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Hijab Discrimination in North Caucasus

Women in traditionally Muslim republic are being labelled Islamic radicals for merely wearing a head covering.
By Fatima Tlisova

Nalchik, with its abundance of greenery, beautiful clean streets and lush gardens, is different from other cities in the Caucasus. Everyone who comes to the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria is amazed by the beauty of the local women and the audacity of their dress. There are almost no prohibitions or restrictions. In this atmosphere, a woman in Islamic clothes is seen as exotic - and a threat.


Paradoxical as it may sound, the authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria - a predominantly Muslim autonomous republic in southern Russia - are waging a fierce battle against what they see as the spread of the "Islamic plague".


Overt signs of adherence to Islam are regarded as suspicious or even as a threat. In these conditions, a woman's hijab or a man's beard are grounds for social rejection and discrimination at all levels. The few women who publicly show their adherence to the Muslim faith usually suffer the most.


Relations between the authorities and the Muslim population have deteriorated to such an extent that few of the people IWPR spoke to - officials and members of the public alike - were willing to be named.


In the past year, there have been a series of clashes between Kabardino-Balkaria security forces and militants, in which several people have died. The authorities have blamed a shadowy Islamic group called Yarmuk, which has links to Chechnya, for destabilising their republic.


One woman to be affected by these clashes is 22-year-old Maryana, who lives in a Nalchik suburb. A Muslim, she does not wear a hijab in the traditional manner, opting instead for a headscarf and long clothing.


Maryana's husband was killed earlier this in a shootout with local police. Some two years ago, he had spent time as a volunteer in the Pankisi Gorge area of Georgia, then a well-known haven for Islamic militant fighters. However, Maryana insists that her husband was not an extremist and had never visited Chechnya itself.


But this did not protect the couple. Maryana told IWPR that on the night of her husband's death, police dressed in camouflage fatigues and masks came to their house, where she was at home alone, and searched the entire property. Maryana was taken into a pre-trial detention cell without explanation and kept behind bars for more than 24 hours. During this time, different people came to her cell twice, but did not introduce themselves. They asked her many questions about her husband and his activities. She told them that she didn't know anything, as her husband did not confide in her about his business.


She only found out that her husband had been killed in a clash with police from a television news bulletin after she was released.


Since then, Maryana has lived alone, but told IWPR that the police are now regular visitors. They ask her whether acquaintances of her husband have been to visit, and sometimes search the home. She is now scared that she will "disappear" after one such visit, and that nobody will notice or care. Everyone - her parents, brothers, friends and neighbours - has rejected her since the death of her husband.


"I don't blame them - everyone is scared," she said. "You can pay dearly for talking to the widow of a 'terrorist'. But charges were never pressed against my husband, and he was not arrested or sentenced. Nobody has claimed that he killed anyone or was planning an act of terrorism. He was simply shot."


Maryana now lives in complete isolation. Even when she makes essential trips to Nalchik she sits at the very back of the shuttle taxi to avoid suspicious looks. The headscarf she wears tied in the Muslim manner causes malicious whispers among most passengers, and many are genuinely scared, believing that any Muslim woman is a potential shakhidka - female suicide-bomber.


These attitudes can have a devastating effect on women. Zhanna, who is nearly 50-years-old, has worked as a saleswoman all her life and until recently sold bread at a small private kiosk in the capital.


Last summer, Zhanna began to come to work dressed in a hijab. In the three months that followed, the kiosk lost half its customers as people openly refused to buy bread from a wahhabi - as fundamentalists Muslims are generally known in the former Soviet Union. As a result, Zhanna had to give up her job at the owner's request. But she does not blame him.


"People came to him from the law-enforcement bodies many times and said, 'Get rid of the wahhabi or you'll have serious problems'. Then endless checks began, and I handed in my resignation myself," she said.


Students have also experienced difficulties in the region. A group of Muslim students recently had their request for a prayer room to be established at the Kabardino-Balkaria state university turned down, on the grounds that it is a secular establishment. The body's charter also contains a clause discouraging female students from wearing clothes which indicate their religion - such as a hijab - although this was not enforced until recently.


But in April 2005, the university - whose rector is part of the republic's government commission for combating religious extremism - took steps to punish nine female students who were known to gather in an auditorium every day after lessons to study the Koran. The building's warden called the police, who allegedly detained the group and took them to the nearest police station, where they were questioned, searched and forced to sign blank statements before being released some eight hours later.


Only six of the nine young women agreed to talk to IWPR, on condition of anonymity. Two of their number do not wear a hijab or head covering, and none have told their parents about the incident.


"My mother has a bad heart, she won't take it if she sees me in a hijab," said one. "Our parents are scared for us. They see that the life of a Muslim is worth nothing here."


The students still cry when they talk about the humiliation they claim they were subjected to at the police station, and describe the police's actions as an act of intimidation.


"But belief is not a hobby and we cannot reject Islam because it is dangerous," said another student. "If we were pursuing illegal goals, we would not have gathered in the auditorium during the day. We simply wanted to study the Koran together, but this proved to be a crime. Methods like these destroy any trust we had in the authorities."


All the girls are "A" students, and it would appear that the faculty heads had no formal grounds to reprimand them. Nevertheless, they were all summoned the following day and warned that their next offence would result in expulsion from the university.


One officer from the interior ministry's organised crime force, speaking on condition of anonymity, refused to comment on allegations of discrimination against Muslim women. But he told IWPR that, in his view, any women or girl wearing a hijab should immediately be investigated.


"As a rule, a woman does not turn to Islam by herself, but there is someone near her who pushes her to it - often by force," he claimed. "Our task is to check the people she knows and find out who this persuader is. Usually, it is her husband and brother, or it turns out that the woman is in a Muslim marriage with an adherent of radical Islam, and that she is already a potential 'black widow' - a suicide bomber."


However, Lyubov Alieva - an assistant to the mufti at the Kabardino-Balkaria's Muslim religious board, and the only person to speak openly about the problem - told IWPR that the officer's arguments were seriously flawed.


Alieva said that she knows many cases of discrimination on religious grounds, and has herself been called wahhabi and shakhidka on public transport.


"Even if no one insults you out loud, you constantly feel the alienation," she said. "For example, you sit down on the bus and the space around you becomes empty. Everyone hurries to get away from you."


According to Alieva, women frequently lose their jobs just for wearing the hijab, but none are willing to stand up for their rights in the current Islamophobic climate for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities.


"People may not have anything against Islam at all, but when it enters their lives, most start [equating the religion] with disruption to a free way of life and the foundations of society, and with serious moral restrictions.


"And most frightening of all, Islam is strictly identified with extremism and terrorism."


Fatima Tlisova is editor-in-chief of the information agency Regnum in the North Caucasus and contributes to IWPR from Kabardino-Balkaria.


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