Tajikistan is often considered the most liberal of the Central Asian states when it comes to matters of Islamic tradition. But that might be changing. A recent decision by the country's top Islamic body forbids women from going to mosques -- a practice the group says promotes "seduction and mixing" between the sexes. The ruling has upset many Muslims who say the decision violates both Islamic tradition and the Tajik Constitution.
Turkobad, Tajikistan; 20 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Outside the Khalifa Abdulkarim mosque in Turkobod, a village some 30 kilometers east of Dushanbe, women are gathering for Friday prayers.
Among them is Zebunniso Qahhorzod, a determined-looking woman in her 40s who traveled from the capital to attend.
Her husband is a migrant worker in Russia, and she is left alone to care for their four children. It is a common plight in Tajikistan, and Qahhorzod says attending mosque is one way she and other women find solace and strength.
"We go to mosque not only for prayers. As women and parents, we have problems in our everyday lives, as well as in raising our children. We are both mother and father to our children. So we come here to find answers to our questions: How do we raise our children? How should we act with our husbands? What way of living is better for us? We come to find answers to these questions," Qahhorzod says.
But this lifeline might be under threat. In August, the Tajik Council of Ulema, or scholars -- the country's highest Muslim body -- issued a fatwa prohibiting women from attending mosque, saying they are a distraction to male worshippers.
The decision came after a monthlong debate that saw several council members leave in disgust over what they saw as a conservative clampdown on personal religious rights.
But in the end, the ruling stood: Muslim women should perform prayers at home -- close to their children and housework -- rather than at mosques.
Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country whose government has incorporated an Islamic party into the mainstream.
Council member Hoji Qurbon Sharifzoda defends the ruling: "The decision that was made by the Council of Ulema and the mufti is not something new. It comes from the Hadith [the sayings of Prophet Muhammad] and the rules of our [Sunni] sect. Women should understand that it would be more acceptable, according to our religious rules, if they prayed at home instead of wasting a long journey to the mosque."
Khalifa Abdulkarim is one of the few mosques to openly defy the ban, although police regularly gather outside the building on Fridays to try to persuade the women to return home.
Unlike some mosques in Tajikistan, the Turkobod mosque provides separate floors for men and women, preventing the close mingling of the sexes that some of the Islamic scholars find so troubling.
Hoji Amir Abbos Bobonazar is an aide to the imam-khatib of the Turkobod mosque, Ishan Nuriddin. He notes that the Tajik Constitution guarantees men and women equal rights to prayer, and adds that the ruling could have a damning effect on society in the future: "Women come to mosque not only for once-a-week Friday prayer. They come here because the mosque is a place where you learn moral and ethnical values. The whole society would benefit from this, because women bear responsibilities for raising our future generation. We allow women to go to casinos, discos and all kinds of inappropriate places, but we don't allow them to go to mosque? I can't understand the logic of such a decision."
Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country whose government has incorporated an Islamic party -- the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) -- into the mainstream.
Some observers say sensitivity over issues of religion and politics means debates like the one over the ban on women can be extremely divisive.
Felix Corley is the editor of the Forum 18 news service, an agency covering religious freedom in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe.
"It's interesting," Corley says. "This decision that was taken by the Council of Ulema, the Islamic scholars, was pretty evenly divided on whether to allow women to attend and pray at mosques or not. And interestingly enough, the decision was quite controversial and was rejected by the Islamic Revival Party, one of the former main opposition guerrilla parties. They believe this decision was against the constitution and laws of Tajikistan, which declare all citizens are equal. And they, in fact, asked the state to take legal measures against this decision."
Officials in the Islamic Revival Party -- a chief component of the UTO -- accuse conservative members of the Council of Ulema of "medieval" thinking that will eventually turn women and younger Muslims away from traditional Islam and toward groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir, blamed by Central Asian governments for a recent upsurge in Islamist violence.
But defenders of the ruling say it does nothing to harm a woman's ability to practice her religion.
Ruqia Qurbonova is the head of the government's committee on women's issues, which backed the council's decision.
"In Tajikistan, we are all offered every opportunity," Qurbonova says. "Nobody says that you shouldn't fast or pray. But we think a woman should do that at home."