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Tajik Prostitutes Seek Protection In The Hijab

Tajik Prostitutes Seek 'Protection' Under Hijab
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WATCH: Tajik prostitutes seek 'protection' under the hijab

Like many Tajik street prostitutes Rafoat needed some protection. So she dropped the skimpy skirts, tight tops, and heavy make-up -- and started wearing the hijab.

After taking up prostitution five years ago, the 24-year-old resident of Dushanbe's Mayakovski neighborhood started to wear the hijab "to protect myself from constant insults and verbal attacks in streets."

Hers is a dangerous line of work -- Rafoat says she often waits for clients to pick her up in dimly lit alleys of central Dushanbe. Social stigmas also leave prostitutes vulnerable to dangerous encounters.

"Men stop their cars to insult prostitutes in miniskirts, they call them names, and threaten," says Rafoat, who gives only her first name.

Dressing The Part

Wearing a subtle make-up and hair-covering hijab -- complemented by a long-sleeved tunic, a pair of long pants, and flat shoes -- affords Rafoat some measure of security.

And there is an added bonus: "It's easy to dodge police this way," she says.

Prostitution is a misdemeanor offense punishable by only a small fine (up to $150) in Tajikistan, but police can be a hassle.

A high-ranking Interior Ministry official, who spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the hijab makes it almost impossible for police officers to identify sex workers during raids.

He said the number of hijab-wearing prostitutes "has increased recently, although they still are a very small minority." They often avoid areas known for sex-trafficking, and "pretend as if they are waiting for a taxi or for someone," the official added.

In a special program aired on state television on March 10, however, Interior Ministry officials announced that a crackdown in Dushanbe resulted in the arrest of at least 10 sex workers wearing the hijab.

Rafoat says she is suspicious about the timing of the raids.

They came just days after President Emomali Rahmon expressed concerns about Tajik women being tainted by foreign influences.

"Wearing the hijab and blindly copying a culture that is foreign to us is not the sign of having high moral and ethical standards for women," Rahmon said.

The hijab has long been criticized by Rahmon and other Tajik officials who repeatedly call on Tajik women to "stick to Tajik traditions." The hijab has been banned in schools, universities, and state institutions.

The recent spotlight on hijab-wearing prostitutes hasn't only been shining on the working girls themselves. Others are seen as guilty by association.

Malika Saidova, a former popular singer who abruptly ended her music career after a hajj pilgrimage in 2009, has had to answer claims by a sex worker interviewed in the recent state television program that prostitutes purchased their hijabs from her shop.

"Authorities checked my shop after the TV program was aired but they didn't find anything wrong here," Saidova told local media. "Besides, it's not written on customers' faces that they are prostitutes."

Increasing Problems

Authorities have repeatedly expressed alarm at an apparent rise in the number of sex workers, which many Tajiks blame on widespread poverty and a lack of jobs in the country.

The Interior Ministry says it registered up to 400 sex workers and uncovered nearly 275 illegal brothels in Dushanbe in 2014, a significant increase from the previous year, when 189 illegal brothels were exposed.

Police raids frequently target brothels and spots used as meeting points by sex workers and their customers. The raids are primary carried out to identify possible victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution, or underage prostitutes.

The sex trade is also linked to police corruption. Some officers are said to offer protection to sex workers in return for money. In her case, Rafoat says she has been detained by police at least five times, but that she had "friends among the police officers" who helped set her free.

While such "cooperation" with police hasn't changed because of the hijab, she says, the Islamic headscarf does help prostitutes keep a lower profile.

That leaves Rafoat free to deal with the smaller "challenges" she faces while working under the cover of a head scarf.

Sometimes, she says, men genuinely stop their cars and offer her a lift, forcing her to quickly figure out whether she is dealing with a potential customer or someone looking to help out a fellow devout Muslim who "might have missed her last bus or something."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Ganjinai Ganj
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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.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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