GROZNY: The 28-year-old girl refuses to give her name for fear of reprisals but her anxiety speaks volumes for the rapid march of Islamisation in the conflict-torn Russian region of Chechnya.
“I wear the veil so I'm left in peace on the street. Women who do not wear the veil and a long dress risk being refused entry into university,” she said in a hushed voice in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Chechnya may seem an unlikely venue for conservative Islam to pervade everyday life, given it was in this Russian region that the Kremlin fought two wars against militant separatists after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is still fighting Islamic militants in the mountains.
But while also bringing relative stability to his tiny fiefdom in the Caucasus, Chechnya's Kremlin-appointed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, 34, has been quietly allowed to de-secularise his Muslim majority homeland.
Mosques have sprouted up as Grozny rebuilds from the devastation of war while Kadyrov has lost no opportunity to make public show of his faith, including making highly-mediatised pilgrimages to Mecca.
But Kadyrov has also moved to draw up special Islamic rules for the region of 1.2 million which some observers say are a flagrant violation of human rights and Russian law.
Kadyrov on January issued a hugely controversial decree telling public servants how to dress in an Islamically-acceptable way at work.
“Men should wear a suit and a tie and on Friday (the Muslim holy day), traditional Muslim dress. For women, their heads should be covered with a headscarf, a dress that goes below the knee and sleeves that cover three-quarters of the arm,” it said.
“Now you can perfectly well talk about the Arabisation of Chechnya,” said one university professor who asked not to be named.
Boris Strakhun, an expert in constitutional law, told AFP in Moscow that Kadyrov's directive amounted to a “violation of the Russian constitution”.
But the federal authorities in Moscow have yet to sound any concern, raising fears that Kadyrov is being allowed to go too far in exchange for stabilising Chechnya.
Kadyrov, whose father and former Chechnya leader Akhmad was slain in a bomb blast in Grozny in 2004, has long been a hate figure for rights activists, accused of using a private militia to kidnap and torture at will.
Chechen women who spoke to an AFP correspondent in Grozny repeatedly said they had been verbally abused and even at times physically attacked for failing to wear the Islamic veil.
Akhmad Kadyrov was also the Muslim mufti -- or chief cleric in Chechnya -- and ironically locals recall that he had banned the wearing of the Islamic veil in public places.
But since Ramzan Kadyrov was named head of Chechnya in 2007, “the situation has changed a lot,” said a university professor, pointing to the sacking two years ago of the head of his faculty.
“He was replaced by a man whose first remark was: 'But the female students and the women in this faculty don't wear headscarves?'” Officials from Chechnya's organisation of moral and spiritual education, an organisation linked to the authorities, every week visit schools and universities to give courses on Islamic morality and the Quran.
Officially, the courses have the aim of making sure young people do not fall out of mainstream society and join the Islamic rebellion that for years has rocked the North Caucasus region.
Russian security forces are still fighting an Islamist-fuelled insurgency in the Caucasus mountains, especially in nearby Ingushetia and Dagestan, that claims dozens of lives each month.
Human Rights Watch has raised the alarm over the Islamisation of Chechnya, saying the authorities were “enforcing a compulsory Islamic dress code for women and condoning violent attacks on women deemed to dress immodestly.”
“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,” said the group's Russia researcher Tatyana Lokshina.
The group said unknown men, mostly dressed like local law enforcement officials, have 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, it said. – AFP