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Tajik Women, Young People Appear To Be Embracing Islam

A young Tajik woman in a hejab
A young Tajik woman in a hejab
The parents of 7-year-old Maryam are sending her to a school run by the Iranian Embassy in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

She attends the Iranian school because, like many other Tajik girls who wear Islamic head scarves, Maryam wasn't allowed to enter her Tajik school when it opened last week.

"I went to school on September 1, but [the teachers] didn't let me in," she says. "They told me to remove my head scarf. I didn't go to school anymore."

Tajikistan's Education Ministry outlawed the hijab in schools and universities last year and also demands that its students wear special uniforms. It's all part of the Tajik authorities' wider efforts to restrict the growing influence of Islam in society.

Education Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov has personally gone to universities and schools to check whether female students are complying with the ban.

Many girls have agreed to remove their head scarves while at school, while a few of them actually left school. At least one student, Davlatmoh Ismoilova, sued the ministry for violating her rights.

She eventually lost the case.

On The Increase

Despite efforts by the authorities to hinder women who follow Islamic customs, the number of women wearing hijabs in Tajikistan has increased. At the same time, a growing number of young people attend prayers in mosques and most young people now fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Prominent cleric Mahmudjon Turajonzoda told RFE/RL that the majority of people who attend prayers at his mosque in Dushanbe's suburban Vahdat district are young men and boys, "while there are not too many people from the older generation among them."

An unregistered mosque in Dushanbe razed by the authorities in July 2007.

Last year, Dushanbe officials made media headlines by bulldozing two "unregistered" mosques and closing down many more, while changing some of them into police stations, hair salons, and even public baths.

Hundreds of mosques all over the country were given warnings to register with the state or risk the same fate. Many imams have complained of the exceedingly complicated procedure for mosque registration, which they say involves unnecessary paperwork.

At the same time, police have begun raiding music shops and kiosks to confiscate CDs, DVDs, and tapes that they claim promote extremism, terrorism, or prostitution.

Officials said they have seized more than 13,000 such items in their raids. Vendors said they mostly confiscate religious-oriented disks.

Stricter Adherence

But government pressure has done little to prevent the growth in a stricter adherence to Islam in Tajik society. More parents are sending their children to mullahs to learn the basics of Islam, and a growing number of girls are wearing the hijab.

Some of the girls say peer pressure led them to swap their European-style outfits for more conservative clothes, complete with head scarves.

But Gulchehra, a hairdresser in her 20s, said she made her choice after reading Islamic literature and booklets that are abundant in Dushanbe markets.

"My mother-in-law told me, 'You're still very young. Why do you wear a head scarf?' She is a modern woman. She was a communist. It was difficult for her to accept my head scarf, but she is now used to it," Gulchehra says. "At work, when clients see me wearing the hijab, they don't want me to cut their hair. Perhaps they are afraid that I'd ruin their hairstyle. The hijab really affects my work."

Like Gulchehra's mother-in-law and clients, not everyone in Tajikistan is happy with what some call the "Islamization of society." Once it was a country in which female students exceeded the number of men at universities, and women still enjoy government-backed equal rights to work, study, and participate in politics.

'Very Religious Nowadays'

Rano, of Dushanbe, said she likes wearing European-style clothes and going to parties, but at some gatherings she realizes she is the only one not wearing a head scarf.

"It wasn't like this before," Rano complains. "People have become much more conservative and very religious nowadays."

Rano sees "foreign propaganda and the trips by Tajiks to Iran and Arab countries" as a reason behind the rising interest in Islam.

Farrukh Umarov, a specialist on Islam at the Center for Strategic Studies in Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL that "it is the second time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that Islam has become hugely popular in Tajik society."

"Tajiks started to reclaim their religious values after they were granted religious freedom in early 1990s," says Umarov. "In those times, many people supported the newly registered Islamic Revival Party, but soon civil war erupted between supporters of the government and the Islamic opposition.

"After the civil war," he continues. "Islam somehow lost its influence among Tajiks because people were disappointed -- not with the religion itself -- but with those who used Islamic slogans to go to war."

Not Yet Ready

Umarov says if some forces try again to use people's feelings toward Islam for political gain, it will be disastrous and could lead to a second civil war in Tajikistan.

Turajonzoda also insists that, despite people's budding interest in Islam, Tajiks are not yet ready to elect an Islamic government.

"Currently, our people have little information about Islam," the cleric says. "Therefore, under current circumstances they would not accept an Islamic government. Before accepting an Islamic government, they should first learn Islamic culture. They should know what rights Islam provides for them, especially for women. Now, 80 to 90 percent of our people don't have a proper knowledge of Islam."

According to the cleric, Tajiks prefer to live in a secular society where they have no restrictions against their simple observance of their religion.

RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.