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#8 - JRL 7216
June 9, 2003
Hijab Comes into Fashion as Elections Approach

At a meeting of the ministry's top officials on May 31, which was chaired by Gryzlov, a decision was taken to 'permit citizens whose religious beliefs do not allow them to appear in the presence of strangers without a headscarf to provide photographs taken in a headscarf, as long as the oval of the face is not concealed.' Gryzlov added that 'Russia's future development as a multi-faith country, the construction of a state based on the rule of law and the construction of a civil society require human rights to be implemented fully. This case concerns the right to freedom of religious expression.'

Gryzlov signed the above-mentioned order without waiting for the Supreme Court's Presidium to consider an appeal by the Interior Ministry against a decision by the Supreme Court's Appeals Board on May 15 to allow several Muslim women from Tatarstan to be photographed for their passports wearing headscarves.

:This saga has been running since last summer, when the Vakhitovsky District Court in Kazan and Tatarstan's Supreme Court rejected the Muslim women's case. Their reason for going to court was very simple: the Koran requires women to cover their bodies, with the exception of their faces and hands, in the presence of strangers. Preventing them from doing this is an infringement of their constitutional right to freedom of religious expression.

According to ITAR-TASS, the plaintiffs claim that their 'motivation for going to court was the appearance on the Internet of reports that women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to be photographed in headscarves.' Quite what relevance the law in Saudi Arabia, where the state religion is Wahhabism, has to the constitutional rights of Russian citizens is not clear.

The Russian Constitution declares that Russia is a secular state. This means that the Koran, like any other holy book, is not recognised by a secular court as a source of human rights. The courts in Tatarstan rejected the Muslim women's case on this basis. However, they were not put off by this and turned to Moscow and the Supreme Court in search of the truth. On March 5, the Supreme Court also rejected their case, but then: (see above).

Now that this saga seems to have come to a close, it is interesting to compare the reactions of Russian politicians and public figures during its course. According to Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, 'simply ignoring the impossibility of being photographed without a headscarf cannot be considered a final answer. This issue needs to be resolved, as we can't force women to be photographed without headscarves. Women either need to be explained why it is forbidden, or it should be allowed.' He made this carefully worded statement last summer at a press conference with foreign journalists.

Farid Mukhametshin, the head of Tatarstan's State Council, was more categorical in his criticism of the initial rejection of the case. 'The Kazan court's refusal to grant the Muslim women's wishes infringes their rights,' he said.

In September last year, at a meeting with representatives of the 3rd International Tatar Congress, President Vladimir Putin announced that he considered the Tatarstan courts' decision to forbid Muslim women from being photographed in headscarves correct. This issue is governed by 'nationwide, universal rules, and they must be followed,' the president said.

Here are some reactions from the last few days. The Russian Council of Muftis welcomed the Supreme Court's decision. According to Nafigulla Ashirov, a co-chairman of the council, the judges had reinforced the right of Muslims to 'follow their religion in full.' The Union of Orthodox Citizens, which believes that Muslims have now become a privileged sector of the population, also made its bewilderment heard.

Officials at the Interior Ministry were also less than delighted by the Appeals Board's decision. They believe that the decision to allow women to be photographed in the hijab will make identification more difficult. Even before Gryzlov's order was issued, Yuri Ivashkin, the head of the Interior Ministry's passport and visa section, said that 'a passport photograph should contain as many identifying marks as possible. If a person is photographed in a headscarf, it is quite difficult to decide whether it is him or not.'

Tests carried out by journalists on their female colleagues, which have been published in a number of newspapers and magazines, clearly confirm this - a girl with her head uncovered and a girl wrapped in a headscarf are 'two very different things.'

This is all the more relevant today as many terrorist acts committed recently in the North Caucasus have involved women. It is clear that thousands of Chechen women will take advantage of the court's decision when applying for a new passport, and some of them will find the opportunity to make identification more difficult extremely useful... This begs the question - why has the Russian Interior Ministry backed down over this issue without going to the last court of appeal?

'The wide public resonance of discussions concerning people's right to be photographed for their passports in headscarves has naturally been reflected in the Interior Ministry's position,' the ministry's press release admits. However, there seems to be more to it than this.

Boris Gryzlov is not only the Interior Minister, but also one of the leaders of the United Russia party. United Russia firmly intends to win a majority in December's parliamentary elections. However, its pre-electoral ratings are not as rosy as it would like - political analysts give the party a rating of 12-15% and suggest that this figure may continue to fall.

Insisting on the principle of a secular Russian state could be used by United Russia's opponents to reduce the party's support in Muslim regions (particularly as United Russia's position in Tatarstan, the largest Muslim region, is very unstable). It seems that the party's officials would like to avoid such an outcome, at least when it is able to influence events. In the run-up to parliamentary elections, the tactical desire to raise United Russia's electoral attractiveness appears to have triumphed over strategic support for the state's interests.

The consequences of this step may be very far-reaching. As well as the possibility that Islamic groups may demand further concessions from the government, it will probably encourage Christians, who form a substantial majority in Russia, to consider whether it is time to push for the introduction of compulsory teaching of the foundations of Orthodox culture in Russian schools. And Voodoo worshipers will also join the debate - after all, banning human sacrifices also breaks their constitutional right to freedom of religious expression...

Yana Amelina, Rosbalt.
Translated by Robin Jones

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