scientific forums are being organized in the country in order to develop effective measures to combat gender asymmetry in the political, economic and social spheres. These problems are especially relevant for the North Caucasus, where the rudiments of the traditional patriarchal culture remain, which has a great influence on the status of various gender and age groups.

On the one hand, the relevance is due to the need to study the ethnic characteristics of the self–organization of society, to understand the development of the structure of power relations, and on the other hand, the analysis of the problem is important for understanding the mechanisms of institutionalization of power and identifying the role of women in it in historical retrospect.

The purpose of the research in this article is a gender analysis of the relations of power and subordination in the family in traditional Kabardian and Balkar societies.

The novelty of the article is to create a more complete picture of the system of power relations in the traditional societies of Kabarda and Balkaria. The idea of the despotic nature of the power of the older man in the family, established in science and journalism, is overcome, the importance of democratic elements in the power-subordination relationship is emphasized. The status of a woman is studied without focusing on her disenfranchised position, both formal and informal channels of her influence on social relations are considered.

This work is interdisciplinary in nature. It focuses on some ideas formulated in ethnography, psychology and sociology. In particular, in the study of gender-role relations, a structural-functional approach was used, developed by T. Parsons and J. Murdoch. T. Parsonons divided the functions of family members into instrumental and expressive [1, p. 231]. In his opinion, the instrumental function, the essence of which was to ensure the means of livelihood, maintaining the family's connection with the outside world, was performed by men, and the second – expressive – by women, who ensured the integration of family members, regulated the level of tension in it, etc. However, according to J. Aronoff and V. Kreino, who analyzed the gender division of labor among 850 ethnic groups and tribes, there is no such division of labor in its pure form [2, p. 14].

Various aspects of the small family were studied by J. Murdoch, who, summarizing data on 250 societies, came to the conclusion that the nuclear family is a universal phenomenon, takes place in societies characterized primarily by large families, and performs regulatory functions [3, p. 22].

When studying the phenomenon of a large family and patronymy, the theoretical developments of M.O. Indirect were used. He was one of the few ethnographers in the USSR who worked on the creation of his own theory of the formation and development of a large family based on Marxist methodology [4; 5].

The modern scientific discourse is dominated by the idea that gender behaviors are "constituted" by society and lead to the maintenance of the existing system of hierarchy and gender asymmetry [6, p. 124]. In the cultures of the peoples of the North Caucasus, we can observe how in the gender consciousness the position of men and women in society was determined depending on their status.


The main partSocio-economic and socio-cultural features of Kabardian and Balkar societies determined the structure of gender relations in the family sphere.

Thus, Kabardian society was distinguished by a high degree of patriarchy and rigid age stratification. Performing the function of social reproduction, the Kabardian family carried out the transmission of the established patriarchal system from generation to generation. The man was at the head of the family, and age stratification assumed subordination to the father and/or older brother of younger family members, while the woman obeyed her brother even if he was younger, and outside the family sphere she assumed subordination to an elderly person [7, p. 184].

According to M.O. Indirect, in the XIX – early XX century. in the North Caucasus there was a large family with community features, from which patronymy grew over time, which is a segmentation of a large family, headed by the head of the elder family [5, p. 200].

The head of the family of Kabardians and Balkars was the oldest man, and this position was confirmed by customary law, the woman, in turn, was on his maintenance [8]. Thus, among the Balkars, according to the pre-revolutionary researcher V.Ya. Teptsov, the oldest man manages everything in the family uncontrollably, and in his absence, power was temporarily transferred to the next in seniority [9, p. 97].

The head of the patronymic played an important role in the family. His duties included the performance of the judicial function if there were conflicts between families. In case of disobedience to the decision of the head of the patronymic, a person could be expelled from the village or beaten by his relatives [4, p. 39]. These materials are also confirmed by pre-revolutionary information, according to which the head of the family dealt with disputes between family members [10, p. 32] and was, as A. Berger wrote, "a guardian of order" and had the right to life and the sale of his wife, children and slaves [11, p. 186]. The head of the family carried out the division of property between the sons. In 1962, E.L. Kojesau published an article on patronymy among Western Adygs, in which he came to the conclusion that the Adyghe (including Kabardian) family had elements of democracy. So, family members gathered for a gathering where the most important decisions were made, and which were held, as a rule, in the house of the head of the patronymic [12, p. 117].

According to A.I. Musukayev, large patriarchal families (families-communities), which made up about 40% of all families, were widespread in Balkaria in the XIX century. One of their main characteristics was the despotic power of the head over the members of the family, which united relatives both along the descending and lateral lines [13, p. 25]. However, according to K.G. Azamatov, in the XIX century, a large family among the Balkars was preserved only in a survivable form due to the dominance of a semi-natural economy. It could be both democratic and distinguished by the despotic power of the head of the family [14, p. 81].

After the death of the head of the family, the sons were given the opportunity to divide the property, and the younger brothers could not obey the elder brother, since he could not, like the father, dispose of the family property with full authority [14, p. 82]. However, if there was a revival of its democratic principles [13, p. 36], i.e. if the elder brother began to make important decisions after consulting with his brothers [14, p. 82], a large family was saved. Thus, the life of the family began to be regulated by the family council, and its nominal head was the executor of the will of the latter [13, p. 37].

The position of women in North Caucasian societies has traditionally been regarded as subordinate and disenfranchised. The woman was considered as the property of her husband. M.M. Kovalevsky points out that she belonged not only to one man, but to his entire family. This, in his opinion, was also the source of levirate in Circassian society [15, p. 17]. Without the consent of her husband's family, she had no legitimate rights to marry a representative of another family.

S. Bronevsky also wrote about the complete subordination of women and children to the authority of the father [7, p. 184]. Such a disenfranchised position of wives in the XIX century is reflected in the legend of "Hadizh": "... When the prince (husband) she is not at home, she does not show herself from the sakli, especially to men" [16, p. 118]. This position of a woman was associated with her economic inequality with a man while maintaining the norms of mountain etiquette [17, p. 55].

The range of powers and functions of the head of the family is extensive. The marital choice of family members (meaning children, sisters and minor brothers), the performance of certain jobs by sons depended on him. At the same time, he had the right to resolve disputes between family members [13, p. 38]. The father, being the head of the family, could even kill one of the children or a sister, and these actions were not pursued by blood feud, but were condemned by society. A person who committed such an act of violence could be punished by throwing stones [18, p. 60]. Women's rights in the family were very limited. Only the eldest woman had the right to interfere in the affairs of the family council, that is, she could manage the family [19, p. 32] in the absence of the head of the family.

Fixing the subordinate position of a woman and focusing on her disenfranchised position is a superficial look at the social structure of traditional society. Women had a significant set of channels of influence on family and often on social relations.

Despite the fact that a woman among the peoples of the North Caucasus was in a subordinate position, she was protected by birth and custom. Of course, this did not guarantee the absence of violence against a woman in the family or her discrimination on the basis of gender, but according to the Kabardian and Balkarian traditional regulatory systems, a man was obliged to treat her with respect. Violence against children, the elderly and women was universally condemned and the man who committed it was subjected, in the words of N.F. Grabovsky, to "ridicule" [20, p. 201].

The Kabardians and Balkars had great respect for the woman. This was due to upbringing in the spirit of traditions, according to which a woman was perceived as the main subject in the birth and upbringing of children. For this reason, Kabardians and Balkars did not consider themselves humiliated [21, p. 280]. This point of view was defended by a public figure of the turn of the XIX and XX centuries B. Shakhanov. He associated respect for women with a complex of "grandfather's customs", according to which she is considered "older than a man, regardless of her age" [22, p. 160].

T. Lapinsky, a Polish officer who fought against Russia in the North Caucasus and left valuable information about the social structure and life of the Adygs, wrote that their mother enjoys the same respect as their father and manages the female half of the family [23, p. 59]. In the absence of an adult male, her sons recognized her primacy as the first mistress and adviser [24, p. 10]. She controlled the performance of various household chores by other women [14, p. 82], the consumption of food supplies, even when a guest arrived, he could cook food only with her permission [14, p. 83].

N.A. Karaulov writes that in Balkaria the wife was quite respected by her husband [25, p. 145]. The older woman could come to the meeting of the Tere, which was the judicial and legislative institute of the Karachay-Balkars, where decision-making was carried out on the basis of adats [26, p. 197]. Thus, a woman from the almost exterminated Rachikauov family was able to obtain permission to live on earth for a kind of boy born to one of the daughters-in-law in Dagestan [26, p. 215].

The older woman guaranteed non-interference of the head of the family and other men in the affairs of the female half of the family. The head of the family was the head of the male half, and the older woman was the female. N.F. Grabovsky wrote that, unlike a woman from the aristocratic estates, the wife in a "simple" Kabardian family was the "right hand" of her husband in the household [20, p. 263]. In the middle of the XIX century, after the establishment of Islam, according to H.M. Dumanov, women possessed property not only in the form of dowry, but also nakyakh [27, p. 86] (perhaps he meant mahr – property allocated by a husband to his wife – A.K., A.J., V.P. ) and a small part the land allocated by the father for the daughter [27, p. 90].

Among the Balkars, women also possessed personal property belonging only to them [14, p. 81]. The Balkarian educator of the second half of the XIX – early XX century, M. Abaev, in an article "About the Kalym", reported that the custom of transferring part of the kalym to his wife after the spread of Islam led to an improvement in the situation of the latter, since it was the property of a woman and had to be transferred to her during divorce. Thus, from the payment for a woman, the kalym turned into a material guarantee for her husband not to violate her rights, which otherwise threatened his full return [28, p. 176]. The essential basis for the observance of the rights and interests of women was the need to preserve property in the family.

Among Kabardians, a woman could inherit the right to lead a family in the event of her husband's death, if the sons were minors, and the ownership of the property remained uncertain. After the death of the eldest woman, her place was taken by the wife of the eldest son. If during the mother's lifetime the sons decided to divide the property, the mother allocated most of the inheritance to the older brother, and the smaller part to the younger [29, p. 218].

At the end of the XIX century in Kabarda, in the absence of male representatives in the family, a woman could become a full heiress of property [30]. A striking example of such independent ownership was Princess Nauruzova, who, after her husband's death, completely disposed of his property [31, p. 201].

An unmarried woman had a great degree of freedom. Thus, V. Shvetsov, who was the bailiff of Kabarda in 1826-1827, wrote about the prohibition of "women" (meaning married) to freely communicate with outsiders, but for two other categories of women – "girls" and "old women" – such prohibitions did not exist [10, p. 15]. Kabardians and Balkars had special houses where girls could receive people claiming the status of a groom [17, p. 56]. The Balkars among the youth could arrange a kind of viewing and dating, where acquaintances were made [32]. At the right time, the young man officially informed his parents through an intermediary about his choice, but the final decision was always left to the parents [33, p. 45]. Before the collusion, he had no right to be alone with the girl [33, p. 56].

One of the most important tools of informal female influence in traditional society was her beauty. This is also narrated by the Adyghe educator of the XIX century, S. Khan-Girey, who wrote that a woman with beauty often "commanded her husband, despite the established customs" [34, p. 294].


ConclusionThus, the traditional patriarchal family of Kabardians and Balkars was characterized by both a high degree of concentration of power in the hands of the head of the family, and the presence of democratic principles in governance.

The head of the family was the sovereign owner of the family property, a mediator in family disputes, carried out the connection of the family with the outside world by participating in public institutions of power. Democratic elements manifested themselves in the essential role of family and social gatherings, which represented a mechanism for collective decision-making.

The status of a woman presupposed the presence of many levers of control or influence on the affairs of the family and the whole society. The main woman in the house, who was the wife or mother of the head of the family, managed the female half of her, and could also manage the family collective with the consent of her sons or when they were young. There were informal channels of women's influence that went beyond the family, both through men and in some cases directly, which were based on customs and on the introduced norms of Islamic law.

The penetration of Islam and Russian legislation in the XVIII – XIX centuries . it reinforced the ambivalence of the position of a woman, providing, on the one hand, the possibility of inheriting property with the right to dispose of it, and on the other hand, rigidly postulating the secondary status of a woman.

In general, it should be emphasized the presence of democratic elements in the system of power and subordination in traditional Kabardian and Balkarian societies and note that in a situation of inequality between men and women, the status of the latter was relatively high and suggested the possibility of using a developed system of channels of influence.