´Enforcement of Islamic Dress Code for Women in Chechnya´, HRW

Enforcement of Islamic Dress Code for Women in Chechnya
November 19, 2010, HRW
Related Materials: 

In the past few years the situation of women´s rights in Chechnya has deteriorated significantly, requiring immediate attention from the Russian government and Russia´s international partners.

Chechen women have essentially become the target of a quasi-official "virtue" campaign. For several years, the Chechen authorities have discriminated against women who refuse to wear headscarves, prohibiting them 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 vocally supported by the republic´s leader,

Ramzan Kadyrov, who is directly appointed by the Kremlin.  This paper describes violence and threats against women to intimidate them into adhering to Islamic dress co des. The documented incidents took place from June through September 2010 in Grozny, Chechnya´s capital.

Russian law guarantees all women, including those in Chechnya, the freedom to choose how they dress as part of their constitutional right to freedom of conscience, but to date the Kremlin has taken no action to put an end to this unwritten but unlawful policy in Chechnya.  In the upcoming round of EU-Russia human rights consultations, the EU should urge the Russian government to take action to guarantee the protection of women´s rights in Chechnya and to ensure that the wearing of a headscarf remains a personal choice and that no one will be punished or experience discrimination as a result of her choice.

International and European Standards

The enforcement of an Islamic dress code on women in Chechnya violates their rights to private life, personal autonomy, freedom of expression and to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience. It is also a form of gender-based discrimination prohibited under international law.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) guarantees people´s right to freedom of religion, as reflected in article 18.2, which states 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." [http://www.hrcr.org/docs/Civil&Political/intlcivpol5.html]

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. In particular, Amor has 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." [http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/religion/docs/report2006.pdf]

Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Convention), to which Russia is a party, obliges the state to protect the right to privacy and personal autonomy, which includes the right to make decisions regarding one´s personal attire. Articles 9 and 10 of the Convention protect religious freedom and freedom of expression, and successive European Court of Human Rights rulings have confirmed that such freedoms are protected even in cases where activities "offend, shock, or disturb the state or any sector of the population." [Handyside vs. United Kingdom, ECtHR, 1976] While Article 9 does allow governments some leeway in regulating religious dress in the interest of preserving the public order, in order to justify such policies, a government must be able to demonstrate a pressing public need and codify them in law. Article 9 does not bestow the right on governments to force any individual to wear a particular form of clothing in adherence to a particular religious code. Chechnya´s uncodified policy requiring adherence to Islamic dress for women is maintained by the republic´s government with apparent silent complicity of the federal government, and is inconsistent with Russia´s commitments under the Convention. [http://www.hrw.org/legacy/backgrounder/eca/turkey/2004/6.htm#_Toc75931612]

As a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) Russia has an obligation "to refrain from engaging any act or practice of discrimination against women and to ensure that public authorities and institutions shall act in conformity with this obligation"; and to take steps with a view "to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on ...stereotyped roles for men and women". It also has specific obligations to put an end to violence against women. Imposing a strict dress code targeted at women and enforcing it in such an arbitrary and abusive manner is a blatant violation of Russia´s obligations in this regard. It also violates Russia´s obligations on equality with respect to Articles 2 and 26 of the ICCPR and Article 14 of the European Convention. 

Finally, imposing Islamic dress on women is not only inconsistent with Russia´s international human rights obligations but also is contrary to Russia´s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of conscience in Article 28, "All are guaranteed to freedom of conscience, freedom of religious practice, including the right to practice any religion individually or together with others, or abstain from religious belief altogether, and the freedom to keep and distribute religious and other convictions and act accordance with them."

June 2010: Paintball attacks

Coercion aimed at forcing Chechen women to adhere to an Islamic dress code has manifested itself in a number of ways, including public shaming, threats, and even physical violence.

In June 2010, Human Rights Watch received credible reports of individuals, including law enforcement agents, shooting rounds from paintball guns at women without headscarves in the center of Chechnya´s capital. According to a prominent Russian Internet-media outlet covering the situation in the Caucasus, Caucasian Knot, at least one of the victims was hospitalized as a result [http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/175525/].

In September 2010, Human Rights Watch conducted interviews in Chechnya with two victims and three witnesses of paintball attacks.

A 25 year-old woman described her experience of being targeted in a paintball attack by men who, by their dress, appeared to be local security officials.  She told a Human Rights Watch researcher:

I was walking down Putin Avenue [the main thoroughfare in Grozny] with a friend. It was a hot day in June - I don´t remember the exact date. We were dressed modestly but not covered up - no headscarves, sleeves to the elbow, skirts a little below the knee. Suddenly a car with no license plates stops next to us. The side window rolls down and there is this gun barrel. I was paralyzed with fear and saw nothing but this barrel, this horrid black hole. I thought the gun was real and when I heard the shots I thought, "This is death." I felt something hitting me in the chest and was sort of thrown against the wall of a building. The sting was awful, as if my breasts were being pierced with a red-hot needle,  but I wasn´t fainting or anything and suddenly noticed some strange green splattering on the wall and this huge green stain was also expanding on my blouse. So, I understood it was paint. My friend´s skirt was also covered in it. She was hit on her legs and stumbled to the ground. I was still trying to get myself together when a man´s face appeared in the [car] window. He was laughing, then leaning out and pointing to us. He was dressed in the black uniform that Kadyrov´s security people wear. And the men in the car with him - they also leaned out to snicker at us - also had those uniforms on... It´s only at home that I could examine the bruise and it was so huge and ugly. Since then, I don´t dare leave home without a headscarf.

Another victim, a woman of 29, told a Human Rights Watch researcher that on June 6 she was walking down the same street in the afternoon with two other young women, all of them without headscarves, when two cars drove up to them. Bearded men in military-style black uniforms, who looked like law enforcement officials, shot at them from the car windows with pink and blue paint, screaming, "Cover your hair, harlots!" Male passers-by applauded the shooters and yelled, "Serves you right for having no shame!"

The victims hid in a neighboring shop, from which they called a taxi. Later, they saw through the taxi window that "the avenue was literally splattered with paint - pink, green, yellow, and blue." The respondent also told Human Rights Watch that she personally knows 12 women who were subjected to paintball attacks that week in June. She also indicated that she wanted to make an official complaint to the prosecutor´s office but her family and her work supervisor had talked her out of it, cautioning that such steps might result in serious repercussions for her and for the organization.

Another female resident of Grozny, age 40, told Human Rights Watch that she witnessed two similar attacks against young girls without headscarves in the center of Grozny. Judging by the number of paintball attack stories that she personally heard from friends and relatives, she believed that from 50 to 60 women fell victim to such attacks, although Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm this estimate. She also reported that after several days of frequent attacks, many of her friends who did not wear headscarves had put them on and ordered their daughters to do the same. Concerns about personal security were especially relevant, as threatening leaflets soon appeared in the streets of the Chechen capital, explaining to women that these paintball shootings were simply a preventive measure aimed at making them cover their hair - if they failed to cooperate, 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.

The leaflet, a copy of which Human Rights Watch examined, read as follows (bold and capital letters reprinted as in the original document):

Dear Sisters!

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!!!"

Numerous sources, including women´s NGOs, reported to Human Rights Watch that the punitive paintball campaign ended in mid-June, likely due to the fact that its objective was achieved: for at least several weeks afterwards, women generally stopped appearing in the city center without headscarves.

Commenting on the issue on the television station "Grozny" on July 3, 2010, President Kadyrov expressed unambiguous approval of the lawless paintball attacks, claiming he was ready to "give an award" to the men who carried them out. He also stated that the targeted women´s behavior deserved this treatment and that they should be so ashamed as to "disappear from the face of the earth." [http://www.memo.ru/hr/hotpoints/caucas1/index.htm] This comment amounts to open encouragement at the highest level of government in Chechnya of the physical assault and public humiliation of women. 

There is no evidence that federal authorities responded to this statement by Kadyrov.

Harassment and Additional Pressure During Ramadan and Beyond

Several weeks after the attacks subsided, some women cautiously began to appear in the city center without wearing headscarves. Around the start of Ramadan in mid-August, however, another punitive campaign began, targeting women not wearing headscarves and/or wearing clothes deemed too revealing.

In the first days of Ramadan, groups of men in traditional Islamic dress (consisting of loose pants and a tunic), 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 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. Chechen females were admonished:

"Dear sister in Islam!  Today Chechnya wants to uphold decency and morality. Your dress, dear sister, should be a demonstration of your purity and your morality, but mainly of your faith. Your clothes and your morality preserve your honor and that of your relatives and parents!"

The authors of the brochure, a copy of which was obtained by Human Rights Watch, also urged men to take charge of how their women looked:

"It has to be admitted, unfortunately, that a terrible picture is to be seen in the streets. We are not accusing women. The main fault belongs to the men. A woman won´t lose her sense of reason if her husband doesn´t [lose his]. Men, we need your help. Of all that we see, the worst is the way some women dress. But what is even more terrible is that the men folk allow their sisters, wives, and daughters to dress in this way and don´t consider that it is wrong to do so."

The alleged envoys from the Islamic High Council were soon joined by aggressive young men who pulled on 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. This harassment persisted throughout the entire month of Ramadan, i.e. until mid-September. Dozens of victims and witnesses spoke about such incidents and confirmed a distinct pattern in their conversations with a Human Rights Watch researcher.

A 27-year-old woman who had moved to Moscow several years earlier but was visiting her relatives in Chechnya, told Human Rights Watch, that in August 2010 she was walking on the main street of Grozny, carrying her newborn baby and holding her three-year-old-son´s hand  when she was surrounded by four threatening men in Islamic dress.  The weather was very hot, so she was wearing a knee-length skirt and a light T-shirt with short sleeves. Her head was covered with a kerchief folded over several times instead of a large scarf, leaving most of her hair visible. The men started pointing at her bare arms and shouting that she was behaving indecently and shamefully. It took a while for the woman to react:

At first, I was nearly at a loss for words. It was so disgusting... But then I just pulled myself together, and here I was yelling at them that I was married with two children and had never in my whole life done anything shameful, so they had no right to make such disgraceful comments. I told them I had had a husband and a brother and would ring them up right away to come and sort things out. When I reached for my cell phone, the men sort of retreated. One of them, who acted like a boss, said, "Don´t call anyone.  Don´t make a fuss. We have our orders from above. We´ve got to do this, do you understand?" And you know what - I did understand. I understood clearly that you had to play by their rules or they wouldn´t let you have a life. And as I did not want to play by their rules, I got my tickets back to Moscow the next day and left. But you see, I had a place to go to. And those women whose home is here - they have no place to flee. For them there is no escape and they can only obey and keep silent.

In two cases reported to Human Rights Watch that occurred during the period of Ramadan, members of Chechnya´s law enforcement harassed women for not adhering to the Islamic dress code. In the first case, a group of three police officers walked into a small grocery shop in Grozny and noticed that the woman behind the counter was not wearing a headscarf. They started screaming at her, saying she was a disgrace, and demanded the telephone number of her boss. They called the boss, demanded that she appear immediately, and then instructed her to make sure that her entire staff was "properly dressed" lest she face "serious problems."

In another case documented by Human Rights Watch, a 44-year-old woman, "Kheda," (not the woman´s real name) described a humiliating attack that she witnessed in the center of Grozny at the end of August.  Kheda was walking down Putin Avenue when she saw a group of seven to eight armed, bearded men in black uniforms drag a young woman towards a large garbage bin. The young woman, "Fatima" (not the woman´s real name), who had long, uncovered hair and wore a long but clingy dress, cried hysterically and tried to resist the servicemen, flailing her arms and legs. The attackers were snickering and screaming that she was a slut and belonged in a garbage dump. Shocked by the scene, Kheda intervened on behalf of the girl. She grabbed Fatima, who was being pulled by her arms and hair, and yelled, "What are you doing? Let her go!" The servicemen tried to shake the woman off, but she would not let go and continued to shout even more loudly. Ultimately, they dropped Fatima and left.

After the incident, Fatima, who is 19 years of age, told Kheda how it had started. Fatima said that she was walking on her own when she passed two cars parked along the sidewalk. "Kadyrov´s men" leaned out and started shouting after her, as if trying to strike up an acquaintance. The men then leapt out of the cars and rushed after her. According to Kheda, Fatima said the men surrounded her and starting talking obscenely. When she told them to leave her alone, they became more aggressive, saying that if she had been decently dressed and wearing a headscarf, no one would be pestering her. They told her she was dressed in such a way as to attract men´s attention and be a "temptation" to them.  Then they tried to throw her into a garbage bin, and might have succeeded had Kheda not intervened.

Pressure on women to adhere to Islamic dress has continued since the month of Ramadan. For example, in mid-October, a staff-member from a local NGO working in the House of Print - a large building in the center of Grozny that houses numerous Chechen media outlets and organizations - called Human Rights Watch to report that on October 8, a meeting was called by Ministry of Information officials for all tenants. During the meetings, women were specifically instructed that that they wouldn´t be allowed into the building unless their hair was fully covered by a headscarf.

Several dozen women interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Chechnya indicated that they found the virtue campaign deeply offensive but could not protest openly, fearing for their own security as well as that of their relatives. One of them summed up the problem to a Human Rights Watch researcher in the following way:

"It´s so humiliating, but you have no other option - you have to put on the headscarf. If, say, they hit you, and that´s not unlikely, then your brothers won´t be able to leave it at that. They´ll have to take action against the aggressors, who will just kill them. You dress according to their rules not so much out of fear for yourself, but to protect your family."

Response by Russia´s Federal Authorities and Reaction of Chechen Officials

To date, despite strong concerns about the deteriorating situation for women in Chechnya expressed by independent media outlets and human rights NGOs, the only federal official who has made any inquiry into the issue has been the Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Lukin. On September 26, Lukin wrote to the Prosecutor General´s Office demanding that it look into the reports of paintball attacks against women in Chechnya [http://www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1511536].

This intervention is highly commendable. However, since none of the women who were victims of such attacks apparently brought any official complaints (due to their fear of possible repercussions), the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs, which was contacted by the Prosecutor General´s office following Lukin´s letter, claimed to be unaware of the problem [http://www.regnum.ru/news/accidents/1336123.html]. The Ombudsman for Chechnya, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, also said in response that there had not been any such attacks on women and that he had not received any complaints on the matter. [http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/174679/]

Notably, Ramzan Kadyrov made no attempts to deny the attacks and, as noted above, openly condoned them. However, in his 24 October 2010 Newsweek interview several weeks after Lukin´s letter, he insisted that the attacks were carried out not on his order by rather out by individuals who "want to blacken my [his] policies." He also explained: "Many women walk around Grozny today without covering themselves with scarves! If we were beating or shooting at them, they would not be doing that." However, in the same interview, when responding to a question regarding appropriate dress for Chechen women, Kadyrov said unequivocally:

"I always remind women what Allah said - it is simple for a woman to get into paradise: she has to cover herself, her hair and her arms, wear a long skirt, fast, pray, and be faithful to her husband. My dream is that all Chechen women should wear headscarves." [http://www.newsweek.com/2010/10/24/ramzan-kadyrov-talks-about-chechnya-s-future.html]

Russia´s president and other officials at the highest level have not taken any steps to stop the violations of women´s rights in Chechnya and have not even even indicated to Ramzan Kadyrov that his public comments on the issue are inappropriate, inconsistent with Russian law, and conducive to the perpetuation of lawless practices.


At the Russia-EU human rights consultations in November this year, the European Union should urge the Russian government to stand up for the rights of women in the Chechen Republic and put a resolute end to the unlawful enforcement of Islamic dress by the local authorities.