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Headscarf debate highlights Russian Muslims’ grievances

Does wearing the headscarf to public school violate the separation of religion and state? Is it a simple matter of following the dress code?

The issue of headscarfs is exacerbated by the perceived double standards of the Russian state privileging one religion over all others, in this case Orthodox Christianity. Perhaps Putin’s framing of the issue as one of protecting secularism would be taken more seriously if he were consistent in his actions.

Headscarf debate highlights Russian Muslims’ grievances

By Thomas Grove

(Reuters) – A ban on girls wearing the Islamic headscarf to a school in southern Russia has angered Muslims and forced President Vladimir Putin, who has robustly defended the Orthodox Church, to affirm that Russia is a secular state.

Muslims in the town of Kara Tyube in the Stavropol region say the ban on the hijab at School No. 12 forces their children to choose between their religion and a state education.

“The principal phoned me personally and told me to come and take my children home because from now on they will not be allowed to attend lessons in Islamic dress,” said Ravil Kaibaliyev, whose daughter Marian was barred from her middle school because of the white headscarf she wore every day.

“To force her (to remove her headscarf) would violate her integrity. She would be torn in a conflict between her soul and the others around her, and I think that is wrong,” said Kaibaliyev, wearing a long beard and white prayer cap.

The school’s principal, Marina Savchenko, said she had received threats over her decision, but did not regret it.

“Here everything should be very simple: it is an institution, so it’s a secular dress code, business-dress style. That’s all. End of discussion,” she said outside the school.

It is Marian Kaibaliyev’s misfortune to live in an area of Russia not recognized as Muslim enough to justify special recognition for Islamic practices.

In Tatarstan, female students freely wear headscarves to school. In Muslim Chechnya, which borders Stavropol and was the site of two separatist wars, a headscarf that covers a student’s hair is part of an accepted dress code.

But in regions where they are in a minority, many of Russia’s 15-20 million Muslims complain that their rights count for less than those of their Russian Orthodox counterparts.


Putin received strong backing from the Russian Orthodox Church in his election campaign this year.

He cast himself as a defender of faith when he attacked an anti-government protest in February in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral by the punk band Pussy Riot as an attack on Russians’ religious sensitivities.

But when he was asked last week about the situation at School no. 12 in a meeting with civic leaders, Putin came down squarely on the side of secularism.

“We should respect people’s religious feelings but we should always proceed from the fact that we live in a secular state,” he said, suggesting that Muslim headscarves could violate the principle of separation of religion and state.

Russia’s Muslims, however, having seen the Orthodox Church grow in strength and influence since the end of communism, are growing increasingly ready to assert their religious identity.

They point to the fact that Moscow has only five mosques despite a population of 2 million faithful, and say that repeated applications to build more have been refused.

Abdullah Mukhametov, a Muslim political and religious analyst, said such grievances were often dismissed by authorities, who tended to try to fob Muslims off with token offerings, such as a ban on the crude anti-Islam video ‘Innocence of Muslims’ posted on the Internet.

“We can talk about the need to protect the religious freedoms and sentiments of all Russians,” he said, “but at the end of the day there is a distinct feeling that some religions are simply more equal than others.”

(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

A secularism that feels threatened by a piece of cloth worn by young women is a weak secularism. I hope these women continue to go to school and fight within the law for their right to choose to wear or not wear the hijab.

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  • Abdulmajid

    It bugs me so much when I read Islamophones’ slander that “wherever Muslism are the majority they oppress Christians.” The serbofascists too justify their genocidal crusade against Bosniaks with that prat. As everybody can see, in Russia but not only there, quite the contrary is true. I could then say with the same right that wherever Christians (or at least people who think of themselves as being good Christians, who think that being a good Christian means being an Islamophobe, a racist, a bigot, a xenophobe) are the majority they are horrible to Muslims. And I would have enough evidence out of the daily news to prove it. For example how the Serbs continue to make life miserable for Bosniaks even though they robbed them of half their country through genocide and erased all traces of Muslims ever having lived there, they’re still not satisfied. And how the official Russian media still portray the Bosniaks as the ones who caused the wars in former Yugoslavia and who “slaughtered Christians.” So do various islamophobic web sites in the USA and last not least all Islamophobic big shots like Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer. That’s evidence enough. And there is a conncetion and a continuity here. Essentially what they say about Muslims is no different from what Karadzic said, and what has been postulated in Serb literature from the times of Njegos. The reconquista, the crusades, British, French and Italian colonialism in the Muslim lands, the Palestine conflict, the “war on terror”…couldn’t they all be seen as expressions of one single ideological campaign that has been going on for centuries? What can I then say? Just this: Who denies my right to exist as what I am or what I have chosen for me, who denies my identity and being one of my people, who challenges the existence of my homeland, can never by my friend, has resigned from the human race, does not merit my respect, and I would like to shove his immense and irrational and injustificable hate down his throat! Who threatens me with violence shall get it back! Who harbors notions of killing me or my brethren … well, I’ll shoot first and ask questions later. If it becomes official government or state polica to declare one group of people enemies of the state and society, then this state and society loses its legitimacy. Milosevic’s Serbo-Slavia lost its legitimaqcy when he first threatened violence. Karadzic and the Bosnian Serbs lost their legitimacy the day he threatened that the Bosniaks would be destroyed. Due to its campaigns in the Muslim lands the US government is in a very doubtful position at best. Should ever anti-Muslim laws be implemented (or anti-African or anti-native American or anti-Asian American or anti-Hispanic lawas be reinstated), then you will have fascism in your country. Should such deranged, depraved and utterly inhuman subjects like the islamophobes whom you denounce here ever gain power you will then be a fascist state!
    Americans beware! The genocidal anti-Bosniak crusade started with islamophobic hate speech. It ended in genocide. You have been there before. Wasn’t the whole politics agains the Native Americans something else than genocide, then I don’t know what it is. Wasn’t segregation no different from Nazism and Apartheid? Yet you realized it was wrong and did much to abolish it. Will you wait until the first anti-Muslim pogroms begin to happen in your cities? And…in WWII a relatively small number of German or Italian Americans were interned…but almost all Japanese Americans. What about the racist anti-Hispanic laws in Arizona? Beware! The road to fascism seems a wide and inviting one and it subtly and slowly slopes downward, downward until there is a point of no return and who travels on it slides right down to Hell. Too many steps have already been traveled down that road. And who travels down that road to Hell will take too many innocent lives with him before he can be stopped.
    The Holy Qur’an says that one must discuss with those who would be our enemies rationally. But turning the other cheek is not an option. Even when I was a child of seven I looked through the fallacy of it. That is what Christianity preaches, yet through the ages people who see themselves as good Christians have done exactly the opposite. At least the pagan Romans were more honest about their motives. That’s why I have turned away from it. As to forgive my enemies? Only if they ask my forgiveness first, and only if their regret is honest.

  • Ummer

    Maybe the headgear protects the females from demonic predators?

  • DrM

    Lo :

    “Secularism is really just another religion.”

    You nailed it.

  • Lo

    I’ll just say this:

    Secularism is really just another religion.

  • AJ


    My friend went to a Catholic girls school in Oregon with her hijab on. I guess Americans are better at integration than Singaporeans.

  • Nevermore

    The only ‘issue’ here is that, as far as I know, no Muslim groups have given Putin backing on political issues while the Russian Orthodox Church has. I’d be interested to know how much Stavropol can influence in the Duma. The real reason Ms. Kaibaliyev can’t wear her hijab is more to do with the fact Putin gets a lot of political backing from cronies in the clergy. Had he more support amongst Russia’s Muslims, I’m sure he’d want to overturn such an act while at the same time letting Pussy Riot get off scot-free for what they did.

    In other words: less to do with secularism and more to do with Putin being an autocratic, albeit somewhat populist, strongman.

  • Bob

    “We’re a secular state. No, we are a state under God. We’re a secular state. No, we are a state under God. We’re a secular state. No, we are a state under God….”

    I wish they’d make a choice.

  • Sunny

    Hi, I wish one day more Muslim can come to Singapore to see how we Muslim integrate with others. My children goes to a Catholic school for her formal education (without hijab) then on weekends to the local Mosque (Madrasah) with her hijab to study Islamic values. The headscarf issue should not be made a national issue as I believe Muslim are better at integration than others.

  • Absolutely right, Mindy1! 🙂 So long as the school is not requiring or officially promoting the wearing of headscarves, it is no violation of “separation of church and state” for Muslim girls to wear them voluntarily because of their faith. They’re not exactly asking the school to compel all girls to wear them.

  • Reynardine

    Russian women of all faiths have worn those for centuries, and it has a great deal to do with not freezing one’s ears.

  • @Mooneye

    I’d really like Putin to explain how the head scarf is a threat to religious freedom, and the Separation of Church and State

  • mindy1

    I disagree, to me separation of church and state means not forcing anyone to follow a certain religion, but at the same time allowing people to follow their own faith

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