Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday released a 40-page report called You Dress According to Their Rules: Enforcement of an Islamic Dress Code for Women in Chechnya. (Full PDF version of the report can be downloaded here.)
It’s about time for such a report. I’ve been loosely following the situation in Chechnya since Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov called for stricter dress code enforcement and paintball attacks by police officers on women without headscarves on the streets of Chechnya’s capital Grozny started in mid-2010. Even I, a known sceptic when it comes to the Russian government, am amazed at the federal government’s willingness to look through their fingers at Kadyrov’s openly unlawful and unconstitutional initiatives in return to the superficial peace in the republic. Indeed, Kadyrov’s dress code frenzy contradicts everything there is: the Russian Constitution, which Chechnya is bound by and which explicitly provides for the freedom of conscience, expression and religion; the Chechen Constitution (!); and Russia’s international obligations. Not to mention that enforcing this bullshit dress code through harassment, physical violence and threats toward women is just unacceptable.
Kadyrov started his “virtue campaign” (meaning that he started telling women to dress more modestly in accordance with the Sharia law, thus appealing to their “virtues”) as early as 2006. In HRW report’s words: “…Kadyrov has made the “virtue campaign” for women a policy priority since 2006. He made numerous public statements, including on Chechen television, which appears to be under his control, regarding the need for women to adhere to “modesty laws,” by, among other things, wearing a headscarf and following men’s orders. He has described women as men’s “property” and publicly condoned honor killings.” (p. 2)
By fall of 2007, Kadyrov announced that women employed by state institutions should wear headscarves to work. Natalia Estemirova, Grozny-based journalist and human rights advocate, wrote about it critically (in Russian) in October 2007, and repeatedly criticized the policy in the media. In July 2009, Estemirova was kidnapped and found dead the next day; the HRW report on dress code for women in Chechnya is dedicated to her memory.
By spring 2008, it became clear that the requirement to wear headscarves applied also to non-Chechen and even non-Muslim females as female researchers of various nationalities and religious affiliations were refused entry to Chechen State University unless they covered their hair. Currently, every female student at the Chechen State University has to wear headscarf to the University (see the picture of a female student in a university auditorium above). By late 2009-2010, the “headscarf rule” was gradually extended to all public places, including entertainment venues and holiday festivities, even located outdoors. Curious announcements appeared in the Chechen city of Gudermes, reading:
Which HRW translated as (p. 21):
We want to remind you that, in accordance with the rules and customs of Islam, every Chechen woman is OBLIGED TO WEAR A HEADSCARF.
Are you not disgusted when you hear the indecent “compliments” and proposals that are addressed to you because you have dressed so provocatively and have not covered your head? THINK ABOUT IT!!!
Today we have sprayed you with paint, but this is only a WARNING!!! DON’T COMPEL US TO RESORT TO MORE PERSUASIVE MEASURES!!!”
HRW report also notes that all women they interviewed in Chechnya in September-December 2010 thought the phrase “more pervasive measures” hinted at the possibility of using real weapons instead of paintball guns.
Finally, in late January 2011 the website Kavkaz Uzel published probably the first written official document indicating dress code for state employees, signed by Deputy Prime Minister of Chechnya:
While this letter concerns both men and women, it only says that men should wear suit and tie and “traditional Muslim dress” on Friday, while women should wear headscarf, dress or skirt below knees, and 3/4 sleeve.
Interestingly, here is what HRW report has to say about this letter:
“Although state authorities may enjoy discretion to establish guidelines on office attire for civil servants, the limits to personal autonomy imposed by such guidelines must be necessary, proportionate and nondiscriminatory. The dress code set out in the January 25, 2011 letter applies to both men and women. However the requirement on all women to wear headscarves and exact types of skirts and shirts based on specific gendered and religious grounds is more onerous and stringent than the requirement imposed on men, and is discriminatory. The obligation on men on Fridays to wear a particular type of religious dress is also incompatible with protections of freedom of religion and expression.” (p. 14)
To sum up, this is extremely sad even for today’s Russia, which is a generally sad place in terms of human rights and the overall rule of law. And this has nothing to do with my (or anybody else’s) attitude toward Islam. Just as you cannot ban wearing a certain kind of religious dress (I’m talking about you, France and your burqa ban), you cannot require anyone to wear a certain kind of dress. Especially when such requirement is so blatantly in contradiction with the country’s constitution. Especially when such unlawful requirement is discriminatory and enforced by violence and threats. The world can only hope that Russia regains its senses on the matter, fires Kadyrov, and makes sure human rights are protected all over the country, not just in Chechnya.