Kadyrov Calling for Women in Headscarves

GROZNY -- Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has called for all women to cover their heads with scarves, the latest in a series of his unofficial orders toughening social customs for women in the violence-wracked, mainly Muslim Russian region.

The recommendation, made by Kadyrov during a television address last week, was not a legally binding order or legislation passed by the regional parliament.

Several government institutions in the capital Grozny, however, including the main government-owned publishing house, posted signs earlier this week forbidding women without headscarves from entering, and guards were enforcing the rule.

Human rights activists reported that at least two universities had also barred women without covered heads from attending classes.

"Legally speaking, you can't demand that women wear headscarves, but in Chechnya, under many governments, authorities have tried to adhere to national traditions," said Dzhambulat Saidumov, 25, a Grozny lawyer. "I support observing national traditions, but I oppose forcing people to [observe] them if they don't want to."

In his televised comments, Kadyrov gave no explanation for his recommendation except to say that Chechens should do more to respect their national traditions.

The Kremlin has pinned its hopes for a lasting peace in the North Caucasus republic on the gruff-talking, rough-mannered Kadyrov, whose father Akhmad also held the Kremlin's hopes for pacifying the region until he was assassinated in a bombing in May 2004.

Since being sworn in as president in April, he has continued leading a reconstruction boom in Grozny that began when he was prime minister. Once a moonscape of rubble and shattered buildings, much of Grozny now has newly painted buildings, streetlights, paved roads and parks.

He has made several, sometimes quixotic, public statements about women's behavior in the region and openly advocated adherence to Islamic customs.

He has said Chechnya does not need Islamic Sharia law, but also said he favors polygamy, which is illegal in Russia, because there are more women than men in the region, and he disapproved of Chechen women who wear Western, instead of Chechen, wedding dresses.

After lamenting last year what he said was the excessive use of mobile phones by Chechen girls, there were reports of young men accosting girls on public transport in Grozny and seizing phones.

"I don't think that wearing headscarves is going to improve the moral foundations of Chechen women and their belief in God," said Luisa Khadzhieva, 35.

Large-scale fighting has ended in the North Caucasus region, but the small number of militant separatists remaining continue to stage hit-and-run attacks on law enforcement and federal troops.

During Chechnya's brief period of de facto independence in the 1990s, the region's government implemented Sharia law as a concession to the growing influence of Muslim fundamentalists in the republic.