The hijab and whether it should be worn in public has been a source of debate in many Central Asian republics in recent years.
But the Islamic head scarf has never really been an issue in Kazakhstan. Until now.
A spate of public disputes have even prompted that country's president to weigh in on the topic.
In addition to becoming one of the most prosperous countries in Central Asia since gaining independence, Kazakhstan has gained a reputation as the most secular society in the region.
Outward signs of religious observance -- including Islamic clothing -- are less common in Kazakhstan than other Central Asian countries -- particularly Kyrgyzstan
, and Uzbekistan
But the past two years or so have seen a conspicuous rise in female students and other young women in Kazakhstan who wear the hijab.
Kazakhstan has no official ban on wearing the hijab in public places, but those who wear it say authorities use a variety of tactics to discriminate against them.
One Muslim convert in Astana, Natalya Voitenkova, has complained she can't get her child into a local public nursery because of her Islamic head scarf. Voitenkova is considering suing the nursery director, who has allegedly called her a follower of a sect. In an interview with Astana's Channel 7, the nursery director said she "simply doesn't understand" those who stand out with their unusual clothing.
Bibinur Omirzakova, a former student in the Western Atyrau province, says her hijab was behind her expulsion from college. Education officials in Atyrau counter that they have never expelled anyone for wearing Islamic clothing and say Omirzakova had simply failed her exams.
Students wearing Islamic clothing are not allowed to enter a state university at Atyrau. "Every university has its internal rules and regulations," a deputy head of the university, Serik Kenesbaev, tells RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "Our rules prohibit covering the face and head."
Another official at the same university, Bayansulu Kudyskyzy, complains that "if we allow the hijab in our schools today, tomorrow followers of Hare Krishna and Buddhism will come in their traditional outfits too."
This month, two men from the northeastern Kazakh town of Ekibastuz began a hunger strike in the capital, Astana, to protest what they say is official pressure targeting women wearing head scarves. Walid Nechaev and Beisenbay Amirzhan's protest follows authorities' alleged rejection of a small group of hijab supporters' request for permission to stage a protest in front of the Education Ministry. The group was told to hold its demonstration at a distant square.
President Nursultan Nazarbaev entered the hijab debate last week, saying he opposes the idea of Kazakh women following a strict Islamic dress code. Hijab is not a part of the Kazakh culture, the president said in a meeting with scholars and professionals.
"I am categorically against the hijab, and especially don't want female students wearing it," Nazarbaev said. "We've never had it in our history; it has never been a part of our religious traditions."
Officials at the Education Ministry insist they have no intention of banning Islamic dress at schools and universities. But they also say the ministry is set to introduce uniforms for all students.
-- Farangis Najibullah