Russian Journalist Puts on a Hijab to Test Muscovites’ Reactions


In an update of John Howard Griffin’s 1961 classic study of racism in the US, “Black Like Me,” in which a white journalist passed as a black man, a Russian writer donned a hijab in order to see for herself just how the reaction of Muscovites to “ordinary Muslim girls” has changed since the period since the subway bombings in the Russian capital.

In this week’s “Sobesednik,” Elena Khanyan says that her experiences confirm what Muslim women have told her: In recent weeks, they “try not to leave their residences lest they become victims of xenophobes, who have begun more frequently to attack” those who wear the hijab (

Before taking this step, Khanyan asked some Muslim women whether they could do without the hijab. “Not in any case,” Asya Israilova, a representative of the Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus. “It isn’t one of the five pillars of Islam, [but] it is no less a matter of obligation.”

Israilova acknowledged that there were various opinions about this, and one sales clerk at the Muslim clothing store where Khanyan bought her own black hijab said that “if there is a threat to one’s life [because one is wearing the hijab], then it is better to take it off or replace it with a hood.”

Russian media have carried reports that Muslim women wearing the hijab have been attacked. Shortly after the Moscow metro explosion, two such women were beaten because someone thought they might be suicide bombers. And similar attacks have occurred since that time not only in the capital but in other Russian cities.

Consequently, any Muslim woman who wears the hijab faces “a real threat,” the “Sobesednik” journalist continues. When she put one on, she reports, “everyone looked at her.” Some “turned away; others “crossed the street” to avoid her. “No one through a rock at her back,” she writes, “but many did not conceal their hatred.”

When Khanyan went into the metro, the first ticket seller refused to sell her a ticket. But the second sold her one, although after doing so, she “ran away somewhere,” the journalist says. “On the platform, people moved away from me,” she writes. “But all of them were quiet.” When the train arrived, one women waited to be sure Khanyan wasn’t getting on before entering it.

On her way out of the station, Khanyan continues, she noted that she was being tracked by a militiaman with a dog. Perhaps, she said, the ticket seller had called his attention to her. But “they were going down, and I was already going up,” she says, a possible indication that this was no more than a coincidence.

Another militiaman told her that he was glad he didn’t have to check her. “You need a detector, and I don’t have one, and women must search women, and in our unit, there aren’t any.” Asking for a passport won’t help. It might even be “stupid,” he said, because if the woman was a shahid, “she could blow herself and you up right there.” He’d seen that on TV, he told her.

At the same time, he “acknowledged,” Khanyan writes, that his bosses had “all the same ordered [officers] to track Muslim women with large bags,” but she notes that he gave no indication the interior ministry had given any directive that militiamen should give extra protection to Muslim women should as a result of the recent attacks on them.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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