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In Azerbaijan, Hijab Debate A Mounting Challenge For Government

School officials enforce the ban on wearing hijab at the Teachers Institute in Baku in September.
School officials enforce the ban on wearing hijab at the Teachers Institute in Baku in September.
By Arifa Kazimova and Nushabe Fatullayeva
In Azerbaijan, a recent ban on schoolgirls wearing the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, has sparked angry public protests that are taking on an increasingly political flavor and raising the specter of religious extremism in a country that is both Muslim-majority and largely secular.

At a commemoration of the Shi'ite Islamic holiday of Ashura last week in the village of Nardaran outside Baku, several thousand people chanted in opposition to the hijab ban after a religious leader exhorted that they "must really be prepared to die" for their faith.

Baku has defended the hijab ban as part of its attempt to restore Soviet-era school uniforms to public education. But the controversy has threatened to put the government perilously at odds with the country's rising number of devout Muslims.

Lawyers and human rights activists have also cried foul, saying the government has no right to prohibit religious clothing in schools when the state constitution does not impose any restrictions on wearing the hijab.

Hundreds of girls are believed to have stopped attending school in defiance of the ban. "I'll never give up my hijab," says Vusala Quliyeva, an 11th-year student in Baku. "They haven't shown us any official papers restricting our head scarves. I don't understand their verbal instructions, and I can't follow their order."

Angry Families

Residents of Nardaran protest the prohibition of hijab in schools last week.
Parents, too, have expressed frustration over the ban, which followed a verbal pronouncement by Education Minister Misir Mardanov saying girls should comply with the new rules on school uniforms.

With no official legislation on the issue, parents argue that the new restrictions are not legal and cannot be enforced. Some are looking to place their school-age daughters in private schools where the uniform requirements would not apply.

In public schools, however, authorities like Ali Ahmadov, a middle-school principal in Baku, have been left in the unenviable position of enforcing the deeply unpopular edict to angry parents.

"We have to ensure that our schoolgirls do not come to classes in hijabs," Ahmadov said during a recent meeting with parents. "It doesn't make any difference whether the instructions were verbal or written."

"But the minister said the hijab could be given up if it was necessary," one parent, Nazim Malikov, shot back. "He didn't say it should be banned immediately."

Tight Lid On Religion

Tensions between the state and religious Muslims have mounted in recent years, as Azerbaijan's leadership -- cloistered around the all-powerful clan of President Ilham Aliyev -- have held tight to the Soviet-era culture of secularism.

The U.S. State Department, in its annual report on religious freedom, has noted a growing number of restrictions on Islam and minority religions in Azerbaijan. As with other post-Soviet regions and countries that are predominantly Muslim, Azerbaijan subjects its mosques and religious leaders to strict registration procedures and keeps them under the jurisdiction of a Soviet-era advisory board.

The U.S. report noted a number of mosque closures in the past year, as well as growing restrictions on proselytizing, distribution of religious literature, and the volume at which the Muslim call to prayer can be made.

A number of devout Muslims have also complained they have been targeted by police, who have beat them and forcibly shaved their beards, without provocation.

Still, as the State Department notes, the number of religious Muslims is growing, unchecked -- and possibly even energized -- by the government's repeated crackdowns.

WATCH: In the town of Nardaran during the religious festival of Ashura, religious leaders spoke out against a recent government ruling forbidding girls from wearing the hijab in school.

Azerbaijanis Defend Hijab During Ashurai
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December 17, 2010
Thousands of people gathered in the Azerbaijani town of Nardaran on December 16 for the Shi'ite religious festival of Ashura. Addressing the large crowd, religious leaders spoke out against a recent government ruling forbidding girls from wearing the Muslim hijab in school, chanting "We'd sooner die than give up the hijab!"


Not For Children

The Education Ministry, which has been the scene of protests, has attempted to downplay the controversy, saying relatively few schoolgirls wore hijabs to begin with, and that many of them have willingly given them up in light of the new rules.

Zamina Aliqizi, a spokeswoman for the Baku city education department, argues that school-age children are simply too young to understand the significance of their religious beliefs and that the uniform guidelines are meant to protect children from the stigma of differences in wealth and social status.

"We are seriously demanding that all middle-school students come to classes in uniform," she says. "We think school-age children between 6 and 16 years old do not understand what it means to cover their heads at school. They should be given an opportunity to understand that as they get older. We have to create the best possible conditions for their education."

But the protests outside the ministry and the burning of portraits of its head, Mardanov, during other demonstrations have sparked concerns that the secular government -- focused on protecting its power base and maximizing profits from Azerbaijan's massive energy wealth -- may not be sufficiently attuned to the changing climate in the country, as citizens turn to religion as a social lifeline.

Out Of Touch?

Lawyer Intiqam Aliyev says he believes the hijab ban is both illegal and a ploy to keep public debate focused away from issues like corruption and living standards -- even if such a ploy may eventually backfire.

Azerbaijani First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva -- Is the Aliyev clan out of touch with an increasingly pious public?
"The hijab is one of the signs of freedom of conscience," Aliyev says. "I think the hijab problem has been created artificially. Its main aim is to distract people from the country's serious social and political problems."

There are concerns that the growing stratification of Azerbaijani society may be fuelling resentment among the Muslim devout.

A recent U.S. diplomatic cable published by the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks described the women in President Aliyev's clan as "fashion-conscious and daring, far more so than the average woman in majority-Muslim Azerbaijan," and his influential wife, Mehriban, as wearing dresses "that would be considered provocative even in the Western world."

The debate also has regional implications, with neighboring Iran seen as the main supporter of Azerbaijan's growing religious ranks. Relations between Baku and Tehran are uneasy. Iran is suspicious of Azerbaijan's friendly ties to Israel and Azerbaijan, in turn, is concerned that the Islamic republic may be seeking to build a groundswell of religious radicalism on its territory.
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by: Ali from: Baku
December 23, 2010 20:53
"raising the specter of religious extremism' What a pathetic but typical Western dogmatic propoganda. Just because people are protesting for their RIGHTS and because they are Muslims you labele the situation as religious extremism.

Shame on the US and the "free" West that backs Aliyev and the regimes like him all over the Muslim world.

by: J from: US
December 23, 2010 21:04
watch the video from Nardaran. it is chilling.
In Response

by: Turgai
December 25, 2010 11:26
Yes I watched it, and I can understand that it is chilling for people like you, who eventually believe in nothing but superficial hedonism (a.k.a. 'liberalism'), and who somehow feel that their tyranny is slowly crumbling.

by: Bill from: Phoenix AZ
December 24, 2010 05:29
If the muslin men can't keep their pants on it's their fault.

by: Turgai
December 24, 2010 07:52
Let's face it: what have the rotten, secular 'elites' and their foreign backers brought save corruption and cleptocracy, humiliation and pornocracy? Good luck and courage to the Muslim brothers and sisters in Azerbaijan and elsewhere.

by: Turgai
December 24, 2010 07:58
Pretty much like Imelda Marcos, Mehriban Alieva-Pashaeva is the lynchpin of a crony empire, which shows once more that women, too, often play a key role in rot and evil. This also shows also the complete bankrupcy of Western and Soviet feminism.
In Response

by: Zoltan from: Hungary
December 26, 2010 17:12
"bankruptcy of feminism"...

Yes surely... For you as a man I guess it would be better that women would do slavishly what you tell them.
This kind of 'power' over women is needed only by undereducated men who are especially many in islamic countries.

Turgai, do you and your primitive fundamentalist friends (like Taliban in Afganistan) afraid of educated and decided women?

Brave men do not afraid of equality of women.
In Response

by: Turgai
December 27, 2010 08:42
Make no mistake: I have nothing against educated women.

For the rest, Western 'emancipated' women are especially afraid of themselves and each other. Many can, despite being loud-mouthed and all, not even handle their own 'emancipation' (cf. the massive consumption of prozac and the booming shrink industry). Pathetic.
In Response

by: Turgai
December 27, 2010 08:50
BTW, Zoltan: don't lecture about who' brave and who' not. The Muslims, men *and* women, who conduct the resistance against evil in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Gaza, or Bosnia at the time, at considerable personal riks and costs: *they* are the brave.

by: Steve from: North America
December 24, 2010 16:40
"Freedom of Conscience".

Too funny.

Its "wear it , or else!"
In Response

by: Turgai
December 27, 2010 08:57
Bah, Steve... It always makes me laugh when I hear or see Western men being worried and 'indignated' about 'women's rights in Muslim countries'. For a start, you rarely hear these types when it's about exploitation of women in Chinese factories or in teh sex traffic form the ex-USSR. Why? Because the latter suits their interests. Hijab doesn't.

by: Namik from: Canada
December 24, 2010 18:07
This is not just about hijab, its about Aliyev regime regularly violating the rights of Azeri citizens with Western support because he sells them Azeri oil for pennies and puts the entire money into his family bank accounts in Europe. Nardaran is the only island of resistance to tyrrany in Azerbaijan.

Why does the RFERL and other Western media not report on the struggle of the Azeri people and give them a media platform as it did during the riots in Tehran in 2009? Double standards of course.

by: rain from: EU
December 24, 2010 20:16
Indeed horrible video...

In Response

by: Turgai
December 25, 2010 12:19
Yes it is-for people like you. Because it confirms that your pornocratic 'value' system has failed.

by: Roman from: Baku
December 25, 2010 06:49
I think authorities realize that the religous opposition is the most potential and realistic in the coming 20-30 years in the country and that religous opposition presents the most credible threat to their holding onto the power. Regarding Hijab, I think as long as it has national Azerbaijani mosaic and colours, it should be allowed ,but making sure that we don't practice Iranian or Arab style hijab or clothing. We are Turkic origin Azerbaijani nation, with our own destiny, very different that of Aran countries and Persian Iran. We should make sure and do everything possible that we practice Azerbaijani Islam and related traditions, far different that those of Arabs / Persian Iran.
In Response

by: Turgai
December 25, 2010 11:30
"We are Turkic origin Azerbaijani nation, with our own destiny, very different that of Aran countries and Persian Iran."

Yes Roman, objectively it is the case yet I believe that nationalism and Pan-Turkism are dead. Azerbaijan's future lays in the Dar Al-Islam and eventually/hopefully the Islamic State Khilafah.
In Response

by: Roman from: Baku
January 01, 2011 06:37
Turqai. what you say is your wishful thinking, not a reality. There is no place for khalifah or Dar-ul-Islam in Azerbaijan. We are not Arabs, Persians or others. We have our own national identity, which I would also die for instead of giving up for Khalifah or other useless groups favoring Khalifat, which is a non-sense, a dead idea. As a person who extensively lived in the Middle East, I can testify that we, Azerbaijanis, don't share anything with other Muslims. Rather, our identity, mainly comes from our Caucasus, Turkic and very unique features. We don't sahre, shouldn't share or will not share anything common with rotting and disgusting regimes in the Middle East and Iran, or others. I am glad that people with your mentality and thinking are of mere minority in Azerbaijan.

by: Molla Nesreddin from: Absurdistan
December 26, 2010 03:37
If it is about my children, I have a right for them what to wear to school. If public school would not let my child to attend, I will raise funding to open religious school. How come 'elite' called ones can steal people's wealth and get corrupted while I have to think about how secular is our government. If there is no other healthy forces left in my country, there will be other people like me called 'Opportunists'. There is vacuum inside the country, I can't breathe and my children can't. There is no other alternative for us - 'believers'. We believe that there should be corrupt-less and elected government, but we can't stand for our ideas in open field. We are hidden force with anger inside. Our human values is estimated by oil values. We feel like donor in bloodline which is called pipeline, and it gets pumped from from our veins with limited reserves. We have cancer in our body where healthy cells are dying. Yes, it may sound literally, but many conscience minded people either died or left the country. At this stage, simple therapy is not enough, we have to have surgery to get rid of bad cells. We are new 'surgeons' of this corrupt society, and we want to be heard before it is too late.
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