In a bloody insurgency that has seen systemic violations of human rights, including torture, "disappearances" and summary executions at the hands of Russian forces, rights groups warn that the situation for women in and around Chechnya are among the worst in the world.
"The hostage-taking in Moscow is a dreadful reminder of the unsolved situation in Chechnya," said Judith Arenas, a spokeswoman for the human-rights group Amnesty International. "The situation there affects every single person, but women are particularly vulnerable to violations that include arbitrary detention, torture and rape."
Rights groups have charged that the fear of rape by Russian forces in Chechnya is pervasive, causing many families, particularly those with young women and girls, to flee and motivating desperate attempts to hide female family members.
More than 150,000 Chechens have been living in camps in the neighboring region of Ingushetia since the second Russian military operation was launched against the separatists in September 1999.
But even in the camps, Chechen women face grueling hardships, according to Rachel Denver, deputy director of Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
"The fact that many Chechen women have lost husbands, fathers and brothers, who have been arrested, killed, or have simply disappeared, means that women have had to take on the job of feeding their families while trying to find their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers," said Denver.
"But while Russian authorities have stopped the delivery of food aid to the camps, leaving the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the international community, the government has been trying to compel Chechens to return home," she said.
Given the desperate situation, experts such as Kheda Omarkhadzhiyeva, a psychologist practicing in Chechnya, say it's not hard to comprehend why Chechen women these days are able to break the bonds of tradition.
"Probably, they are women whose relatives were cruelly executed by Russian troops in Chechnya, where family is most important in people's minds," said Omarkhadzhiyeva in an interview with The Moscow Times , adding that the suppressed stress accumulated over a decade of lawlessness and instability could ignite violent reactions among Chechen women.
Although Russian officials have periodically warned of Chechen rebels' links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, many experts believe the participation of women in the Moscow theater operation points to the involvement of traditional Chechen nationalist groups.
"President [Vladimir] Putin has been trying to use this rhetoric of al Qaeda links since Sept. 11 to help him use stronger tactics against the rebels," said Gorka, of the Terrorism Research Center. "But I wouldn't take it as gospel truth. Al Qaeda may use female supporters to look after their families, but the use of females in the front lines points to more mainstream Chechen rebels."
In his videotaped address aired on al Jazeera, Movsar Barayev, the 25-year-old leader of the Islamic Special Purpose Regiment, took responsibility for the daring attack on the Palace of Culture Theater.
Against a backdrop of a black banner with the words "Allah-u-Akbar" (Allah is great) in Arabic behind him, Barayev pledged to fight in the name of Islam until the Russians withdrew from Chechnya.