By IWPR — Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Government seems to equate headscarves with security threats posed by militant groups.
Last summer, Bibinisoi Badriddin, now 19, was prevented from enrolling at Tajikistan’s leading university on the grounds that she chose to wear a Muslim headscarf.
Admission officers at the National University in the capital Dushanbe refused to accept Badriddin’s application documents after they saw her wearing a headscarf, part of the costume known as “hijab” adopted by many devout Muslims.
“They handed my documents back to me and said that wearing hijab made it impossible to attend the university,” Badriddin told IWPR.
Hijab and other overt signs of religious observance are frowned on in Tajikistan, a country with an overwhelming Muslim population. Since 2005, education ministry regulations banning hijab from universities and schools have been in place.
Headscarves worn in the traditional Tajik manner – generally colourful and tied behind the head are deemed un-religious and are hence acceptable.
When Badriddin was at school, she was excluded for wearing the hijab-style headscarf, but she was reinstated after her parents complained.
Now she is re-applying for university.
The rules on hijab form part of wider government restrictions on Islamic practice. In the last five years, two laws have been passed, tightening up the rules for setting up new mosques, and penalising parents who allow children to attend mosques in school time.
Officials interviewed by IWPR acknowledge that some restrictions on dress apply in the education system, and say they are worried about what they see as “foreign” aspects of Islam.
Marifat Shokirova from the government Committee for Women’s and Family Affairs said hijab was an alien import.
“Tajik women should adhere to our national traditions and hold them in higher regard than foreign ones,” she said.
Education ministry spokesman Mahmudkhon Shoev said similar dress-code restrictions applied to miniskirts, sparkly dresses and glitter-covered headscarves.
“Young women are allowed to wear hijab outside their places of study,” he added.
The one exception to the hijab ban is religious schools and Tajikistan’s only Islamic university. But local analysts say there are only six such schools, compared with around 4,000 secular ones around the country.
The authorities are concerned about the influence of Islamic radical groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jamoat-e Tabligh, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. But experts like Parviz Mullojanov say the government fails to draw the correct distinction between genuine extremists and people who choose to lead lives of religious observance.
Mullojanov argues that there can be no possible security threat from women who cover their heads in the workplace or in education.
Oinikhol Bobonazarova, head of the Perspektiva Plus NGO, warns that heavy-handed prohibitions tend to drive people away from the state.
“Restrictions and obstacles of this kind will force women to look for alternatives to a secular education. Such actions by the authorities will lead to the further radicalisation of society,” she said.
Outside the education system, some employers bar their female staff from wearing Islamic dress.
A 28-year-old Dushanbe office worker who gave her first name as Surayo said she was about to lose her job because of her appearance. Her previous manager allowed her to come to work in a headscarf as long as she tied it behind her head while in the office. But he has now left, and her new boss has made it clear he does not want to employ someone he sees as excessively religious.
“He’s now given me an ultimatum – either I stop covering my head or I’ll be fired,” Surayo said. “I don’t know what to do, since it wouldn’t be that easy to find a new job.”
This article was written by Humairo Bakhtiyor who is an IWPR contributor in Dushanbe. It originally appeared in the Central Asia service, Islamic dress as bar to female education in Tajikistan, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, iwpr.net.