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Tajik Authorities Get Tough on Female Islamists

The authorities dismiss women who join Hizb-ut-Tahrir as mere puppets of the men in the banned group, but still insist they must be locked up for years on end.
By Madina Saifiddinova
The authorities in Tajikistan have begun meting out hefty prison sentences to female members of the Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but appear to be at a loss to explain what drives women to join the banned movement.

At series of trials ending in late May, a court in Khujand, the main town in the northern Sogd region where Hizb-ut-Tahrir is particularly active, nine women received sentences of between five and 11 years for associating the group, which has been illegal since 2001.

None was accused of acts of violence, and the most serious charge was calling for the state to be overthrown. Other accusations were that they had distributed leaflets and recruited new female members.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir – the “Party of Liberation” – is originally of Middle Eastern origin, but took root in Central Asia in the Nineties amid political ferment and economic decline. It first became active in Uzbekistan, calling for the creation of a “Caliphate” based on the early Muslim states, but while it called for a change in government to achieve this, it always professed non-violence.

The authorities in Central Asia have accused Hizb-ut-Tahrir of masterminding various acts of violence across the region, although such allegations have proved difficult to substantiate independently.

The organisation has survived thousands of arrests of real and supposed members in Uzbekistan through a tight structure of isolated, underground party cells, and has spread to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, initially through ethnic Uzbek communities but also embracing other groups.

Governments in the region dislike opposition of any kind, and are especially fearful when it comes in the form of political Islam – which appears to offer simple solutions to the region’s unsurmountable problems of economic, political and social marginalisation – and is based on a tradition with deeper roots than either Soviet Communism or the neo-nationalism which emerged from it.

One of the women was identified as head of a female cell of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and got 11 years in prison because of her active role in disseminating propaganda, according to Sogd deputy prosecutor Asatillo Urunov.

The nine convicted in this trial were among 21 women arrested in Sogd region on similar charges since the beginning of the year.

Urunov said the authorities only started arresting women on a wide scale this year, in response to a perceived change in their role in the Hizb-ut-Tahrir network.

“Until 2006, there were virtually no women among Hizb-ut-Tahrir members who were arrested,” he said. “Previously, we did not charge them because our legislation is humane, but they abused this and began to become active.”

The reasons that prompt women to join the Islamic group are unclear. Officials talk variously about pressure from male relatives, financial gain, or as one investigator put it, “fanaticism”. But are these assessments over-simplistic?

The thrust of the May court case was that the women only joined Hizb-ut-Tahrir because their husbands, brothers or other relatives forced them to.

Marhabo Turdimatova, the judge in one of the May trials, told IWPR, “It was very painful to see the tears of a husband – a Communist - when his wife was sentenced for membership of the extremist [Hizb-ut-Tahrir] party, which she joined under her brother’s influence,”

The sister of a woman sentenced to ten years in jail, speaking on condition of anonymity, said she had been forced to join Hizb-ut-Tahrir by her husband.

“When she discovered that her husband was actively engaged in propaganda work, she initially tried to talk him out of it, but he got very angry and even hit her. And then he started forcing her to do propaganda work and hand out leaflets among the women in our street. She resisted, but he threatened to divorce her and take the children with him,” said the woman’s sister.

“Now she will be separated from her four children for many years, and she’s only 40.”

Another route to membership is recruitment by existing members. Even the purported ringleader is said by prosecutors to have joined after meeting other wives while visiting her husband in prison.

In a country where poverty and unemployment are endemic, modest sums of money are said to have acted as a powerful incentive. Prosecutors say defendants admitted to receiving up to 30 US dollars for delivering leaflets. “For carrying out an errand like this, they received the average monthly salary of some public-sector employees,” said a prosecution official.

A more sophisticated argument is that women really are taking a more assertive role in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, if only because so many men have been rounded up.

“When they saw that the law-enforcement agencies had stepped up arrests of devoted male supporters, they handed over certain powers to women,” lawyer Muhabbat Juraeva told IWPR.

But if the official line is that the women of Hizb-ut-Tahrir are passive victims who have been coerced and led astray, the question remains why the authorities feel they need to lock them up for a decade or more.

The establishment view seems to be overwhelmingly punitive.

Even a legal aid lawyer in Sogd region, Gulchekhra Rahmonova, is unsympathetic towards those who get caught up in Hizb-ut-Tahrir for whatever reason.

“Everyone is equal before the law, and it makes no difference if you are a women or a man. Judges only take into account whether women have underage children. Ten years in prison is a minimum prison sentence, given that Hizb-ut-Tahrir men get 15 years for this crime,” said Rahmonova, who is head of the regional branch of the INIS Legal Aid Centre.

“Only punishment can – in part - stop them from crimes. They are committing crimes against the state. Not punishing them means acknowledging their activity.”

Such views appear to ignore the possibility that women might be active participants in Hizb-ut-Tahrir in their own right, and join it out of genuine religious conviction, even if that is misplaced.

The suggestion that the women are ignorant and easily manipulated is weakened by reports that many of them have had a college or university education.

“You can’t say the party members are uneducated. There are women who’ve had a higher education - in fact, about half of them. One, for example, is a paediatrician from the local polyclinic,” said judge Turdimatova.

According to deputy prosecutor Urunov, “Each witness says that the women wear hijab [Islamic dress], say the namaz [prayer] five times a day, borrow books from their fellow party members, and take part in women’s meetings every day.”

A woman who was jailed in a separate trial from the nine convicted in May apparently became convinced that Hizb-ut-Tahrir was a good thing after her husband underwent a complete reform under the group’s influence. Her sister-in-law, who did not want to be named, recalled, “He drank a lot and often, and when he was drinking he’d beat her up – the family was falling apart. He changed radically in 2004: he started praying, and was bringing money home. It turned out he’d joined Hizb-ut-Tahrir.”

The wife followed her husband into the organisation, but both are now in prison – she for ten years, he for 16.

A man whose son is already in jail for membership of the Islamic group recalled how his daughter-in-law, too, was drawn in – apparently through conviction. “She’d shut herself away in her room and read books. She was constantly meeting up with women wearing the hijab,” he said.

“We warned her not to join the banned party, but she said it was her destiny.”

Madina Saifiddinova is an IWPR contributor in northern Tajikistan.

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