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What the Russian Cossacks Have Against Little Girls in Hijabs

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?

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

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What Convicted Smugglers Tell Us About Iran's Proxy Wars

Yemen has sentenced eight sailors for smuggling arms to local rebels. The crew of the Jihan sailors received sentences ranging from one to six years in prison; the alleged mastermind of the operation, tried in absentia, received ten. No one in the Jihan's crew is Iranian, but Tehran's presence was certainly felt during the trial -- and is the answer to what the Jihan and its deadly cargo were doing in the Gulf of Aden in the first place.

On Jan. 23, the Yemeni military, working closely with the U.S. Navy, stopped a 130-foot sailboat off the coast of al Ghaydah, a Yemeni city near the Oman border. A search of the ship, according to Yemeni officials, revealed that it was carrying an entire arsenal of Chinese surface-to-air missiles, C4 explosives, rocket propelled grenades, mortar shells, and other military equipment bound for Houthi rebels, a Shia revivalist movement that has waged an intermittent war for autonomy in Yemen's northern Saada province over the past decade. The eight-person crew of the ship, all Yemenis, was arrested for arms smuggling.

Almost immediately, Iran was fingered as being behind the deal. It wouldn't be the first time -- the Yemeni government has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis for years, with little evidence to show for it. But starting in 2012, as other ships smuggling arms were intercepted, including some shipments being directed through Turkey to mask their origin, U.S. officials started finding the Yemeni accusations more credible. These shipments, Yemeni officials said, contained heavy weapons and the materials for making explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a lethal variety of roadside bomb that was commonly used by Iranian-allied Shiite militants against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The timing, though, was strange. After fighting a half-dozen "Saada wars" under President Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis had been relatively quiet since the start of the country's revolution in early 2011, some even coming to the capital, Sanaa, to participate in sit-in protests against the government.

That lull has come to an end this month with a fresh round of fighting between Houthis and Salafists in the city of Dammaj, which was a flashpoint during the Saada wars. Over several decades, Salafism that has spread from Saudi Arabia, along with the kingdom's large patronage network among the Yemeni tribes, has reshaped Yemen's religious landscape. Dammaj's Dar al-Hadith institute, a center of Salafist study, is emblematic of the growth of Salafism in Yemeni society that the Houthi movement was in many ways a reaction against. Clashes over Dar al-Hadith over the past two weeks, which have killed over 100 people and persisted despite attempts to find a diplomatic solution, has drawn the attention of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which announced its "total solidarity with our Sunni brothers in the centre in Dammaj," adding that the Houthis's "crimes against the Sunni people will not pass without punishment or disciplinary action."

Iran has been a vocal supporter of the Houthis, part and parcel with Tehran's self-appointed role as the defender of the Middle East's Shiite communities -- though the Iranian leadership practices a different variation of Shiism than the Houthis. "Salafis Continue Attacking Houthis in Northern Yemen," begins one recent Iranian report on the fighting in Dammaj, "Al-Qaeda threatens Yemeni Shia community," reads another. But Iran's interest in Yemen goes beyond cheerleading and quietly smuggling weapons to the Houthis based on their shared Shia heritage: It's also a contested sphere of influence in the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Iran has also tried to make inroads with Yemen's democracy activists, as well, regardless of their religion. Supporting the Houthis is "an indirect means to attack the Saudis," Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told FP. When it comes to the different sects of Shiism practiced by Iran and the Houthis, Iran "is ecumenical about these things, especially when the shared foe is the Saudi family."

The Saada conflict is often overlooked amid Yemen's al Qaeda insurgency and Southern separatist movements. But the recent flare-up on Yemen's forgotten battlefield is and the Jihan sentencing are quiet signs that Iranian-Saudi cold war is still heating up where their proxies meet.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images