Kyrgyzstan: Hijab Row as New School Year Begins

Headscarf dispute pits secular school system against demands to respect religious freedoms.

Kyrgyzstan: Hijab Row as New School Year Begins

Headscarf dispute pits secular school system against demands to respect religious freedoms.

Wednesday, 28 October, 2009

Pupils at the Mendeleyev school in Nookat.

As the new school year gets under way, several Muslim girls in southern Kyrgyzstan have been excluded for wearing headscarves, and more are considering dropping out if the ban continues to be enforced.

The extent to which the headscarf ban is official remains unclear, but schools are citing new guidelines instructing them to interpret and enforce the school dress code more strictly.

In the past, schools have tolerated girls wearing Muslim-style headscarves, but now many are insisting that the costume does not count as part of the prescribed uniform and anyone who flouts the rules will be excluded.

The parents of devout Muslim schoolgirls have protested at the new rules, saying they should be allowed to adopt “hijab” or Islamic dress under the constitutional right to religious freedom.

The dispute is partly about the relationship between religion and the secular state, but is complicated by politics – many of those insisting on the right to wear hijab are associated with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an outlawed group which the authorities regard as extremist and a potential threat.

In researching this report, IWPR met seven girls in Osh region who had been excluded from classes after refusing to remove their scarves.

Thirteen-year-old Mavluda Bahridinova, a pupil at the Razzakov School in Osh, was barred from school at the beginning of the autumn term on September 1 after she refused a request to remove her headscarf.

Her father Jamoldin Bahridinov said that when he came to discuss his daughter’s case, the school head told him that his daughter was attending a Russian-language school, and that if she wanted to keep her head covered she should switch to a madrassah or Islamic school.

“All my objections that the child’s rights and the law on freedom of conscience and religion were being violated went ignored,” said Bahridinov.

He said he reported the incident to the local security department where staff told him that the school’s decision had nothing to do with infringing religious rights, but with regulations at individual schools.

He said what made him particularly angry is that instead of discussing the situation with parents, the headmistress simply did not let his daughter into the school.

“She should have invited parents to the school [to discuss the matter] rather than expelling a seventh grader from classes,” he said

Parents in the Karasuu district of Osh region have written to the local authorities to complain about the new rules, and there are rumblings of discontent in Nookat and other districts.

Although it is clear there has been a general impetus to impose school uniform rules and – without making it explicit – ban Islamic forms of dress since the new academic year began, the rules are being imposed patchily, with some schools in Osh citing higher authority, others their existing internal regulations, and others still not enforcing a ban at all.

In the main, school officials maintain that wearing anything other than the official uniform is breaking the rules.

“We have a dress code on school uniform. They [girls] must follow the rules. The hijab is not part of the school uniform,” said Ermamat Kholmirzaev, headmaster at the Mendeleyev secondary school in Nookat.

But he denied that staff were forcing students to take off their scarves, or that imposing strict uniform requirements amounted to an attempt to curb religious freedom.

“Religion is permitted in our country, but it must not interfere in state [matters]. We aren’t persecuting anyone…. We are demanding that they follow what is written in the school code,” he said.

Ilmira Shakirova, deputy director at the Beruni school in Nookat district told IWPR that she was acting on an order to enforce the rules on proper dress.

“We’ve received instructions from the district education department,” she said. “If someone comes to school, they must adhere to the school uniform.”

Shakirova argued that headscarves were “not aesthetic” and could pose hygiene problems, or even obstruct pupils’ hearing.

Ikram Rahmonov, who works for the education department in Nookat district, said the schools were merely fulfilling their own internal rules to the letter.

Marat Usenaliev, head of the schools department at the Kyrgyz education ministry, denied there was any official ban on headscarves.

“There has been no such ban. The only thing is that a verbal instruction was issued saying that the school uniform should consist of a white top and black lower half,” he said.

When IWPR asked Usenaliev to comment on parents’ allegations that girls were being forced to remove their scarves, he said these pupils were free to attend switch from mainstream state schools to madrassahs if they were unhappy.

"This is a secular state and the schools are a general educational institution. After school, they can go around in hijab or without it,” he said.

Recent campaigns in southern Kyrgyzstan, where the Islamic tradition has always been stronger than in the north, suggest there is a growing trend for women to wear the headscarf. In August this year, Mutakalim, a Muslim women’s rights group based in the south, won its battle for women to be allowed to have passport photographs taken wearing scarves.

Abdumannop Khalilov, head of the Foundation for the Development of Democracy and Rights in Osh, said that since the new school year began, several parents had approached his non-government group for help on the issue.

Khalilov said that two years ago, his organisation approached the authorities on the behalf of a girl in the seventh grade at the Razzakov school, who went on to successfully challenge a decision to forbid her from entering the school wearing a headscarf. He said the girl won the case because the local authorities were unable to challenge the argument that since wearing a headscarf in a public place does not go against the constitution, it should therefore be allowed in schools.

Several parents told IWPR that the Osh regional branch of the prosecution service had become involved in the row, and had called them in to lay down the law.

“They talked to us and said they [schoolgirls] should take their headscarves off,” said a mother from Nookat. “They said it isn’t allowed… The prosecutor said he would send his staff members to check that the ban is being followed.”

Some of the parents interviewed by IWPR admitted they belonged to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group banned in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian republics.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir – the “Party of Liberation” – is a group of Middle Eastern that emerged in Central Asia in the Nineties and advocates the creation of an Islamic state. The party’s several thousand followers in the south of Kyrgyzstan are the most visible and vocal in the region. The Kyrgyz authorities have not pursued a policy of mass arrests as seen in Uzbekistan and to an extend Tajikistan, but keep a close eye on Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other radical Islamic groups which it regards as a security threat.

One parent, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believed the Kyrgyz authorities were following the lead of Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's authoritarian leader, who has taken tough steps to crush the group.

“Gradually, [Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek] Bakiev has started the same policy as Islam Karimov. He has started provocative actions against us members of Hizb-ut Tahrir.”

This man argued that wearing a headscarf was a religious, not a political act.

“In Islam, a woman must cover her body and head from strangers. They are not propagating a particular idea; they are just simply following the canons of Islam,” he said.

Increasing numbers of girls are either dropping out of school over the issue, or considering doing so.

Akbarali Ergashev, from Nookat district, said that pressure on his 13-year-old daughter Mahmudakhon to uncover her head led to her giving up school altogether.

“Of course we realise she isn’t getting an education. But it was her decision [not to go]. If it wasn’t for this ban on wearing headscarves, she wouldn’t have dropped out,” he said.

Nookat resident Bahodir Abdrahmanov told a story similar to that of other interviewees, saying his daughter Barnokhon, now 14, decided to keep her head covered at an early age.

“She started to wear a headscarf and follow Islamic rules when she was six,” he said. “She still wears a headscarf but teachers keep telling her to take it off and have even threatened her with expulsion.

“I’ve warned them that if they break the law [by insisting on the ban], I will take my daughter out of school and send her to a religious school instead.”

Mahabat Aytieva remains defiant after her teenage daughter was excluded for wearing a headscarf.

“We will do what Islam prescribes that we do. We do not agree that our daughters should not wear headscarves… In Islam, this counts as a test. With patience, we shall prevail.”

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