A year ago, residents of the southern Kyrgyz village of Nookat took to the streets in protest after being denied the right to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr in a local stadium.
The authorities, blaming the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir for staging the demonstration, arrested dozens of participants. When court verdicts were later handed down, two women were among those found guilty of organizing the protest, with each receiving sentences of 15 years or more.
The lengthy sentences shocked many both within and outside Kyrgyzstan, whose justice system is known for its leniency toward women. But in this case officials appeared intent on sending a message to all who dared join Hizb ut-Tahrir, which the government considers an extremist group that poses a threat to the secular order.
A year after the events in Nookat shone a spotlight on the role of women in Hizb ut-Tahrir, a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) indicates that the Islamic organization might have thousands of women members in Kyrgyzstan.
In its recent report, "Women and Radicalization in Kyrgyzstan," the ICG states that Hizb ut-Tahrir "may have up to 8,000 members" in the country, "perhaps 800 to 2,000 of them women."
And the ICG suggests that growing poverty and a lack of opportunities for women could push those numbers even higher.
Aziza Abdurasulova, a Kyrgyz women's rights activist, notes that many women in the country are constrained by limited opportunities, compounding the difficulties of the worsening economic situation and widespread corruption.
"When women struggle with difficulties in their everyday lives, it is possible that they turn to Islam,” Abdurasulova said. “Because there is not any guarantee from the government, they don't see any kind of better future. So, they turn to Islam, to God -- although I don't believe they would necessarily follow Hizb ut-Tahrir and other extremists' paths."
Banned Across The Region
Hizb ut-Tahrir first emerged in the region in the 1990s with the recruitment of members in Uzbekistan.
Today the movement is banned in all of the countries of Central Asia, whose governments deem Hizb ut-Tahrir a serious threat to security and the secular order.
In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, officials have accused Hizb ut-Tahrir of being behind armed attacks. Those accused of membership can face lengthy prison sentences.
The group itself admits that the creation of an Islamic caliphate is among its ultimate goals, but officially rejects the use of violence.
In Kyrgyzstan, the banned group was widely believed to be active mostly in the country's more religiously conservative southern provinces.
According to the ICG, Hizb ut-Tahrir has now spread to the rest of the country, including the more liberal north, attracting new members and sympathizers both in cities and mountain villages.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest states in Central Asia. Women there were especially hard hit by the transition that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the free-market system, often losing jobs and experiencing a declining social status.
Unemployment among Kyrgyz women has grown over the past two decades, and is currently 1.5 times higher than that of men. Many women make their living by selling goods at markets, an occupation that offers no social protection or guaranteed, stable income. Those who are employed often work in the low-paid education and healthcare jobs.
Under such circumstances, the ICG reports says, Hizb ut-Tahrir might offer disillusioned women "a sense of identity and belonging, solutions to the day-to-day failings of the society they live in."
Promises Of Change
Muhiddin Kabiri, the head of the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia, Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, says many might view organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir as offering an "easy solution" to their problems.
"Hizb ut-Tahrir [seeks to establish] a caliphate and it says that under the caliphate there would be no borders, customs, and corrupt police officers in Central Asia,” Kabiri said. “For example, an Uzbek farmer would be able to sell products in Dushanbe, Ashgabat, or Almaty without having to face corrupt customs official and police officers. People who are fed up with hardships and corruption, and who mistrust governments, accept these kinds of promises and don't question their impracticalities."
Kabiri gives a harsh assessment of the group, saying that "Hizb ut-Tahrir's ideas are no more than an illusion; they are no more than a utopia." However, he notes, "it seems to be appealing for some women who don't see other alternatives."
Taji Mustafa, Hizb ut-Tahrir's media representative in Britain, tells RFE/RL that female members of the group play an active role in spreading the organization's message among their family members and other women, as well as in recruiting new members.
"People will discuss [Islam] in their families, so whether it is husbands and wives, whether it is parents with their children, it is very natural that Islam is discussed in the home,” Mustafa said. “Islam is discussed in social gatherings. So, for ourselves, women will meet with other women and will discuss with them. Because we are an intellectual organization, we put our ideas to people, so people can question, can debate, can ask us questions about our vision."
Accusations Of Abuse
According to the International Crisis Group, a softer approach might find success in countering the group's influence. It states in its report that "a policy based on repression will play into the [Hizb ut-Tahrir's] hands and may even accelerate its recruitment."
Members of the group already claim to have become victims of repression. Relatives of convicted Hizb ut-Tahrir members in Tajikistan, for example, have repeatedly claimed they were beaten and raped in prisons.
In Uzbekistan, there have been reports of widespread abuse and torture of thousands of imprisoned alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members.
And human rights groups say the two women arrested in Kyrgyzstan following last year's protest in Nookat were tortured while in detention, and that one of the women had a miscarriage after she was severely beaten -- a claim rejected by Kyrgyz officials.
In its report on Kyrgyzstan, the ICG recommends that the Kyrgyz government work more closely with religious leaders to address women's needs and their social and economic problems.
Other experts second that approach, such as Kadyr Malikov, director of the Bishkek-based Research Center for Religion, Law, and Politics.
Malikov tells RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service that "it is usually moderate Muslims who suffer from a government crackdown on so-called religious extremism."
That, in turn, runs the risk of aiding the recruitment efforts of the very groups such crackdowns intend to counter.
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.