As a comprehensive assault on the jihadist movement in the North Caucasus gains momentum in Russia, Russian authorities are creating an additional superficial hurdle for themselves that is becoming more acute every day—the attitude toward the hijab. The issue of Islamic dress for women would not be of great interest in itself were it not for the government’s increasing pressure on women who choose to dress in a certain way in Russia’s Muslim regions.
Initially, both regional and federal authorities condoned the rise of Islamic dress. However, as the problem of female suicide bombers came to fore, the authorities decided that Islamic cover was radicalizing women. The question was finally resolved for Russian officials after President Vladimir Putin categorically stated at a press conference in December 2012 that “in our culture (when I say ‘our,’ I mean traditional Islam), there are not any hijabs whatsoever” (http://wordyou.ru/v-rossii/putin-xidzhab-%E2%80%93-eto-vyzov.htm). Pro-Kremlin analysts and specialists on Islam started producing work confirming the president’s statement (www.newsru.com/religy/15jul2013/suleimanov.html). Their arguments were not very convincing and seemed to be an attempt to prove something that goes against all existing evidence. Women in the Muslim societies of the Russian Empire dressed in a way that was very close to the hijab. For example, the traditional folk dresses of women in Dagestan are nearly identical to the hijab (www.odnoselchane.ru/?sect=1733). The Russian president’s advisors failed to tell him that clothing resembling the hijab is actually part of the culture of the people who are traditionally Muslim.
Some religious authorities were also forced to support the statements of the Russian president, even though it is hard for mullahs, muftis and other religious figures to agree with Putin’s assertion that the hijab is not traditional for Russian Muslim women. They understand perfectly well that Islam is fairly unequivocal in this regard and does not provide exceptions for the Russian Muslim women. The Koran does not prescribe in detail exactly how women should dress, stating: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That way it will be easier to recognize them (to distinguish them from a slave or a loose woman) and they will not be subjected to insults” (Koran, Chapter 33, Verse 59, http://musulmanin.com/suri-033-ahzab.html). However, all interpreters of Islam and schools of Islam unanimously say that all parts of the women’s body should be covered with the exception of the wrists and part of the face (http://nuruddin.info/index.php?do=static&page=fatvy_dlya_zhenshhin_v_svete_korana_i_sunny).
The scandal over the hijab erupted in October 2012 when several Muslim girls were barred from a school in the village of Kara-Tyube in Stavropol region. The school administration based its decision on the fact that the school is secular. Parents went to court to defend their children’s right to wear the hijab (www.inosmi.ru/russia/20130319/207140539.html). Russia’s Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the ban on wearing the hijab in school was lawful (www.km.ru/v-rossii/2013/07/10/verkhovnyi-sud-rf/715489-verkhovnyi-sud-rf-priznal-zakonnym-zapret-na-khidzhaby-). The Council of Muftis of Russia, one of the most influential Islamic organizations in the country, denounced the Supreme Court’s ruling, regarding it as an attack on Islam’s foundations (http://www.baltinfo.ru/2012/10/22/Sovet-muftiev-vystupaet-protiv-diskriminatcii-uchenitc-musulmanok-v-Stavropole-312036). President Putin thinks that a return to the use of uniforms in the country’s schools, as it was during the Soviet period, would resolve the issue. However, in an unexpected turn, the Russian Orthodox Church, namely a well-known archdeacon, Andrei Kuraev, came out in support of the Islamic clerics. Kuraev said that the campaign against the hijab might end up banning Orthodox children from wearing crosses in schools (http://diak-kuraev.livejournal.com/).
The situation in Russia in terms of relations between the government and Islam is more complex than it might seem. On the one hand, the government has even banned a Russian translation of the Koran (http://www.islamnews.ru/news-142191.html). On the other hand, a court in the city of Krasnoyarsk was forced to rule in favor of a Dagestani student who was excluded from the city’s university for refusing to remove her hijab (http://www.diapazon.kz/cis/54821-v-rossii-studentka-otsudila-pravo-nosit-hidzhab.html).
The issue of the hijab is increasingly becoming a point of friction between the country’s regions and the central government. For example, despite the Russian president’s position on the hijab, the republican government of Tatarstan has not cracked down on those who still wear the Islamic dress (http://www.riss.ru/index.php/my-v-smi/1979-v-tatarstane-neglasno-razreshili-khidzhaby-v-shkolakh#.UoNAjaLuLBc). Moreover, in Grozny there is a House of Islamic Dress that holds competitions for Islamic dresses of school girls, students, women employed in service jobs or work for the government, and so on (http://dm-firdaws.ru/). The head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, is against the wearing of hijabs in school, but has said that if children are already wearing the hijab, the government should not jeopardize the situation by imposing an outright ban (http://ria.ru/interview/20130829/959494190.html). This reflects some evolution in Yevkurov’s thinking, given that he was the first regional leader in the North Caucasus to support a ban on wearing the hijab in schools and universities (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REQ7rBodWBs). The absurdity of the ban was further amplified when, at a meeting with students, cameramen were ordered not to film anyone wearing a hijab (http://www.ansar.ru/society/2013/07/03/42112).
Naturally, the Muslim community perceives such prohibitions as acts against the religion itself (www.topnews.tj/2013/08/28/pochemu-zhe-zapretili-hidzhab-v-rossii/). This creates tension in society. People react inappropriately to those who wear the hijab because of a powerful media propaganda campaign that claims that wearing the hijab is the first step toward radicalization.
By banning the hijab, the Russian authorities will achieve little apart from exasperating part of the Muslim community. Thus the authorities will create yet another group of people who will regard the government as illegitimate. This will push more people into the arms of those who have been fighting the Russian authorities since 1999. The Russian authorities are surprisingly capable of creating problems for themselves, even in areas where they could easily avoid them.