- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
In Russia, big scary men with mustaches and sabers are feeling threatened by little girls wearing religious headwear.
Local Cossack leaders in the city of Rostov in southern Russia were not happy with a local "fashion week," where one of the planned events was a children’s hijab show. The controversial event was cancelled, allegedly because of Cossack complaints, according to the Kremlin-backed news service RT.
The Cossacks suggested that the show would be more appropriate in, for instance, the Muslim-dominated Chechnya. Timur Okkert, the head of the international relations department of the Rostov Cossack Host, an essential department in any Cossack host, said that the complaints were based on the complicated ethnic situation in the region and fears of provoking conflict.
Just when you think the story couldn’t get any weirder, the Cossacks also came out against using ethnically Russian girls as models. It remains unclear whether they thought using non-ethnic-Russian models would instigate less unrest.
Rostov-on-Don is not far from the Northern Caucasus, where ethnic conflict has been rampant for years. Russian authorities are pumping up security measures in the region before the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics — most recently by collecting saliva samples from Muslim women in Dagestan in an effort to identify potential suicide bombers, particularly the so-called Black Widows. In October, Naida Asiyalova, a Dagestani woman, detonated a bomb in the southern city of Volgograd, killing herself and six other people.
The Cossacks have been an important force in the Russian security effort. The nomadic people, known for their horsemanship and brutality, have been used by Eastern European rulers dating back to before the Russian empire’s founding to protect their interests. Today, they are deployed to patrol Russian streets, often donning traditional garb, and use force when local police is not authorized to do so.
The Cossacks have very particular opinions on what to wear and what not to wear, and it seems that the authorities agree. Following several European courts’ decisions banning religious symbols in schools, Russia’s Supreme Court prohibited hijabs and other religious symbols in schools in July.
But while the Cossacks’s fight against the hijab is part of a larger cultural war in the multi-ethnic Russian society, some would agree they are onto something with trying to ban a children’s headscarf show. In Islam, the hijab is a symbol of sexual maturity, and girls usually start wearing the headdress after they have achieved puberty. Rights activists and sociologists have raised concerns about pre-pubescent girls donning the headscarf. When "Project Chastity," an effort to convince girls between the ages of 10 and 15 to wear the headscarf, was launched nationally in Algeria in early 2013, it met with vocal opposition. Sociologist Yousif Hantablawi told Al-Arabiya that the campaign would have a negative impact on little girls, as small children should not be making such life-changing decisions, and that it is wrong to "convince them" to wear a hijab.
In Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abdallah Al-Daoud went even further, proposing that Saudis should start dressing girls younger than two in hijabs "in order to protect [them] from sexual molestation." His comments provoked outrage in the country, including some calls for prosecution.
What would the Cossacks say to a hijab-clad baby crawling along on a catwalk?