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GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - Several businesses in Russia's Chechnya region were ordered this week to cover up the bare heads of women in their advertisements, in what a local government source said was the latest assertion of Muslim customs by the authorities.
A decade after Moscow drove separatists out of power in the second of two wars since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin relies heavily on Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to keep insurgents in check and maintain a shaky peace.
But analysts and rights groups say that in return, the devout Sufi Muslim is allowed to enforce his vision of Islam, at times curbing women's rights and other civil freedoms guaranteed by Russia's constitution.
A band of men whom hairdressers described as being dressed in the uniform of local security forces stormed the "Edem" salon in the center of the regional capital Grozny, demanding they cover up the hair of two women in their advertisement.
"Authorities walked around the area, ripping off ads with women pictured in them. They told us that ads displaying women without headscarves are banned," said a 28-year-old hairdresser, who declined to give her name.
"We got scared so we covered them up," she said pointing to a large crimson ad outside where the black and blonde locks of two women in photographs had been plastered over with red tape.
The orders come on top of a spate of paintball attacks last year on women for not wearing headscarves on city streets in Chechnya, igniting ire from women who said being forced to dress a certain way violated their rights.
Kadyrov later said he was grateful to the attackers.
Four years ago he issued an edict that said women must don headscarves to enter state buildings. Rights groups say it is a violation of Russian law, but the edict is strictly followed.
Rights workers and some locals fear that Vladimir Putin's return to the presidency will strengthen Kadyrov's grip over Chechnya.
"There had never been this sort of treatment toward women on the government level before. This all started when Kadyrov came to power (in 2007)," said Raisa Borshchigova, 31, who was compelled to become an independent rights activist after she was shot at with paintball pellets.
A source in the regional government, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the attacks on advertisements had been ordered by local authorities.
But a spokesman denied Kadyrov had issued such an order.
"All advertisements in Grozny are in place. We didn't take a single one down, or order anyone to do so. Cowards are spreading lies about us," said the spokesman.
The state-funded Islamic Cultural Center, which is linked to Kadyrov and has openly spoken of its contempt for bareheaded women, denied involvement.
"It was terrible. About seven of them came in and said we needed to change our ad or we couldn't operate anymore," said Italian clothing store owner Mariana, adding she had also taped over the womens' hair.
But not everyone received warnings.
When a dentist at a central clinic returned one afternoon this week, he saw that his poster advertising a tooth whitening service had been destroyed, leaving a ring of blonde hair encircling a gaping hole that had once been a woman's face.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow