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(Moscow) - Chechen authorities are enforcing a compulsory Islamic dress code for women and condoning violent attacks on women deemed to dress immodestly, Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today. Russia's federal government has done almost nothing to respond to these violations of women's rights in Chechnya.

The 40-page report, "You Dress According to Their Rules: Enforcement of an Islamic Dress Code for Women in Chechnya," documents acts of violence, harassment, and threats against women in Chechnya to intimidate them into wearing a headscarf or dressing more "modestly," in long skirts and sleeves to cover their limbs. The documented attacks by unidentified men believed to be law enforcement officials took place from June through September 2010 in the center of Grozny, the Chechen capital.

"These attacks against women are outrageous, and the alleged involvement of law enforcement officials is of special concern," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Kremlin should publicly and unambiguously make clear, in particular to the Chechen authorities, that Chechen women, like all Russians, are free to dress as they choose."

The Russian government also should ensure that the attackers are prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said.

The attacks and the dress code policy are parts of a quasi-official "virtue campaign," which Chechen officials began several years ago in the republic. The campaign breaches freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and the right to personal autonomy and expression, guaranteed by Russia's constitution and international human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

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 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 sites, movie theaters, and even outdoor areas. These measures are strictly enforced and publicly supported by the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was appointed directly by the Kremlin. In  numerous media interviews, Kadyrov has said openly that he considers women  inferior to men and that it is women's  duty to obey men and keep themselves covered up so as not to tempt men into violating Islamic morality.

Last summer's attacks signaled a dramatic intensification in the headscarf campaign. Unknown men, mostly dressed like local law enforcement officials, shot dozens of women in Grozny with paintball guns for wearing clothes deemed to be revealing and for failing to cover their hair. The men also distributed leaflets stating that the paintball shootings were a preventive measure aimed at making women wear headscarves and threatening that women who refused would face more "persuasive" measures. All of the 31 women interviewed by Human Rights Watch for this report 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 them and arguing that the targeted women deserved this treatment.

At the start of Ramadan in mid-August 2010, groups of men in traditional Islamic dress claiming to represent the republic's Islamic High Council started publicly shaming women in the center of Grozny for violating their interpretation of Islamic modesty laws. They handed out brochures with detailed descriptions of appropriate Islamic dress for women and instructed them to wear headscarves, skirts that fell well below the knees, and sleeves well below the elbow.

Aggressive young men joined the purported council envoys, pulling on women's sleeves, skirts, and hair, touching the bare skin on their arms, accusing them of dressing like "harlots" and making other humiliating remarks and gestures. In interviews with Human Rights Watch, over 30 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. 

"When a public official like Ramzan Kadyrov praises violence and speaks of women in inferior terms, he is openly encouraging attacks and humiliation of women," Lokshina said. "This is absolutely unacceptable, yet Russian authorities seem to make no efforts to rein him in."

Russia's Prosecutor General's Office has directed Chechen authorities to look into the paintball attacks. But the federal authorities have taken no further steps to put an end to the enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code and  have failed to indicate in any public way that Kadyrov's justification of violence against women is unacceptable.

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.

Human Rights Watch called on the Russian government to condemn publicly the enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code on Chechen women. The Russian government should also ensure access to the region for international monitors, including the UN Special Rapporteurs on violence against women and on freedom of religion, and empower Chechen women to enjoy their right to personal autonomy, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Russian government needs to stop tolerating Chechnya's unlawful gender policies," Lokshina said.

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