President Vladimir Putin has spoken out against the wearing of headscarves in Russian schools in his first public comment on a potentially explosive issue.
Putin’s statement Thursday follows a recent incident in southern Russia where a school principal forbade girls from Muslim families from wearing headscarves at school. Their parents protested the move and the principal said she was threatened, according to The Associated Press.
Asked to comment on the issue, Putin signaled his opposition to headscarves at schools, saying that Russia is a secular state and must create equal conditions for all its citizens.
“We must always treat the religious feelings of people with great respect. That must be shown in the state’s activities, in the nuances, in everything,” Putin told supporters, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
“Secondly we have a secular state and we must proceed from this basis,” he added, after being asked for his view on the case of a school in southern Russia that banned girls from wearing the Islamic headscarf.
Russian state media interpreted Putin’s ambiguous comments as expressing his backing for a hijab ban.
“Putin spoke out against the wearing of hijabs in schools,” the website of Rossiya 24 rolling news channel reported, according to AFP.
Putin spoke after the Muslim leader of the southern Stavropol region complained this week that female pupils at one school were refusing to go to lessons because the authorities did not permit them to wear hijabs.
The pro-government daily Izvestiya quoted the village school’s headmistress Marina Savchenko as saying that girls would not be permitted to go to lessons in their hijabs, but that they could wear ordinary headscarves instead.
It added that the parents had filed a complaint with the local prosecutor.
The issue of hijabs is particularly sensitive in Russia’s Chechnya region of the North Caucasus, where leader Ramzan Kadyrov has increased pressure on the mainly Muslim inhabitants to observe Islamic traditions including the hijab.
There are about 20 million Muslims in Russia, many of them living in the mountainous North Caucasus, as well as in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan on the Volga River.