It was a lovely summer day in 2010 when Louiza was walking down Putin Avenue, the main street in Grozny, chatting to a friend. The two young women wore light blouses with sleeves to the elbow and skirts a little below the knee. Their hair was loose. Suddenly a car with no license plates stopped next to them. They saw the side window roll down and a gun barrel stare Louiza in the face.
Louiza was paralyzed with fear and saw nothing but the gun barrel’s black hole. When she heard the shots, she told Human Rights Watch that she thought, “This is death.” Something hit Louiza in the chest and she was thrown against the wall of a building. Her chest burned with pain, but gradually the pain lessened, and she saw a strange green splattering on the wall and a big green stain expanding on her blouse. A similar ugly blotch stained her friend’s skirt. Then Louiza understood the shooter was using not bullets, but pellets filled with paint.
Unknown men dressed like law enforcement officials had shot Louiza and her friend with paintball guns for not observing a compulsory Islamic dress code, in other words, for wearing clothes deemed to be revealing and not keeping their hair covered. Dozens more women in Chechnya were subjected to similar attacks in summer 2010.
The paintball attacks came several years into a quasi-official, though extra-legal “virtue campaign” in Chechnya. As part of this campaign, despite the absence of any legal basis for doing so, local authorities prohibit women from working in the public sector if they do not wear headscarves. Education authorities similarly require female students to wear headscarves in schools and universities. Gradually, throughout 2009 and 2010, the authorities broadened their enforcement of this de facto “headscarf rule” to other public places, including entertainment venues, cinemas, and even outdoor areas. Though such measures do not have any basis in the written laws applicable in the Chechen Republic, they are strictly enforced. They are also publicly supported by the leader of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed directly by the Kremlin.
Indeed, 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. Other Chechen officials have echoed his views in their own public remarks. Several dozen women interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Chechnya indicated that they found the virtue campaign deeply offensive but could not protest it openly, fearing for their own security as well as that of their relatives.
Human Rights Watch has criticized the governments of Germany, France, and Turkey for violating religious freedom by banning religious symbols in schools and denying Muslim women the right to choose to wear headscarves in schools and universities. By the same token, however, we support the right of women and girls to choose not to wear religious or traditional dress.
Chechen officials generally justify the enforcement of an Islamic dress code for women on traditional grounds. However, it is contrary to Russian law, discriminatory, and is leading to abuses. While Human Rights Watch takes no position on Sharia-inspired norms or cultural dress practices, we oppose all laws or policies that impinge on basic rights, including government-mandated public dress codes.
The enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code on women in Chechnya violates their rights to private life, personal autonomy, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion, thought, and conscience. It is also a form of gender-based discrimination prohibited under international treaties to which Russia is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This policy is also in breach of Russia’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and gender equality.
This report describes violence and threats against women in Chechnya to intimidate them into adhering to a compulsory Islamic dress code. The documented attacks and incidents of harassment took place from June through September 2010, when the virtue campaign in the republic intensified. During that time, dozens of women were subjected to attacks by men, including law enforcement officials, in the center of Grozny, for not wearing a headscarf or for dressing in a manner which these men deemed insufficiently modest. While pressure on women seemed to become less aggressive after September the dress requirement remains a live issue and continues to be backed by high-level officials, including Ramzan Kadyrov.
Several victims and witnesses of particularly vicious attacks in June told Human Rights Watch how uncovered women were pelted with paintball guns in the center of Grozny, with law enforcement and security officials being among the perpetrators. They also saw threatening leaflets in the center of Grozny explaining to women that the paintball shootings were a preventive measure aimed at making them cover their hair. If they failed to cooperate, the leaflets said, more “persuasive” means would be used. All of the women interviewed by Human Rights Watch unanimously interpreted this as a threat to use real weapons instead of paintball guns.
In a televised interview in July 2010, Kadyrov expressed unambiguous approval of the paintball attacks by professing his readiness to "give an award to" the men engaged in these activities and arguing that the targeted women deserved this treatment. Then, at the start of the Ramadan holiday in mid-August 2010, groups of men in traditional Islamic dress claiming to represent the republic's Islamic High Council (muftiat) started approaching women in the center of Grozny, publicly shaming them for violating Islamic modesty laws and handing out brochures with detailed descriptions of appropriate Islamic dress for females. They instructed women to wear headscarves and to have their skirts well below the knees and sleeves well below the elbow. The purported envoys from the Islamic High Council were soon joined by aggressive young men who pulled on the women's sleeves, skirts, and hair; touched the bare skin on their arms; accused them of being dressed like harlots; and made other humiliating remarks and gestures. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, dozens of victims and witnesses described a pattern of harassment that continued throughout Ramadan, and that in some cases involved law enforcement authorities as enforcers of the women’s dress code.
Although Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has directed Chechen authorities to look into the paintball attacks, the federal authorities have not otherwise taken any steps to put an end to the Chechen leadership’s enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code in Chechnya. They have also failed to indicate in any public way that describing women as property and justifying violence against women is unacceptable. This failure even to address the actions of the Chechnya leadership or to hold them to account in any way for policies that violate human rights law amounts to the Kremlin’s tolerance of and acquiescence in Chechnya’s unlawful gender policies.
The Russian authorities should put an end to the enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code by the Chechen authorities and other violations of women’s rights in Chechnya. They should publicly condemn the enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code on Chechen women, and hold the perpetrators of specific attacks against women to account. Russia should also promptly ensure access to the region for international monitors, including the UN Special Rapporteurs on violence against women and on freedom of religion.
Russia’s international partners should pay close attention to the dramatically deteriorating situation for women’s rights in Chechnya and advance the detailed recommendations for the Russian government contained in this report in multilateral forums and in their bilateral dialogues with the Russian government. They should urge the Russian authorities to take a resolute stand against the enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code by the Chechen authorities and other violations of women’s rights in Chechnya; to ensure that women and girls in Chechnya can fully exercise their rights to private life, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression by being able to choose whether to adhere to an Islamic dress code; and to ensure access to the region for international monitors.
 Islamic high councils exist in all Russian regions with significant Muslim population and regulate the religious affairs of local Islamic communities.