Hijab ban sparks protests

Dushanbe, Tajikistan - From Baku to Dushanbe, anger and frustration is growing over government curbs on the Muslim headscarf. The Tajik education ministry announced October 19 it had banned the hijab at all secular schools. In Azerbaijan, thousands of women have been deprived of political and civil rights as the result of a divisive law banning women from wearing the head scarf in photographs on all identity documents.

When straight A student Dilnoza Mukhsinzoda was ordered to remove her hijab while at school or face expulsion, she had no problem deciding what to do.

Mukhsinzoda, the first in her school to wear the Muslim headscarf, became the first to be excluded from lessons for refusing to obey a controversial new rule on removing it while in the classroom. “According to the Koran a woman must wear the hijab. I consider this my duty. Let them expel me. I will know that I am suffering for my religious convictions,” said Mukhsinzoda, a 16-year-old from the northern city of Khojent who is in her last year of study.

The Tajik education ministry announced October 19 it had banned the hijab at all secular schools. Deputy Education Minister Farkhod Rakhimov said girls who disobeyed would be expelled. Headscarves worn in the traditional Tajik manner – pulled behind the head, leaving the neck and forehead exposed – are still permitted.

“We have religious schools, and girls who like wearing the hijab should study there,” said Education Minister Abdujabor Rakhmonov.

In a country where 98 per cent of the population is Muslim, reaction to the edict has been mixed. The director of Mukhsinzoda’s school, Mukhabbat Bobokjanova, believes the ministry’s decision is correct. “We have a democratic, secular state,” said Bobokjanova. “There is a school uniform and nothing is said there about Muslim headscarves. As the girls study at a state school, they should wear the ordinary school uniform.”

However, Madina, in her fifth year in the oriental studies department of the Tajik national university, points to recent events in western Europe as proof that forbidding the hijab in Tajik schools is a bad idea. “What did the authorities achieve by banning the hijab in France – this was in a European country, and now it is in flames,” she said, referring to the recent riots. “And we live in a Muslim country. It would be better for them to sort out the education system, the bribes that the teachers take from us, instead of picking on the students. They won’t achieve anything. We wore the hijab, and we will continue to wear it.”

The new regulation has also provoked a wave of anger from the country’s Muslim clergy. Head of the Ulem council, Egamberdy Khudoberdyev said he was “indignant” about the banning of hijabs in school. “When a girl comes of age, by shariat law she is obliged to cover her face. This is her duty,” he said. “In the 1,400 years that Islam has existed, no one has yet suffered from wearing the headscarf."

“The education ministry has its own laws, and Islam has its laws. I still thought that they did not contradict each other. Wearing short skirts and t-shirts is permitted, but the hijab is not. It is my firm belief that all the modern troubles of mankind come from women with uncovered heads.”

The opposition Party of the Islamic Revival of Tajikistan, meanwhile, said the ban contradicts both the country’s constitution and the interests of the vast majority of its citizens.

The issue of the hijab and its place in secular societies is controversial throughout the region. In Azerbaijan, thousands of women have been deprived of political and civil rights as the result of a divisive law banning women from wearing the head scarf in photographs on all identity documents, including driver’s licenses and internal passports.

The decree from Azerbaijan’s interior ministry saying women must be pictured without the hijab dates back to the late 1990s, but the situation became acute only recently when the old Soviet identity card expired in July 2005.

Those who refuse to remove the hijab for their photograph will not be issued with a replacement, meaning they cannot apply for a passport to travel abroad, register at a hospital, vote or attend university.

There had been fears that up to 4,000 hijab-wearing women without the new identity card would be denied the opportunity to participate in the recent parliamentary poll. At the last minute, however, the country’s Central Election Commission ruled the old documents would be valid ID during the election, as many Azeris hadn’t yet been able to obtain new ones.

But this concession was only a temporary reprieve, and the government remains resolute on the hijab ban for all new identity documents. Officials insist the rule is essential to protect the secular nature of Azerbaijan and ensure there’s a separation between mosque and state. “We are talking about attributes of a secular state which are accepted all over the world,” said the head of the state committee on religious organisations, Rafik Aliev, explaining the interior ministry’s position.

Aldar Zeinalov, head of the Azerbaijan Human Rights Centre, had a different explanation, saying the government is going too far in a misguided attempt to prove itself to the West. “Officials probably believe that banning the hijab on document photos will be seen by the international community as a war on Islamic radicalism, as part of the war on terrorism,” he said.

As in Tajikistan, Azeri students and teachers who wear the hijab have also complained of discrimination. Though there are no laws prohibiting headscarves in the classroom, at the start of each academic year nonetheless there are reports of headscarf-wearing pupils being intimidated. This year, eight pupils and one teacher at a school in Zabrat, Baku told IWPR they were threatened by the school director with expulsion if they came to lessons again in the hijab.

However, the government denies that charge of discrimination. “No one forbids girls from attending lessons in headscarves. It would be wrong to force them to remove their headscarves and leave the lessons,” said Education Minister Misir Mardanov in an interview in the Azeri press.

Shakhla Alieva, a biology teacher in the town of Sumgait near Baku, experienced a different kind of prejudice. In March, she was told by officials at the school where she worked that “a religious person cannot teach biology”. Though she insists she taught the subject according to the approved curriculum, she was removed from the classroom.

“I do not have any problem in teaching Darwin’s theory or any other theory, and I believe that in science there is a place for the pluralism of different theoretical views,” she said.

Appeals to the school by the Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, DEVAMM, had no affect, nor did a plea to the state ombudsman. When she took the case to court she was fired, though in the end she won out, with the Sumgait Court of Appeal awarding her compensation and ordering the school to give her job back.

Like the Tajiks, Azeris have a range of views on the issue of hijabs in school with some like Ajdar Agaev, chairman of the Azerbaijan Education Council, “opposed to wearing the hijab, crosses around the neck, even in the form of jewellery and other religious symbols at school”.

“Among other things, I am also worried by another aspect of the problem – forcing people to observe certain traditions,” he added. “I asked one female student why she wore the hijab. And she admitted that her religious brother forced her to, threatening her that if he saw her without the hijab, he would kill her.”

Aidyn Mirzazade, a member of the parliamentary commission for international relations and inter-parliamentary ties, urged tolerance. “If pupils want to come to school wearing a headscarf, then that is their personal business,” said Mirzazade. “The most important thing is that children do not break the general rules of the school where they study.”

Back in Tajikistan, Ibodat, a university student, is planning to give up her studies rather than abandon the hijab. “I will not obey the administration of the university and follow their rules,” she said.

Mokhira, also a student, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, hoping the furore will eventually die out. “I have taken off the hijab for the moment,” she said. “I’ll put it back on when everything calms down.”

Despite flouting the rules, Dilnoza Mukhsinzoda hasn’t been expelled from school. With the support of her mother she has instead chosen to leave and continue her education at a madrasa, a religious school, which her family believes will better prepare Mukhsinzoda for her future.

“The education received at a madrasa allows students to receive an education and be a Muslim,” explained Mukhsinzoda’s mother. “I will marry off my daughters before they turn 18. My husband and I will choose husbands for them. My daughters are not the kind who fall in love. They hardly talk to boys, and if they do it is only on friendly terms.”