Chechen Leader Urges Women to Cover Up

Moscow-backed prime minister says women should wear headscarves, in a move that human rights activists fear brings the country one step closer to Sharia law.

Chechen Leader Urges Women to Cover Up

Moscow-backed prime minister says women should wear headscarves, in a move that human rights activists fear brings the country one step closer to Sharia law.

Presenters on Chechnya’s main television channel, who until recently sported fashionable hairstyles, have since mid-March worn modest headscarves, as have government workers and students.

The government denies the headscarves are either mandatory or part of official policy, saying Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov was merely expressing his personal opinion when he told journalists recently that women should cover their heads.

"Kadyrov just reminded people that according to centuries-old Chechen tradition, women had their heads covered and men wore papakhas [fur hats]," explained First Deputy Prime Minister Odes Baisultanov in an interview with the Russian RIA-Novosti news agency.

Kadyrov himself told the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper, "I only said that women look more chaste in headscarves. Orthodox Christian women, for example, cannot enter a church without headscarves. Why should this be seen as normal for Orthodox Christians but not [Chechen] Muslims?"

But Chechen women are taking Kadyrov’s suggestion as writ, and few will take the chance of appearing without a headscarf for fear of losing their jobs.

Kadyrov is the leader of a powerful pro-Moscow militia group who was recently appointed as Chechen prime minister. His security forces have been accused by human rights groups of abductions, extra-judicial killings and torture - charges he has denied.

His recent remarks have generated much public debate, especially as the Islamic traditions he is appealing to are more commonly associated with his mortal enemies in the Chechen rebel movement.

Some women like Satsita Israilova, director of the central city library in Grozny, are firmly against the headscarf. Others like Aza Gazieva, a Ministry of National Policy official, agree with the prime minister about the importance of preserving Chechen traditions. However, she believes the decision to wear a headscarf or not should be an individual one.

"Headscarves have always been an integral part of [Chechen] women’s costume," she said. "It is every woman's personal business whether to wear a headscarf or not, and each family should decide this for itself.”

The headscarf issue is only part of a wider morality campaign pursued by Kadyrovin recent months.

Last summer, he banned gambling machines, saying they had a corrupting effect, especially on the young, and gave owners just ten days to get rid of them.

Later, he cracked down on drugs and alcohol, and earlier this year he turned his attention to pornographic images passed via mobile phones. He has even voiced support for polygamy – banned under Russian law - and he ejected Danish aid workers from Chechnya during the international furore over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

Critics say these controversial moves indicate that Kadyrov – an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin – could be moving towards imposing Islamic law in Chechnya. This, they point out, is somewhat ironic in light of Moscow’s bloody battles against the rebels, for whom Islam is still the rallying call.

"All that they tried to combat in Chechnya - the dominance of Sharia and making Russian laws invalid, and all that [ex-president Jokhar] Dudayev and then [ex-president Aslan] Maskhadov were accused of - is now being implemented under Moscow's patronage," said Lev Levinson from the Russian Human Rights Institute.

"All this is contrary to the constitution and to every Russian law.”

Analysts speculate that the new focus on Chechen and Islamic values is an attempt to boost Kadyrov’s appeal among a conservative constituency.

"This is the authorities' attempt to raise their own popularity rating," said political analyst Edilbek Khasmagomedov.

Ilya Maksakov, deputy editor of the Russian National News Agency and a political analyst, told IWPR that Kadyrov’s morality campaign will be viewed with considerable scepticism.

"The level to which Kadyrov is demonised is still fairly high in Chechnya, so any statement that he makes about… the need to support morality is going to be taken with considerable suspicion if not outright animosity," he said. "Some Chechnya-watchers in Russia are asking, 'Who is this speaking about morality? Is this the same Ramzan who has secret prisons, whom all the Chechens fear?’”

However, one female employee of the government’s committee for youth affairs was more forgiving, saying, "Ramzan is doing so much for us. Why can't we put on these wretched headscarves in response?"

Timur Aliev is an IWPR coordinator in Chechnya.

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