Chechnya's Kremlin-installed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has ordered Chechen women to wear "modest attire" that covers their entire bodies, including their heads, whenever they go outdoors, and has sent vigilantes into the streets to attack disobedient women with paintball guns, according to a report just released by New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The often violent "virtue campaign" that Mr. Kadyrov launched in 2006 contravenes Russian law and violates the basic constitutional rights of Chechen women, who are Russian citizens, the group says. Yet both the Kremlin and Kadyrov's main sponsor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, have remained silent about the issue.
Although Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has directed Chechen authorities to look into the paintball attacks, the federal authorities have not otherwise taken any steps to put an end to the Chechen leadership’s enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code in Chechnya.
The Kremlin has fought two bloody wars against separatist insurgencies in the past 17 years, aimed at forcing mainly Muslim Chechnya to remain under Russian sovereignty. Two years ago Moscow declared victory and withdrew most troops, leaving Chechnya under Kadyrov's control.
Critics say the failure of the Russian government to enforce its own fundamental law in the republic calls into question the point of those two conflicts, which claimed an estimated quarter of a million lives.
"The enforcement of a compulsory Islamic dress code on women in Chechnya violates their rights to private life, personal autonomy, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion, thought, and conscience," says the report. "It is also a form of gender-based discrimination prohibited under international treaties to which Russia is a party. … This policy is also in breach of Russia’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and gender equality."
Two years ago a leading Chechen human rights activist, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped and murdered after writing critical reports about aspects of life in Kadyrov's Chechnya, including the harsh dress code for women. One of Ms. Estemirova's coworkers told The Christian Science Monitor that in exchange for "pacifying" Chechnya, the Kremlin gave Kadyrov a free pass for his methods of pacification.
Families are 'obliged' to kill women who 'fool around'
Drawing on the testimonies of dozens of Chechen women, the report details coercive methods applied to enforce the dress code, including public shaming, threats, and even physical violence.
Kadyrov has publicly explained that Chechen women must be compelled to dress "modestly" in order to spare their menfolk the painful duty of killing them if they stray.
"A woman should know her place," he said during a televised interview last July. "[In Chechnya] man is the master. Here, if a woman does not behave properly, her husband, father, and brothers are responsible. According to our tradition, if a woman fools around, her family members are obliged to kill her.... As president, I cannot allow them to kill. Therefore, let women not dress indecently."
Last summer vigilantes, whom many of the women believe to be members of Kadyrov's security forces, staged mock assassinations of several "disobedient" women on the streets of Chechnya's capital of Grozny using paintball guns. One young woman reported being attacked while walking down Putin Avenue, the city's main street, with a friend:
"We were dressed modestly but not covered up – no headscarves, sleeves a little above the elbow, skirts a little below the knee," she said. "Suddenly a car with no license plates stops next to us. The side window rolls down and there is this gun barrel. . . 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."
Calm 'at the cost of human rights'
Russian women's' rights activists confirm the gist of the Human Rights Watch report, and allege that Chechen women are being sacrificed by the Kremlin for the sake of relative peace in Chechnya. There have been few high-profile terrorist strikes in the war-torn republic over the past year, while insurgent activity is burgeoning in the surrounding mainly Muslim republics of the north Caucasus and increasingly threatening Russia's own heartland.
"On most of the territory of Chechnya it is sharia law that operates, and not the laws of the Russian Federation," says Valentina Terevatenko, head of an independent women's union in the southern city of Novocherkassk, which has close ties with Chechen women's groups. "I think the silence of the Russian authorities about this can be explained by the exigencies of the war on terrorism. They are buying calm in Chechnya at the cost of human rights, including those of women."
Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow, says that political uncertainty in Moscow over whether President Dmitry Medvedev or Mr. Putin is really in charge could be enabling Kadyrov to grab more power in Chechnya.
He adds that Kadyrov's imposition of tough strictures on Chechen women enjoys considerable sympathy among Russian conservatives, including the powerful Orthodox Church, which recently floated the idea of a dress code for Russian women.
"Kadyrov has managed to achieve most of what the Chechen separatists wanted, but he has gotten it by legal means," says Mr. Mukhin. "All he has to do is display outward loyalty, and Putin lets him do [within Chechnya] whatever he wants."