MINELRES: RFE/RL: Russia: Tatar Muslim Women Win Lawsuit over Headscarves Ban

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RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies
Vol. 4, No. 13, 28 May 2003

"We must...create a life worthy of ourselves and of the goals we only
dimly perceive." (Andrei Sakharov, 1975 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture)



Muslim women in the Russian republic of Tatarstan have won a court
battle that is seen by many as a vindication for the struggle for
equality of religions in the Russian Federation, dominated by the
Russian Orthodox Church. The appellate chamber of the Russian Supreme
Court ruled on 15 May that citizens may have their passport
photographs taken wearing headscarves if their religious beliefs
require it. Considering the appeal of 10 Tatar Muslim women from
Tuben Kama, the court annulled Article 14 of the Russian Interior
Ministry's 1997 passport regulations, which require photographs
without sunglasses and headwear (see "RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Report,"
15 May 2003). 

Vladimir Ryakhovskii, a Moscow-based lawyer representing the plaintiffs,
making a larger point about religious freedom in Russia, told
"Izvestiya" daily in an interview published on 16 May: "We have won a
very important victory because from now on not only Muslim women will be
able to be photographed the way their religion requires it. Orthodox
nuns also may have their passport photographs made wearing headscarves."
The federal Interior Ministry's passport and visa bureau told reporters
that it will appeal against the court's ruling (see "RFE/RL
Tatar-Bashkir Report," 20 May 2003). In fact, Orthodox nuns and other
religious bodies have not become involved in this dispute.

The controversy pitted religious communities against the state but also
provoked contradictory responses from secular authorities. Apparently
unwilling at first to confront religious activists, the Russian Interior
Ministry first allowed women to be photographed with headgear, but then
changed the rule. First, a 1998 memo interpreting the 1997 regulations
allowed room for concession to religious communities. But then security
officials evidently could not make proper identifications without having
ears, neck, and hair visible. In many countries, even those with equal
rights for all religious traditions such as the United States, all
applicants for passports must submit photos with the face, ear, neck,
and hair visible. In Russia, the local tolerance of kerchiefs in photos
stopped in February 2002, followed by a June 2002 telegram to the
regions invalidating the recommendation, which in turn prompted the

Ryakhovskii, the women's lawyer, said, "The directive put them [Muslim
women] in a catch-22 in which religious norms and government regulations
irreconcilably contradicted each other," moscowtimes.ru quoted him as
saying on 16 May. The decision of the appellate chamber was seen as a
victory for civil rights and religious tolerance in Russia by both the
Muslim community and secular civil rights advocates. International
groups, which have generally refrained from commenting about
governments' decisions to ban headscarves in France, Turkey, and other
countries where headgear has become a public controversy, have preferred
to see such decisions as a sign of religious tolerance than as a
concession to religious fundamentalism.

Writing for the conservative city-journal.com on 23 April, British
commentator Theodore Dalrymple analyzes France's headscarf controversy
with its immigrant Muslim community. In France, Interior Minister
Nicolas Sarkozy provoked the ire of the French Muslim community in May
when he stated at a public meeting that photographs for the compulsory
French identity card must be taken bareheaded, without exceptions.
Another government body had previously ruled that Muslim women could
wear the headscarves in public schools, igniting further debate which
culminated in Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin announcing that he
intended to reinstate the ban on headscarves "in the exercise of any
public function." Citing Agence-France Press reports, Dalrymple says,
"scarf partisans are duplicitously using a double tactic and a double
language to impose their views on Muslim women - their ultimate goal
being the destruction of the liberal-democratic state itself." Western
news services reported the booing of people in the hall where the French
interior minister spoke against the headscarves; Dalrymple insists there
are reports of some women in that audience who in fact applauded the
minister for upholding women's rights and the secular state. Citing
incidents of rape of young Muslim women who wore Western-style clothing
in immigrant housing projects outside Paris, Dalrymple surmises that "it
is impossible to know whether the adoption of Islamic dress by women in
Western society is ever truly voluntary, and so long as such behavior
persists, the presumption must be against it being so." 

Because Muslim women are often subject to forced marriages, "no one can
tell whether they wear Islamic costume from choice or through brute
intimidation," says Dalrymple. By contrast, some human rights and Muslim
women's rights groups have written about the empowerment Muslim women
obtain both within their families and as poor immigrants in wealthy
Western societies by wearing the headscarves and battling for their
recognition in public life.

The dynamics of the headscarves controversy in Russia, while similar in
some respects to Europe, is different because it involves citizens
rather than immigrants, and national groups with centuries of history
together, now co-existing within the federal framework of Russia. Beyond
the headscarves debate, tensions between Kazan and Moscow have arisen
recently over Tatarstan's autonomy and the degree of power sharing with
the capital. Seen in this context, the passport-photographs issue
appeared to be more about autonomy for Tatarstan than about a bid to
force Russian state conformity to Islamic law.

Muslim leaders were angered when Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a
meeting with World Tatar Congress delegates last year, said that Muslim
women should not be allowed to wear headscarves in the passport photos
because the photos had to conform to "national standards" (see "RFE/RL
Newsline," 30 August 2002). Mukaddes Bibarsov, chairman of the Muslim
Spiritual Directorate of the Volga region, said women should insist on
their right to wear the scarves for their passport photos, because it is
"an actual religious duty and not a trend in fashion," Tatnews reported
on 4 September 2002 (see "RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Report," 6 September
2002). In responding to the challenge, Interior Ministry spokeswoman
Irina Bochinkova said: "The Koran is not a legal source of rights on the
territory of the Russian Federation. We have a secular state, so no
religion can be a dominating one," vesti.ru reported on 15 May. 

Without the passport, used for domestic identification not for foreign
travel, women would face difficulties in getting married, changing their
residential registration permits, and obtaining insurance policies or
other documents (see "RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Report," 15 April 2003).

Although the women's court battle has been won for now, the official
appeal against the ruling and public sentiment indicate continuing
opposition to any tolerance of headscarves. In a commentary titled "Back
to the Middle Ages" in "Nezavisimaya gazeta-religii," No. 8, Ruslan
Tuimazy said the issue wasn't really whether Muslim women could wear
kerchiefs. "No one can prevent any believer regardless of his or her
religious affiliation from dressing in accordance with their traditions
or canons." Rather, Tuimazy believes the demand of women to wear the
scarves when taking official passport photographs "is a definite
challenge to the secular society and state, a testing of the integrity
of the constitutional principle of separating religion from the state."
The demand doesn't come from the entire Muslim community as a whole,
says Tuimazy, but "only from radical-minded Islamists, members of the
Tatar Civic Center, which has resolutely declared its rejection of the
secular society surrounding it."

The lawsuit brought by the Muslim women made reference to the commands
of the Koran, although Tuimazy believes that the Koran only requires
that an adult woman be modestly dressed in front of males outside the
family. Appearing to give in to radicals, writes Tuimazy, the Russian
Supreme Court decision creates "a rather dangerous precedent" with
consequences now hard to predict. Using an argument often made by
central authorities faced with the challenge of Russia's multiethnic
society, Tuimazy asks what would happen if all the religious groups with
various types of traditional clothing were to demand that their passport
photos be taken with various hats or robes in keeping with their
traditions. "We have to think about the fact that our Russian society,
which has already become divided by national [ethnic] affiliation in the
last decade, is now gradually and irrevocably gaining distinctions by
religious affiliation. How will this be reflected on the social climate,
will this foster tolerance, how will it affect youth and the atmosphere
in the military collective?" 

In France, some of the women who attended the public meeting where
Interior Minister Sarkozy announced the plan to ban headscarves have
announced that they will take their case to the European Court of Human
Rights if he follows through on the legislation to ban the custom in
public schools and other institutions and in civil procedures like
passport photos. The Tatar Muslim women had indicated the same intention
if they lost their suit. Thus, "they intend to hoist Western society by
its own petard," writes Dalrymple about such efforts - using human
rights instruments to undermine a liberal society defending separation
of church and state. Western women's rights activists have pointed out
in defense against such attempts to undermine human rights that Article
5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that no one can use
one right within the declaration to undermine another right, i.e.
religious believers seeking freedom of religion cannot undermine freedom
of speech or women's rights. Yet no internationally recognized body has
enough credibility to make a final pronouncement on such matters,
ensuring that the controversies will continue.

Whether invoking internationally recognized human rights,
constitutionally protected civil rights, or national customs and norms,
by their inconsistency and confusion, as well as failure to resolve the
larger issues of federal-regional relations and tolerance of minorities,
Russian government agencies have ensured that the headscarves issue will
not die.


Copyright (c) 2003. RFE/RL, Inc. All rights reserved.

"RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies" is prepared by Catherine Fitzpatrick on
the basis of reports by RFE/RL broadcast services and other sources.
It is distributed every Wednesday.

Direct comments to Catherine Fitzpatrick at catfitzny@earthlink.net
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