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Chechen Leader's Promotion Of 'Traditional Moral Values' Criticized

The Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial has conducted a survey of reactions to pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's program of measures made public last fall and intended to promote the revival of what he considers "traditional Chechen moral values." The findings of that survey were summarized by on February 22, the same day that Memorial staffers met with Kadyrov in Grozny.

The primary target of Kadyrov's displeasure was the predilection of young Chechen women for what he considered inappropriate and immodest clothing, including miniskirts and low-cut wedding dresses. He therefore banned the sale of such wedding dresses as of November 1, 2007. The program also introduced the mandatory wearing of head scarves for women students at all Chechen higher educational establishments and for female secondary school pupils from the age of 10. Male students got off more lightly, being required simply to wear a necktie with the emblem of their university. Students who fail to comply with the dress code risk expulsion. Kadyrov had already issued orders in early September that all female government employees must wear a head scarf at work or risk dismissal.

Explaining the rationale for those measures, Kadyrov said that young people in Chechnya "are distancing themselves further from [our] moral ideals with each passing day. The younger generation has only a very vague understanding of such spiritual values as morality and ethics."

That traditional behavior patterns have been eroded over the past 13 years of war, chaos and social upheaval is beyond question. Grozny Mayor Muslim Khuchiyev observed last November that when Kadyrov visited the Grozny Oil Institute, male students did not even rise to their feet when he entered the auditorium, according to But not all such lapses can be ascribed to the pernicious influence of inappropriately dressed young women, who are clearly the primary targets of Kadyrov's program. Memorial quoted Kadyrov as saying he is profoundly disturbed by the fact that "our brides sometimes appear before their future mother-in-law and their future husband's family almost naked, excuse the expression, and with their head bare. They appear on the street in miniskirts and with their hair loose. The mentality of our people does not permit this. I very much want Chechen girls to look like true Muslim women and to comply with the customs and traditions of their people."

But as in the case of Kadyrov's espousal of what he has touted as traditional Chechen sufism, his interpretation of what constitutes traditional dress is open to question, and his sometimes heavy-handed efforts to impose "traditional moral values" have in fact given rise to situations in which traditional behavior codes are violated. Traditionally, Chechen women have worn a headscarf that conceals every last strand of hair -- although not the intricately folded black version still worn by many women in Turkey and Iran. By contrast, what Kadyrov advocates for female students is a skimpy red scarf, with the logo of the Chechen State University, and which is tied at the nape of the neck, thus covering only the crown of the head, but leaving the hair largely visible.

Responsibility for ensuring that female students wear the mandatory head scarf has been laid on security personnel, and video cameras have been installed at some higher educational establishments to monitor compliance.

Moreover, university rectors have been warned they will be held personally responsible for compliance with the requirement, according to on November 21. But as one faculty member told Memorial, Chechens consider it impermissible for any man other than her father, brother, or husband to make any comment about a woman's dress or public behavior. It is equally unacceptable for a younger man to make any such comment to a woman who is older than he is. One young man was beaten and required hospital treatment after reprimanding a security guard who made what he considered an inappropriate comment to his sister.

The Memorial survey found that "most" students and faculty members object to the head scarf requirement, but did not cite precise figures. On November 26, quoted a female student from the Philology Faculty of the Chechen State University as questioning why, if the Chechen Republic is indeed a full-fledged Russian Federation subject, Chechen students are required to submit to restrictions that do not apply to their counterparts elsewhere in Russia. She further observed that "I have the impression that women in our republic have become the indicator of faith, and that we have to pray to God for forgiveness not just of our own sins but those of our men-folk."

But, the slick website recently set up by Kadyrov's administration with the presumed aim of demonstrating that life in Chechnya has indeed returned to "normal," and of inducing those Chechens who fled Chechnya during the fighting and still live elsewhere in Russia to return home, features video footage of several very pretty Chechen girls explaining why they consider the headscarf requirement acceptable.

The emphasis Kadyrov places on the external markers of "traditional morality," rather than seeking to resurrect a traditional code of ethics in which respect plays the central role, suggests that his campaign to impose his own vision of "traditional morality" is in fact intended primarily to serve a political purpose, by promoting among the younger generation a sense of national identity and solidarity that its bearers associate first and foremost with himself.