(Moscow) - Russia should put an end to local rules forcing women in Chechnya to observe an Islamic dress code, Human Rights Watch said today.
Since the start of Ramadan in mid-August, Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports from Chechnya about women being harassed in the streets of Grozny, the republic's capital, for not covering their hair and/or wearing clothes deemed too revealing.
"Forcing women to wear religious or traditional clothing violates their right to personal autonomy, and the Kremlin should end this interference with their private life," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Chechen women, like other Russians, should be free to choose how they dress."
In the first days of Ramadan, groups of men in traditional Islamic dress (loose pants and tunic) claiming to represent the republic's Islamic High Council (muftiat) started approaching women in the center of Grozny, publicly shaming them for violating modesty laws and handing out leaflets with detailed description 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 alleged 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 two cases reported to Human Rights Watch, members of the Chechen law enforcement were among the attackers.
For several years, women in Chechnya have been the target of a quasi-official virtue campaign. The Chechen authorities have banned women who refuse to wear headscarves from working in the public sector. Female students are also required to wear headscarves in schools and universities. Though these measures have not been codified into law, they are strictly enforced and publicly supported by the republic's president, Ramzan Kadyrov.
In June 2010, Human Rights Watch received credible reports of individuals, including law enforcement agents, pelting uncovered women on the streets with paintball guns. At least one of the women had to be hospitalized as a result. In an interview with the television station "Grozny" on July 3, 2010, Kadyrov expressed unambiguous approval of this lawless practice by professing his readiness to "award a commendation" to the men engaged in these activities. He also stated that the targeted women's behavior deserved this treatment and that they should be ashamed to the point of "disappearing from the face of the earth."
"When a public official like Ramzan Kadyrov praises this cruel violence, he is openly encouraging physical assault and public humiliation of women," said Lokshina. "It's time the federal government stood up for the rights of Chechen women."
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees people's right to freedom of religion, including stating that "no one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his [or her] freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his [or her] choice." Asma Jahangir, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and her predecessor, Abdelfattah Amor, have both criticized rules that require the wearing of religious dress in public. Imposing Islamic dress on women is also inconsistent with Russia's constitution, which guarantees freedom of conscience.
Human Rights Watch has criticized the governments of Germany, France and Turkey for violating religious freedoms 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, women and girls should be free not to wear religious or traditional dress.
Amor urged that dress should not be the subject of political regulation. Jahangir has said that the "use of coercive methods and sanctions applied to individuals who do not wish to wear religious dress or a specific symbol seen as sanctioned by religion" indicates "legislative and administrative actions which typically are incompatible with international human rights law."