A top official of the increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church has triggered a storm of outrage by calling for a "national dress code" that would force women to dress modestly in public and require businesses to throw out "indecently" clad customers.
Women, said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, can't be trusted to clothe themselves properly.
"It is wrong to think that women should decide themselves what they can wear in public places or at work," he said Tuesday. "If a woman dresses like a prostitute, her colleagues must have the right to tell her that."
"Moreover," Archpriest Chaplin added, "if a woman dresses and acts indecently, this is a direct route to unhappiness, one-night stands, brief marriages followed by rat-like divorces, ruined lives of children, and madness."
Signal of church's political ambitions
Critics say the proposal signals the growing political ambition of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has lately enjoyed great success in forcing the Kremlin to hand back hundreds of churches and monasteries, along with thousands of religious artifacts, that had formerly belonged to state museums.
The church has also weighed in on artistic matters. It has publicly backed a series of lawsuits against Moscow's Sakharov Museum, which it accused of displaying "blasphemous" work in two separate art exhibits over recent years.
Last year a Moscow court imposed stiff fines on two former gallery curators found guilty in a church-instigated case of "inciting hatred" against Christians for exhibiting unconventional images of Jesus.
Chaplin's proposed dress code has received applause from some conservative quarters. Russia's Association of Islamic Heritage this week expressed its support for Chaplin's call for "creation of a national dress code," which might involve compelling women to wear headscarves, a rule already in force in Orthodox churches and church-run orphanages. Muslims make up about 20 percent of Russia's population.
Dress code proposal is 'absurd'
Chaplin's remarks came in a letter published this week by the independent Interfax-Religion agency, the church's chief liaison with secular society. While his proposed dress code would also apply to men who go into public wearing T-shirts, shorts, or track suits, the letter was most likely to rankle Russian women, who are famous for their love of shocking colors, generous makeup, and daring fashions.
"Archpriest Chaplin's comments sound absurd," says Irina Shcherbakova, head of youth programs for Memorial, Russia's largest human rights organization. "Instead of dealing with real social issues – such as the rise of ethnic hatred – and teaching tolerance, they busy themselves with this nonsense. Most women will ignore this but, especially since Islamic religious authorities are in support, it does threaten a serious attack on women's rights."
Chaplin's letter was an apparent attempt to clarify an incendiary statement he made last month blaming rape victims for inciting their attackers with provocative dress and behavior, which had prompted an open letter of protest (read letter in Russian) signed by more than 1,000 people demanding an apology.
"If she is wearing a miniskirt, it is provocative," he said last month. "If she is drunk at the same time, then she is even more provocative, and if she herself is actively seeking contact with people, then she is mistaken to be surprised when that contact ends in rape."
Unlikely to gain traction
Chaplin's remarks have not generated the groundswell of public fury that would erupt in a Western country, but that doesn't mean it's likely to gain much public traction either, says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal.
"The average Russian woman will just shrug this off and regard it as having nothing to do with her life," she says. "In post-Soviet times the church has enjoyed much more success at winning concessions from the state than it has in winning souls.... Polls show that the majority of Russians respect the church as a traditional institution but not as a moral authority over their lives."
Though Russians have for centuries been told what to do and how to behave by clerical and state authorities, Ms. Lipman argues that those days are past.
"One big difference between today's Russia and the USSR is that, though the state is politically authoritarian, it no longer attempts to interfere in peoples' private lives," and it's not likely to empower the church to do so either, she says.
"People have grown used to [personal freedom]," she says, "and it's inconceivable that today's young people would listen to anybody trying to tell them how to dress."