What clothes women are allowed to wear and whether or not men can have bushy beards are being debated again in Muslim-majority Central Asia, this time in Kyrgyzstan.
The parliament of the former Soviet republic of some 7 million has unveiled a bill that would ban women from putting on the all-covering niqab and prohibit men from growing long beards to preserve “public security.”
The bill, released for public discussion on November 14, says the measures are needed so that people’s faces can be seen and individuals identified.
The draft law would institute a $22 fine or 30 hours of community service for violators, while repeat offenders would face a $44 penalty or 40 hours of community service. It doesn’t specify what length of beard is deemed legally acceptable under the bill, seemingly making such judgments very subjective.
If approved, the law would apply to the citizens of Kyrgyzstan but not to tourists, diplomats, and other foreign nationals temporarily living in the country. It also exempts Kyrgyz who have medical reasons for covering their faces.
Islamic clothing and long beards -- which is often seen as an ostentatious sign of a strict religious belief -- have been a recurrent topic in Central Asia for many years.
The initiator of the Kyrgyz bill, lawmaker Sharapatkan Mazhitova, pointed out that the ban only targets the niqab, which covers the face, leaving only a small opening for the eyes.
The lawmaker insists she is not against the Islamic hijab that covers the head and neck but leaves the face open. Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan -- have banned the wearing of the hijab in schools and offices.
Mazhitova’s campaign against the niqab began in April when she went to the southern region of Osh, where she said she was alarmed by how many local women wore the all-covering dress, which is usually black.
“Only their eyes were visible,” Mazhitova said in parliament after her trip. “Wear head scarves if you like, but why must you wrap yourself fully in black clothing?”
She urged the Muftiyat, the highest Islamic authority in Kyrgyzstan, to launch “explanatory works” among women about the niqab and why many object to it.
The lawmaker doubled down on her proposal in September, demanding that parliament and the government act to “ensure security” before it is “too late.”
“Every fourth woman in Osh wears the niqab and their number is growing by the day,” she claimed. “I demand the government take measures at the state level now, as it will be too late tomorrow.”
Mazhitova argued that a law banning the niqab -- locally known as the “parandzha” -- does not constrain religious freedom.
More than a dozen countries worldwide have banned the niqab, including even non-majority Muslim nations such as Austria, Denmark, France, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
Islam has been on the rise in Central Asia in recent years, especially among the generation who grew up after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The secular governments in the region are wary of the growing influence of the religion and frequently express concern about what they describe as the threat of extremism and terrorism.
In 2016, a photo of women wearing niqabs at a public event in Osh prompted a state-backed campaign that targeted a “foreign culture” being imposed on Kyrgyzstan “under the guise of religion.”
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The proposed niqab ban stoked fresh debate among the public, politicians, and on social media.
Kyrgyzstan’s mufti, Zamir Rakiev, explained that the niqab is not compulsory in Islam, which does require women to wear the hijab.
Zhamal Frontbek-kyzy, the head of the Kyrgyz Muslim women’s organization Mutakallim, warned that it would be difficult to convince women to take off their niqabs. Instead, she suggested the government start an explanatory campaign that would eventually persuade women stop wearing them.
“One must not link the niqab with radicalism and extremism,” she told RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service. “We are not an authoritarian state that issues bans.”
Kanat Midin-uulu, the deputy head of the state Commission for Religious Affairs, said that there currently are no imminent threats from religious extremism to the country.
“Obviously, there are issues that need to be addressed, but the situation overall is stable,” he said.
Social media users expressed mixed reactions to the draft law. Some welcomed it, saying: “Correct!” or “About time.”
Others protested, saying: “Let everyone wear what they want.” Another suggested that the ban won’t work.
“Under the same logic we need to ban face masks and sunglasses, too,” a social media user argued.
Several people called for a ban on miniskirts, shorts, and crop tops, too.
“Don’t our lawmakers have more pressing issues to think about?” one post read.
“Let’s repair our bad roads first,” suggested another.