IWPR, Caucasus Reporting Service
Morality drive focuses on low-cut clothing and other signs of behaviour seen as un-traditional and therefore inappropriate.
By Artur Israilov in Grozny (CRS No. 426 09-Jan-08)
The authorities in Chechnya are engaged in a drive to revive and institutionalise Chechen national values, but some argue they are going about it the wrong way, with instructions issued from on high telling women what they should and shouldn’t wear.
Outside the entrance to the Youth Chamber in the Chechen capital Grozny hangs a new sign saying, “Women without headgear not allowed in the building”.
Similar signs have appeared outside many other government buildings.
The Press House got its signpost with similar wording last month, but changed it a week later for a slightly politer one saying, “Women are respectfully asked to observe national dress traditions”.
Either way, though, the rules are being strictly enforced – the security guards refuse to allow women in if they are not wearing headscarves, whether they are guests or are employed by the press ministry or one of the newspapers located in the building.
The dress code for women is just part of a wider campaign launched late last year to promote “morality and the revival of national traditions”, after pro-Moscow president Ramzan Kadyrov spoke out on the issue on a number of occasions.
On one visit to the Chechen State University in Grozny, Kadyrov appeared unhappy at the un-Chechen-like way students were dressed, not to mention the number who were bunking off classes.
Approaching a group of youngsters in the yard, he asked one of them, “Are you a Chechen?” The lad said he was, but looking at him with his unshaven face and his hands stuck in his pockets, the president muttered, “Doesn’t look like it”.
That same evening, Kadyrov summoned education officials and the rectors of all higher educational institutions for an emergency meeting at which he hectored them on their performance. He said he had been so angry with what he had seen at the university that his first instinct had been to resign from the presidency.
The education chiefs were electrified into action, and they were quickly followed by officials in charge of other state-run institutions.
Now female students are not admitted to classes at the State University unless they are wearing dresses rather than other forms of clothing, while their male counterparts have to wear ties.
The university has also become the first academic institution in Russia where smoking is formally banned everywhere on its premises, for students and staff alike.
“In civilised countries they set aside special smoking areas even in those places where it’s natural to smoke, such as restaurants, cafes and bars. But there’s such a small percentage of smokers in our institution that we decided to ban it outright,” said Professor Baudin Bakhmadov, dean of the law faculty, and a supporter of the move.
“The new rules impose discipline on the students and require them to adopt a more respectful attitude towards study. Introducing such rules is conducive to respect for the traditions of the Chechen people and for Muslim standards.”
European-style wedding dresses considered too revealing, with a décolleté or bare shoulders, are no longer on sale in Chechnya. Again, this goes back to the president’s own views. “Brides are a symbol of modesty, but recently they’ve begun wearing dresses that are too revealing,” he said. “If things carry on like this, we’ll soon have forgotten all our national traditions and our identity.”
In addition to banning things, the authorities are actively trying to promote their vision of traditional Chechen culture through the media.
Local television has begun running broadcasts telling people of the evils of drugs and tobacco, explaining the national traditions, and showing footage of students and teachers discussing Chechen ethical values.
Some government institutions have begun holding fashion shows to let their employees see the kind of clothing that does not conflict with Chechen tradition.
The culture ministry has revived the Soviet-era institution of “arts councils” made up of established authors, poets, composers and choreographers who debate the merits of new songs and other productions. Only once they have approved a new work can it be placed in the public domain. They are looking at the personal appearance of artists as well as their output.
“The nature of their profession means artists are always at the centre of attention so they have to set an example with behaviour and outward appearance that correspond to the Vainakh [Chechen] ethic,” said culture minister Dikalu Muzakayev.
Chechnya is a constituent republic within the Russian Federation and the “national traditions” campaign has provoked a storm of media criticism in the rest of the country. Various commentators have complained that Islamic law is being introduced in Chechnya or that Soviet-style censorship of the arts is coming back in, and predicting that the end result will be a new outburst of Chechen separatism founded on radical Islamic ideas.
Kadyrov is unrepentant in the face of such accusations, telling his critics, “Shouldn’t one feel sorry for parents who have devoted years and their last penny to bringing up their children and giving them then best they can, only to see them become smokers, alcoholics and drug addicts, of no use to them or to society at large? That’s what we’re fighting against,” he said. “I’ve personally never touched a cigarette or a drop of alcohol.”
Inside Chechnya, many older women and plenty of men, too, approve of stricter rules of behaviour.
Aset Ibragimova, a 63-year-old resident of Grozny, “I remember how young people were in past decades, the girls always neatly dressed and behaving in the manner prescribed by tradition, while it was considered shameful for boys to be ignorant of the traditions. Now that’s all being eroded.”
However, many others are left feeling uncomfortable at the somewhat high-handed methods being used to impose these standards, and at the idea that morality can be reduced to what people wear.
“My behaviour hardly depends on whether I wear a headscarf or not,” said Rumisa, a 22-year-old female student.
“There does need to be a campaign for spiritual and ethical values in public life – that’s great,” added Grozny resident Luiza Isaeva. “But it shouldn’t be done by the methods they are now employing. There needs to be a proper programme, instead of the situation we have now where everyone is making it up as they go along.”
Many believe that the way women dress should be a matter for themselves and their families, and that to try to modify it is an unwarranted intrusion.
“Attempts by outsiders to tell women how to behave or what to wear amounts to interference in family matters, in other words it is in violation of traditional Chechen social relationships,” said historian Islam Dadayev.
Political scientist Edilbek Khasmagomadov agrees it is wrong to judge moral standards by the way people dress. Nor does he think the campaign will have much success. “This propaganda would make sense if Chechnya were isolated from outside information, but we have all the TV channels and internet access, so it’s hardly going to work”.
Instead of instructions, he argues,“we need moral authorities whom young people might want to emulate”.
A member of Chechnya’s official Muslim establishment added that clerics, who have been recruited to help instil traditional values, must approach the issue with “painstaking finesse”.
“A sudden assault is not going to resolve the problem of moral education for young people,” he said.
Meanwhile, Abubakar Sambiev, a Grozny resident, argued that Kadyrov’s government should be devoting its energies to more pressing matters.
“Instead of fighting corruption, it’s a lot easier to pretend to be doing something by campaigning for morality,” he said.
Artur Israilov is an independent journalist in Chechnya.