The View from Here - Russia - The Muslims who won't submit to uniformity

1st February 2013 at 00:00

Ever since punk collective Pussy Riot went on trial in Moscow last summer over their protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, religion - and its relationship to the state - has been high on Russia's national agenda.

In October last year, five Muslim girls were excluded from their school in the southwest region of Stavropol for wearing the hijab. The event sparked a wave of controversy and led to a stand-off between the local authorities and the pupils' parents, most of whom refused to back down on the issue.

Estimates of how many Muslims live in Russia vary but some put the figure as high as 23 million. In some of the federation's key regions, including Tatarstan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, those who adhere to the Islamic faith are in the majority. In these parts of the federation, it is commonplace for girls to wear the hijab to school. But in Stavropol, Muslims are a minority, albeit a sizeable one. This has arguably allowed the regional government to take a tough stance on religious clothing.

Even so, the non-Islamic authorities appear to be torn on the issue. The academic year began in September 2012 and the five pupils had worn the hijab at school for more than a month without any objection being raised.

Commenting on the exclusions shortly afterwards, President Vladimir Putin said that while religious sentiments had to be respected, proper note should be made of the secular nature of the Russian state. Supporters of Pussy Riot might argue, however, that such secularism was jeopardised by the court ruling last August. Around the time the Stavropol outcry began, education minister Dmitry Livanov reportedly suggested that there was nothing untoward about Muslim girls going to school in the headscarves.

He appears to have changed his tune. In December 2012, the governor of Stavropol announced that school uniforms were to be introduced in the territory and that pupils would be banned from wearing religious clothing. A week or so later, on a visit to the region, Livanov was singing the praises of the move and suggested that it be introduced throughout Russia. "It is important that every child feels comfortable and that the differences that separate them are avoided," he said.

Soon after this, Irina Kuvaldina, Stavropol's education chief, said that about 10 schoolchildren in the region had opted to switch to some kind of external study, including being taught at home, in order to evade the uniform diktat. Moscow's dilemma over the hijab question does not look as if it is going to disappear any time soon.

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