TOL SPECIAL REPORT: A Tajik student fights for the right to wear a head scarf, but Islamic leaders see little chance for success. by Igor Rotar 26 September 2007
[This article, in partnership with EurasiaNet, is the fourth in a series examining the state of religious liberty in the countries of Central Asia.]
OSH, Kyrgyzstan | As a devout Muslim, Davlatmo Ismailova faced pressure during her three years at university to remove her traditional head covering during classes. She resisted, until the Education Ministry in Tajikistan ordered schools and universities to ban women from wearing head scarves on campus.
Ismailova, a third-year student at the Institute of Foreign Languages in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, says the ministry’s May decree violates her constitutional right to practice her religion and is an affront to Islamic custom. She vows to continue to fight the new law, all the way to the country’s supreme court, after lower courts rejected her case.
Islamic leaders say the ban is a fresh assault on religious freedom in Tajikistan, where the fiercely secular government of President Imomali Rahmon has imposed restrictions on worship and has cracked down on Islamic political activism. Islamic leaders say the 20-year-old Ismailova has little chance of succeeding in the current political environment.
“Unfortunately, chances of success for the determined woman are very few,” said Khikmatullo Saifullozoda, director of the analytical center of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. He said education officials would not have acted in the first place without the consent of the country’s leadership.
The former Soviet republic’s constitution calls for religious freedom, but in practice there is little liberty and believers are coming under increasing state control. In 2005, the Education Ministry required students to wear uniforms as a way to discourage religious garments, and in May went a step further by banning the hijab, which covers a woman’s hair and neck. The government is also considering new restrictions on the practice of Islam in a country where 97 percent of people are Muslim.
Saifullozoda said he has no estimate for the number of women facing the same plight as Ismailova in schools and universities but says those who defy the ban simply quit school.
Ismailova told the Russian Ferghana.ru news agency that there were 15 other women in her institute who stopped wearing their head scarves after being warned against the practice by their instructors.
‘I CHOOSE HIJAB’
“Regrettably, most girls bowed to the pressure applied in this whole campaign and don’t wear the hijab outdoors anymore,” she said in the Ferghana.ru interview. “I know they fear expulsion. … As for me, I'm not going to follow these orders that humiliate me and encroach on my rights. If they put it this way, institute or hijab, then I choose hijab.”
The hijab is a highly visible symbol of Islamic tradition and a controversial one in Tajikistan and other countries where religious leaders and secular governments try to find accommodation. The head scarf worn by the wife of Turkish politician Abdullah Gul nearly triggered a political crisis in the secularist country when Gul was nominated for president in April.
“The problem with the hijab is rather critical even for the rest of the Central Asian states,” said human rights activist Surat Ikramov in Uzbekistan, which forbids religious clothing in public buildings.
Gulnara Nurieva, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan, where some regional administrations prohibit the hijab in schools, says it is particularly sensitive for devout females. “For Muslim women taking scarves off is as humiliating as being naked in front of men,” Nurieva said.
The Tajik government’s ban on the hijab is part of a broader effort to control the influence of Islam in government, education and society.
A Tajik girl. Photo: Steve Evans/Creative Commons
In its latest survey of religious freedom, the U.S. State Department reports that Tajikistan’s State Committee on Religious Affairs has closed unregistered mosques and prayer rooms but has not interfered in registered places of worship. The report says these and other efforts by the Tajik government “reflected a concern about Islamic extremism, a concern shared by much of the general population. The government monitors the activities of religious institutions to keep them from becoming overtly political.”
But the human rights group Amnesty International reports more dire consequences for Muslims. Nine women were among those sentenced to prison last year for their membership in the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir party and for distributing literature calling for the establishment of an Islamic state. The government has also sought to impose greater control over who attends pilgrimages to Mecca.
“It’s obvious that the state suddenly made its policy very strict in regards to Muslims,” said Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. Kabiri said officials destroyed two mosques in Dushanbe this summer because they were not registered with the government. In July, the city administration also issued a decree prohibiting worship outside of mosques and the broadcasting of prayers from loudspeakers.
Saifullozoda of the party’s analytical center also attributed the state’s readiness to enforce decrees – sometimes before they are even official – to overzealous public officials. “We Tajiks have a proverb about extremely hard-working officials: ‘If a boss asks an official to bring a hat, he or she brings it with a head.’ ”
These steps may also be part of a broader effort by Rahmon to consolidate power. The president took office in 1994 and was re-elected last year with nearly 80 percent of the vote in an election that international observers condemned as lacking pluralism.
Michael Hall, director of the Central Asian bureau of the International Crisis Group, said Tajikistan’s control of faith “is only one of the aspects of modern reality in Tajikistan.”
Despite the odds, Ismailova said she won’t give up, vowing, “I fully intend to fight for my rights.”