Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijani Islamists Angered at Leader's Conviction

Campaign to overturn headscarf ban in schools to continue.
By Vafa Zeynalova, Maharram Zeynalov
  • An Azerbaijani woman prays at a mosque in Baku. (Photo: Samira Ahmedbeyli)
    An Azerbaijani woman prays at a mosque in Baku. (Photo: Samira Ahmedbeyli)

After a court in Azerbaijan sentenced a leading Islamic activist to 12 years in prison on a terrorism conviction, his supporters insisted he was framed and promised to pursue his campaign against a ban on headscarves.

Islamic Party leader Movsum Samadov was sentenced on October 7, along with other members of the party and two of his relatives.

Around 100 supporters picketed the court building until they were driven away by police.

Samadov was convicted of preparing acts of terrorism, concealing weapons, and inciting his supporters to revolution. (See Crackdown on Islamists in Azerbaijan for more on his arrest in January.)

His wife Tamara said it was no coincidence that he was arrested immediately after he launched a campaign against Education Minister Misir Mardanov’s ban on headscarves in school.

“When Misir decided not to admit girls wearing hijab to the schools, my husband spoke up and said he couldn’t do that, that we’re Muslims and you can’t force us to remove our hijab,” she said. “Two days after that, my husband was arrested.”

The authorities in the Muslim-majority Caucasian state have been trying to ban headscarves in schools and universities since 2007, when they published a draft law to that effect. After facing strong opposition from devout Muslims, they shelved the plan until last year, when schools in Baku and southern Azerbaijan began to impose the ban on an unofficial basis.

Mardanov finally signed a formal decree last December, saying the decision was not against Islamic principles, and was merely to enforce school uniform rules.

His view is shared by many in positions of authority.

“Any woman has a right to wear hijab, but educational institutions are subject to the law on school uniform, and the ban must be applied rigorously,” Bahar Muradova, deputy speaker of parliament, said.

The women protesting outside the court building said they faced discrimination in areas because they covered their heads.

Ilhama Orujova, 27, started wearing a headscarf after she got married. Although she was a highly-regarded employee in her company, her manager told her she would have to lose either the headscarf or her job, since clients would not like to see her dressed that way.

She looked for another job, but found it difficult. “They would turn me down me very cleverly. Only rarely did they give me a reason why I hadn’t got the job,” she said.

Orujova now works in an Iranian shop, where she can wear Islamic dress.

“I don’t understand why society is so hostile to us,” she said. “Women in hijab aren’t backward, uneducated people. I still go out with my friends, go to exhibitions, read books and watch films.”

According to lawyer Rasul Jafarov, it is illegal to sack a woman for wearing a headscarf, since that counts as discrimination on religious grounds.

“All the same, I know of cases when women have not been given employment, or have been sacked or forced to resign, for wearing the hijab,” he said.

Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, head of the Centre for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion, said hijab cases were difficult to fight, as it was hard to prove the exact reason why someone was not given a job.

He said women wearing in headscarves were often told they were unsuitable for a vacancy, and just accepted it.

“Sadly, it’s rare for women appeal to us for help on discrimination at work. Presumably, they don’t believe these problems can be resolved, or that the objections [cited] are illegal,” he said.

Ibrahimoglu said that in all the cases where women did seek his organisation’s help, they had won their cases in court.

“In one big company, a middle-manager picked on a woman who wore hijab. We ensured her rights were upheld, and made sure that the manager who had sacked her was sent for two or three weeks’ tolerance training,” he said.

The other Islamic activists sentenced with Samadov included party officials Vagif Abdullayev and Rufulla Akhundzade, who got 11 and 11.5 years, respectively. His relatives Firdovsi Mamedrzayev and Dayanet Samedov were sentenced to ten years each.

Samadov’s wife insisted that the charges were invented, and did not even make sense, since the weapon he was convicted of possessing was located in a neighbour’s house.

“If the gun was ours, why would we hide it at our neighbours’ house?” she asked.

Many other Muslims insist they will keep up the pressure for schoolgirls to wear headscarves in class if they want to.

“If Azerbaijan is a democratic country, the state must respect freedom of confession as our constitution prescribes,” Haji Nuhbala, the imam or prayer leader at the Nardaran mosque near Baku, said.

Nardaran is a major Shia shrine in Azerbaijan, as the place where a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad is buried.

“Since believers don’t force religion on atheists in our country, there should be no attempt to turn believers into atheists by force, either,” Nuhbala said.

Vafa Zeynalova and Maharram Zeynalov are IWPR contributors in Azerbaijan.