KULOB, Tajikistan -- The Islamic head scarf, or hijab, has often gotten under the skin of authorities in Tajikistan. They've been banned in schools, frowned upon in the workplace, and banished from passport photos.
Now, advocates of the hijab are once again on the defensive -- this time over reports that women in one southern Tajik city are suffering from skin conditions that are being blamed on the garment.
Doctors in Kulob say that in recent weeks they have treated more than 100 female patients for rashes, itching along the neck and arms, and festering skin irritations.
"We never before had so many people coming at once with the same symptoms, so we decided to do [some] research to find the root cause of the problem," says Alikhon Murodov, the head of Kulob's regional hospital, which specializes in treating skin diseases.
The diagnosis? Synthetic fabrics of the type often used in hijabs imported from China.
"Our research showed that the skin conditions were caused by synthetic textiles," Murodov says. He says that in many cases "the irritated and itching skin has turned into small wounds. We advised our patients to avoid synthetic fabrics."
Summer temperatures in Kulob often rise above 40 degrees Celsius. The heat, combined with fabrics that don't breathe, are a recipe for skin disaster.
Kulob resident Madina Jabborova says she developed skin rashes and itching around her neck in early summer.
"It would get worse with sweating during the hot weather," says Jabborova, whose condition erupted into a full-grown skin infection.
Like many other hijab-wearing Kulobi women, Jabborova wears affordable Islamic clothing made in China. A complete outfit, consisting of a head scarf, a long dress, and trousers all made of synthetic fabrics, sells for the equivalent of around $20.
But doctors now advise women to opt for cotton, silk, or other natural fibers to prevent allergic reactions and skin ailments.
That poses problems for consumers, however. Cotton and silk hijabs can cost up to five times more than their synthetic counterparts, according to Rahima Qayumova, a merchant in Kulob's central bazaar.
Qayumova has a hard time selling cotton hijabs, which she gets from wholesalers who import them from Turkey.
"These types of hijabs don't sell well, so I don't stock them a lot," the merchant says, "but there is a high demand for the Chinese-made Islamic attire."
Despite selling Islamic clothing for women and men, Qaumova doesn't wear the hijab herself. She is clad in a traditional knee-length dress with short sleeves, and a small kerchief is tied behind her head.
"Traditional clothes are more comfortable than the hijab," Qaumova says. But she scoffs at the notion that the goods she sells could cause health problems for customers.
A middle-aged woman who says her name is Munarava weighs in on the debate at Kolub's central bazaar, saying: "Don't blame all your problems on the hijab."
She adds that she's been wearing the hijab for several years without any problems.
If anyone wearing the hijab has skin problems, she says, it's a result of "poor" personal hygiene. And as for the controversy over synthetic fabrics? Munavara advises women "to buy cotton fabrics and take them to local dressmakers, which would cost a lot less than buying ready-made hijabs."
Despite the official ban on the hijab in schools and government offices, the Islamic garment has become a permanent fixture in the predominantly Muslim country, particularly in religiously conservative areas in the eastern Rasht Valley.
Written by Farangis Najibullah in Prague based on reporting by RFE/RL Tajik Service correspondent Mumin Ahmadi in Kulob