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

Tajikistan: Women Challenge Mosque Ban

The authorities’ decision to help enforce controversial edict is seen by some as an attempt to curb radical Islamic influence.
By Akbar Sharifi

Every Friday, around 2,500 women make their way from across Tajikistan to the village of Turkobod, some 27 kilometres from the capital Dushanbe, where they hope to attend the local mosque. And every week, the local police turn out in force to stop them, in line with an official ban that many believe contradicts the Koran as well as violating women’s rights.


Zumrigul Nazarzoda was one of the women turned away on October 1. “Why are we forbidden to come to this mosque when it has facilities to allow us to pray separately from men?” she asked.


“We come here to pay our respects to Allah, and be alone with him. Some of us lost husbands or sons [in the 1992-97 civil war], and we pray to God for their souls to rest in peace. Surely we’re not getting in anyone’s way?”


The decision to ban women from attending mosques, which was taken on August 17 by Tajikistan’s religious leaders, outraged the public and is seen by some as an attempt to curb radical Islamic influence.


The Council of Ulems, the official body representing the Muslim faith, maintains that the decision was necessary as the majority of the former Soviet republics’ mosques do not have the necessary facilities to allow men and women to pray separately – arguing that any mingling of the sexes was unacceptable.


But other religious figures criticised the initiative and claimed that it violates women’s rights and contradicts the teachings of the Koran.


Former council member Ishan Aloma told IWPR, “The decision is absurd, as attending the mosque on Friday, the holy day, is a good thing to do. The Koran does not forbid women from going to the mosque - even their husbands do not have the right to stop them from praying there.”


Muslim women took their protests to the state ministries and the presidential committee for religious affairs as well as to the council, but to no avail.


The Tajik government has refused to comment on the council’s decision. The head of the presidential committee for religious affairs, Golib Goibov, said only, “The decision is the business of the council leadership and any comment from the authorities would be out of place.”


With no hope of having the ban overturned, the women decided to challenge it instead, with between two and three thousand travelling to the Turkobod mosque every Friday, arguing that as it boasts separate prayer areas for men and women, the religious authorities should not have any objection to them praying there.


However, the police and the local authorities have chosen to enforce the council’s ban, and their efforts have not been successful.


Local resident Makhbuba Rajabova, who was among those eager to worship at the Turkobod mosque, alleged that a regional official had “grabbed one woman by the collar and told her to go home” while the police ordered the women’s minibuses to turn around and leave the area.


“We were told that we should pray at home and not neglect working in the fields as the regional plan for the cotton harvest must be met,” said another.


Ismoil Gulov, head of the local administration in the Vakhdat region which covers the Turkobod mosque, told IWPR that while citizens had the right to enjoy freedom of religious beliefs, the move was a necessary security measure.


“Many people from other regions come to the Turkobod mosque and this alarms us,” he said, adding that he believes that Muslim women are being “used” to spread radical Islamic doctrines in Tajikistan.


“We are simply trying to avoid any extremists attacks. We do not want another Beslan in this republic,” he added, a reference to the recent North Caucasian tragedy when hundreds of children died after Russian troops attempted to end a hostage crisis sparked when Chechen separatists seized a school.


But this has been denied by worshippers at the Turkobod mosque, and a recording of one of imam Ishan Nuriddin’s sermons, heard by IWPR, contained appeals to follow the laws of Islam, and called on believers to pray for Tajik president Imomali Rahmonov in thanks for his protection of religious freedoms.


The issues of religion and politics are very sensitive in Tajikistan, which endured a brutal civil war following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Islamic forces at the heart of the United Tajik Opposition fought the authorities from 1992 until a peace agreement in 1997, after which the opposition was integrated into the government.


Tajikistan is thus the only Central Asian country where an Islamic party participates in mainstream politics and its leading members serve in the government.


Because the Turkobod mosque was financed by former opposition leader Haji Akhar Turjonzoda, who is also the brother of imam Nurshiddin, the government fears that the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, IRPT, might exploit this link to target women voters in the run up to February’s parliamentary elections.


The past few years have seen women move into a leading role in Tajik society, filling the gap left by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men during the civil war, and replacing the million or so survivors who have since left to make a living in Russia.


IRPT head Himatullo Saifullozoda described the ban as “a gross violation of human rights”.


“It reflects negatively on the image of Islam, which many people in the republic already see as something aggressive and hostile,” he told IWPR.


And Dodojon Yakubov, the deputy head of IRPT in the northern Sogd region, said that he does not accept the decision. “A mosque is the house of Allah and anyone can go there, and the council does not have the right to dictate what should be the will of God,” he said.


However, the ban has been supported by the Gender And Development non-governmental organisation. Its executive director Maya Hoshakova said that women are not obliged to pray in mosques, a practise she described as a foreign Islamic influence.


“If the council passed this decision, this means something is wrong with the practise [of women praying in mosques],” said Hoshakova. “A religious person can always find a place to pray. God is in the heart of Muslims.”


And Salim Shokirzoda, whose wife no longer attends the Turkobod mosque, said bluntly, “A woman can pray at home. She doesn’t have to go to the mosque, wasting time and money, when her children and housework await her.”


Akbar Sharifi is the pseudonym for a journalist in Dushanbe.


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