A growing Islamic identity for Chechnya

Serzhen-Yurt, Chechnya – Seda Makhagieva, 15, had to fight to wear the hijab, a scarf that some Muslims say must be worn by women and older girls.

"My family didn't allow me to wear it at first," the petite Chechen girl said as she wrapped a pastel-colored scarf around her head and neck, concealing every strand of her long, brown hair.

"They said I was too young. My mom beat my sister and me every day, but I didn't care: I am a Muslim and it is my duty to wear it."

Half of the girls in Seda's ninth-grade class in the Chechen village of Serzhen-Yurt near the Chechen capital, Grozny, now wear the hijab, a sharp break from local tradition. In past generations, married women in Chechnya covered their hair with a small, triangle-shaped scarf as a sign of respect and modesty.

But these girls are part of a new trend in the republic that has seen two wars in the past few decades and a rise in adherence to the kinds of codes promoted by fundamentalist Muslims. Some Muslims are fighting against it.

"I didn't want them to wear the hijab. I argued, yelled and even beat them," said Seda's mother, Rosa Makhagieva, 45, whose three daughters all cover themselves in loose-fitting, modest clothes. "My husband was against me. He said, 'If you don't allow them to wear it, I am going to make you put it on.' "

Though Islam first arrived in the North Caucasus around 500 years ago, decades of religious repression under communism made it difficult to practice. Now mosques are packed with worshipers every day, and the hijab is becoming increasingly popular.

Many Chechens welcome the Islamic revival after nearly two decades of vicious war against Russian troops in which an estimated 200,000 Chechens were killed. For the younger Chechens, Islam is becoming the cornerstone of identity, replacing horrors they saw as refugees living in tents and abandoned supermarkets in neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia.

"This generation lost its childhood to war," said Imam Yasrayel Ayubov of Serzhen-Yurt, which has nine mosques for its 5,000 residents. "Their education was interrupted, and they grew up overnight. Yet when it comes to Islam, young people are far more educated and observant than the previous generation."

Since his appointment by the Kremlin in 2007, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, 35, has aggressively sought to present Chechnya as Russia's new up-and-coming Muslim region. His government has embarked on an aggressive campaign to promote Islam and to strengthen Chechen traditions.

Throughout the republic, dozens of mosques and Islamic institutions are sprouting, while local TV stations are increasing the volume of programming devoted to Chechnya's Islamic identity.

"Chechnya is now actively positioning itself not only as a relatively autonomous part of Russia but also as a Muslim center," said Russian analyst Nikolai Petrov of Carnegie Moscow Center.

Despite the separation of church and state under Russian law, Chechen schools must now promote Islam. There are prayer rooms in just about every school and a strict dress code, forcing all schoolgirls to cover their heads in school. Many are unhappy over the decree.

"I don't understand the point of it. Nothing changes if you just cover your head at school," said Khadizhad Barshigova, 14, who likes to listen to pop music and watch American comedies.

The process of Islamization was voluntary in the beginning. Women who wore a headscarf were rewarded with a prize. Now all women and girls, regardless of their religion, must observe Islamic dress code by wearing a head covering, long sleeves, and skirts below the knee in public schools and government buildings. Those who refuse become targets.

Human Rights Watch released a report last year documenting a spate of attacks on women without head coverings. The females reported being harassed, some physically harmed for not observing the Islamic dress code.

Alcohol is now all but banned, and authorities encourage taking multiple wives. Gender-segregated hair salons and gyms are becoming the norm. Many Muslims here object to what they call an improper interpretation of Islamic law.

"Not everyone reacted well," said teacher Malika Taramova, 20. "There are now rumors that all teachers will have to wear a hijab. My parents told me they'd make me quit work if that happened."

Inside the gym at Seda's high school, a group of boys dribble a basketball as four girls dressed in long flowing skirts with their heads wrapped in scarves stare at them blankly from the sidelines.

"Girls, don't just stand there," shouts Vakha Dzhamarzaev, the school's gym coach. "Go, go."

Seda and three other girls giggle as they ditch another gym class for an hour of gossip.

"It's getting harder to teach them," Dzhamarzaev said. "The girls won't wear their gym uniforms because they feel uncomfortable around the boys. This was never the case before."

In the school cafeteria, the girls discuss boys and Islam. Few have ambitions to go to college or pursue a career. Yet all of them have steady boyfriends who are "genuine" Muslims.

"We date in secret," Khedi Konchiyeva, 15, said softly. "We like boys, but we follow the rules of Islam. Allah will thank us in the next life."