Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chechnya: Women Live in Fear During Chechnya's Islamic Revival

Photo: D. Markosian - VOA At a local school in Grozny, a student covers herself with a scarf, adopting to the Islamic dress code

Diana Markosian | Grozny

At the entrance to a school in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s Chechen republic, two security guards grip their guns as they order a woman to cover her head before walking into class.

“You can’t go inside with your head like that,” one of them yells, tapping his AK-47.

The young student fiddles inside her purse before pulling out a black silk scarf.

“Is this better?” she asks, covering up her entire head with the scarf that matched her kohl-lined eyes.

Under the watchful eye of Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, the once rebellious Chechnya is transforming into a conservative Muslim state. This has coincided with the almost complete disappearance of the ethnic Russian population, which has dropped by an estimated 30 percent since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


Many Chechen women are the first in three generations to cover their heads. In the officially atheist Soviet Union, women in the Caucasus burnt their headscarves, in an effort to dissuade youth from falling under the sway of religion.

“The headscarf is a symbol of purity and worth,” says Malika Omarova, head of the Union of Chechen Women in Grozny. “When I was a student, I never wore a headscarf, not one person forced me. But, I want our women to wear them - it is in our blood. That is what makes us Chechen.”

The Russian republic of Chechnya has seen two of modern history’s most brutal separatist wars in the last two decades, with atrocities committed by both rebels and federal forces. But Mr. Kadyrov, a former rebel who changed sides after the first war, has brought a semblance of stability to Chechnya, which has seen massive investment by the Kremlin. But Mr. Kadryov’s reign has also seen a resurgence in Islamic belief and practice.

In today’s Chechnya of cafes and fashion boutiques, the mandatory headscarf symbolizes this Islamic revival.

“Chechnya is already among one of the world's most repressive societies, with the state controlling almost every aspect of daily life," wrote Jennifer Windsor of Freedom House in a report on Chechnya “With the Kremlin largely out of the picture, the culture of impunity we have seen develop under [Mr.] Kadyrov is likely to worsen, leaving the population more vulnerable to abuse.”

The battle is being played out in universities, state buildings and now in the street, where a wave of attacks last year took place on women for not wearing headscarves. Mr. Kadyrov denies his men were involved.

“I don’t know [who they are], but when I find them I shall announce my gratitude,” Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov said in an interview on the state-run regional television channel Grozny. He called the victims of the paintball attacks “naked women” who had most likely been forewarned. “Even if they were carried out with my permission, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it,” he said of the paint-pellet attacks.

In Moscow, efforts to enforce a dress code by Chechnya’s authorities have angered rights activists who say such rules violate Russia’s constitution.

Zalina, a 19-year-old student and hair stylist, who gives only one name, says wearing a headscarf is more of a chore than choice for her. “I don’t see the point in wearing it,” says Zalina, whose long dark hair flows out from under her head covering. “But if I don’t, I know I will be punished. I am scared of that.”

The vast majority of women in Chechnya are covered in headscarves; it is no longer a mark of distinction or a choice. Few dare to challenge Mr. Kadyrov's rule in this southern border region of more than one million people.

But the headscarf continues to embody the tensions between governments and their citizens.

“We shouldn't have to force our women to wear headscarves, it should come from their heart,” says Zargan Makhazhieva of Nisso, a regional human rights organization in Grozny. “It is becoming another problem in Chechnya. We already have enough problems; we are barely recovering from the trauma of two wars. How much can we take?”