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Central Asia: Controversy Brews Over Islamic Headwear In Photos

Uzbek refugees in Osh (official site) March 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Islamic women in Kazakhstan were victorious last month when the government agreed to allow women to be photographed with headwear for their identification documents. But the issue is still causing controversy in some Central Asian countries.

Many Muslim women in Kazakhstan considered it a great victory when the Justice Ministry indicated last month that it will no longer enforce a regulation that women cannot wear anything on their head -- including traditional Islamic headwear, the hijab -- when their official photo is taken for identification cards or passports.

The wearing of headwear by women in official photographs is allowed in most cases in Tajikistan, but is not permitted in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

That regulation traced its origins to Kazakhstan's days as a Soviet republic.

Although there are more than 100 different ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, the country is generally regarded as a Muslim nation. Because of that, one might expect that the laws would accommodate matters of traditional Islamic dress, such as wearing head scarves for photos for passports or any other kind of official document.

But such accommodations were only made in February.

Zhanar Kozhahmetova, chief of the document issuance department in Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry, told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service that the decision to stop enforcing the prohibition against the hijab came after appeals.

"It doesn't mean that everyone is allowed to take pictures with hats, for example," she said. "It's mainly females who, due to their religious convictions, do not remove headwear. It's connected with the fact that many requests were addressed to the Justice Ministry about those kind of photos."

Practicality, Security Considerations

Ninel Fokina, the chairwoman of the Almaty Helsinki Committee in Kazakhstan, said the prohibition against being photographed while wearing Islamic headwear was never based on the country's laws, and she questioned why the matter concerns the Justice Ministry.

"This is not an issue of the constitution," she said. "It's not a legal issue and in those documents there is no word about regulations on photos issued for IDs. These are only internal instructions of the Interior Ministry. They do not have the status of law. In general, it's difficult to understand why the Justice Ministry is involved. Maybe because the passport services were transferred to the Justice Ministry, but in this case the ministry is just engaging in a fruitless effort."

Dos Koshim, the chairman of an NGO called Nation's Destiny, suggested that while it is important to observe a person's basic rights, it shouldn't necessarily be done at the expense of practicality or security.

"To start, we have to point out two issues," Koshim said. "The first is to respect a nation's religion and faith. The second is the practical side, will it be difficult in the issuance of passports and IDs and for control services after that or not? I think we have to focus on these two issues."

Some opponents of allowing Muslim women to wear headwear in official photos argue that it is easier to hide someone's identity in a photo if your hair and part of your head is covered.

Ban Challenged In Kyrgyzstan

The wearing of headwear by women in official photographs is allowed in most cases in Tajikistan, but is not permitted in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.

But the issue has also been in the news recently in Kyrgyzstan, where it is disallowed.

In October, the Muslim women's NGO Mutakalim sent a letter to then-Prime Minister Feliks Kulov asking for permission to have their passport photos taken while wearing their Islamic headwear.

Last month the group said it had gathered some 40,000 signatures supporting such a right.

But Mutakalim leader Jamal Frontbek-kyzy said authorities told her that officially she needs 300,000 signatures to have the issue considered.

Government officials have also told Mutakalim that dropping the ban on wearing a head scarf or hajib for photographs intended for official documents is not in the interests of national security.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service and Venera Djumataeva of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

RFE/RL Central Asia Report

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