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

Headscarves Provoke Bitter Controversy

Religious young women risk problems if they choose to wear Islamic clothing.
By Nigar Musayeva
When Humai, a young Azerbaijani women, decided to begin wearing a Muslim headscarf, her mother took the news with surprising composure. According to her daughter, she said only, “Well, you’ve made your choice, so do as you wish. But you should know that this will make your life very difficult. You will never be able to achieve many of your plans and dreams.”

Just a year later, Humai found that her mother was right. The first unpleasant surprise awaited her when she went to the passport office to get an identity card, which she needed to enter university.

Although Azerbaijan is a secular state, girls and women wearing headscarves in public are an increasingly frequent sight. Attitudes towards them range from sympathetic to extremely hostile.

The problems often start with obtaining official identity documents. Azerbaijan’s passport, visa and registration offices refuse to accept photos of women wearing headscarves for official use. For their part, most of these women won’t be photographed with their heads uncovered.

There is inconsistency in the law, which requires that a passport photo should show a person “without a head-covering”, but also that it should be his or her “everyday appearance”.

Humai grew up in a secular family. “Our home has never been religious,” she said. “But ever since I was a teenager, felt something was lacking, something to give me spiritual comfort. I was in a constant state of searching until I met people, who were performing namaz [daily Muslim prayers]. They taught me the principles of the Muslim faith, the Koran, and then I understood that this was just what I had been looking for.”

Because of the headscarf issue, Humai never obtained a passport and as a result, she was unable to continue her education at college. She has had to give up her dream of getting a good professional job and becoming a diplomat. In the only college that agreed to enrol her without a passport, she took accountancy courses. Because she speaks good English, she has been able to earn money on the side as a tutor.

The silver lining in Humai’s story is that in the course of her legal actions to defend her right to wear hijab, or Islamic dress, she met her future husband - also a devout Muslim - and they now have a two-year-old son.

Today, she is a member of DEVAMM, a group set up to defend the rights of women who wear hijab. It is headed by the cleric Ilgar Ibrahimoglu (the subject of another IWPR report, Young People Increasingly Drawn To Islam), who founded the organisation after his own wife encountered problems because she wore the hijab.

Those women who do proceed into higher education are generally banned from wearing the headscarves in classes, which has led to a number of confrontations at Baku State University, Sumgait University, the Bulbul musical school and other colleges.

These institutions argue that the women play on the issue so that they can claim discrimination, sometimes when they are failing in their studies.

DEVAMM has received scores of complaints from women who say their rights were violated. The group makes the argument that wear a headscarf is a civic right that is in line with the country’s international obligations.

The organisation also notes that female family members of Azerbaijan’s official religious leader, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, were given special permission to have their passport photos taken wearing the hijab.

The headscarf issue is dividing families and believers right across Azerbaijan.

Outwardly, 30-year-old Mariam Ismailova does not seem pious. She looks like a fashion-conscious, attractive young woman with gorgeous long hair. But for several years, Mariam has been regularly performing the namaz, keeping fasts and trying to stick to the rules set out in the Koran. She smokes, but refuses alcohol on religious grounds.

However, Mariam does not wear the hijab. “I think that in a modern society, a woman shouldn’t have to do this,” she said. “I believe that a woman’s spirituality and purity have nothing to do with whether she wears a hijab or has her head uncovered. Purity of thought and moral principle matter far more.”

Humai may have won the grudging approval of her parents for her decision, but other families frequently engage in heated rows over the issue.

“I’m very glad that I managed to talk my 17-year-old daughter out of covering her head,” said Sanubar Efendieva. “The girl fell under someone’s influence, and for several weeks our house was just hell.”

Parents say they are acting in their children’s best interests by forbidding them to wear the hijab.

“They want to voluntarily lock themselves up in a prison, and deprive themselves of many of the joys of life, and of a normal career,” said Efendieva. “And what for? I think it’s your soul rather than your head that matters to Allah.”

Other family members fear that their loved ones might turn into religious fanatics.

Dilshad Mamedova’s husband was not happy when she announced she would start wearing a headscarf. She was 40 at the time, and could not be dissuaded. Her husband and grown-up children objected as much as they could, arguing that if she wore the headscarf, Dilshad would lose old friends and acquaintances.

“What’s essential for me is that I am accepted by Allah, not by people,” she declared. In her case, wearing the hijab has not changed her life dramatically. Today, she works distributing cosmetics, gives religious education lessons to orphaned girls, and engages in charity activities.

Mamedova does have a passport, since she decided she could be photographed with her head uncovered.

“I think getting photographed without a head-covering is not in breach of the Koran,” she said. “It’s just an image, not a live woman.”

Even so, she has still had problems. On her way to the United States to attend a religious conference, she spent two hours at the airport refusing to take off her headscarf while border guards demanded she do so, to check whether she resembled her uncovered self in the passport photo.

At the age of 24, Humai’s only identity paper is “Form № 9”, a document which she received when she was 16 and has long since expired. But she insists that she is happy with the decisions she has made.

“I think that wearing the hijab but letting yourself be photographed without it amounts to a kind of hypocrisy,” she said. “I would give in only in an extreme emergency – for instance, if I had to leave the country for urgent medical treatment or something like that. Although I might not agree to do it even then.”

Nigar Musayeva is a freelance journalist in Baku

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