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Holiday Or Holy Day? Tajiks To Start School Despite Muslim Holiday

The Tajik Constitution prescribes that children start school on September 1, which this year coincides with a major Muslim holiday. (file photo)

The children are getting sent to school, but it's postcommunist Tajikistan's founding fathers that are being taught the lesson.

In an unprecedented move, the Education Ministry in the overwhelmingly Muslim country says it will kick off the new school year on September 1 despite that also being one of the holiest days on the Islamic calendar.

Eid al-Adha, locally known as Idi Qurbon, is one of two major religious festivals designated as public holidays in Tajikistan’s 1994 constitution. Because it is rooted in the Islamic, lunar calendar, it falls at different times on the Gregorian calendar.

But the Tajik Constitution also prescribes that September 1 is the Day of Knowledge, the start of the academic year.

So something had to give.

But Education Ministry spokesman Ehsoni Khushvaqt told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service on August 28 that classes will take place in schools and universities across the country on the Day of Knowledge.

Students will instead be given a public holiday on Saturday, September 2, to mark Eid al-Adha, Khushvaqt said. Saturday is normally a school day in Tajikistan, where students attend schools six days a week.

“Eid al-Adha is celebrated for three days, so our students will still have an opportunity to celebrate it on Saturday and Sunday,” the spokesman added.

Eid al-Adha, the "Feast Of The Sacrifice," lasts at least three days. But the Tajik Constitution allocates one public holiday each for Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

On August 28, the country’s Federation of Independent Trade Unions came out in support of the Education Ministry’s decision, saying the move doesn’t contradict the constitution.

“The ministry has offered an alternative public holiday for the education sector,” Ismoil Hodizoda, the deputy head of the federation said.

“September 1 is a public holiday in all other workplaces,” he added.

Backed By Imams

Meanwhile, in many mosques across Tajikistan -- where around nine out of 10 people are Muslim -- imams urged parents to send their children to school on September 1.

Imams in Tajikistan largely back the staunchly secular government, which in recent years has tightened control on how its citizens practice Islam amid fears of what officials describe as growing extremism.

The hijab head scarf and other forms of Islamic dress are banned in schools and government offices, and schoolchildren are largely prohibited from praying in mosques, with few exceptions.

The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, once the only officially recognized expressly Islamic political party in Central Asia, has been banned and was branded a “terrorist organization” by the Tajik Supreme Court in 2015.

Meanwhile, other Central Asian states that declared independence from the Soviet Union have taken varying approaches to accommodate the synchronous celebration of Eid al-Adha and the first day of school.

Kyrgyzstan will mark both the religious festival and the first day of school on September 1 but has canceled classes. Instead, schools will simply host gatherings to mark Education Day. Kyrgyzstan also is holding a four-day public holiday that begins with Independence Day on August 31.

Kazakhstan has moved the first day of school to September 2 to accommodate Eid al-Adha celebrations.

Uzbekistan did not need to juggle schedules because September 1 is an annual public holiday to mark its Independence Day.

Turkmenistan’s state media reported that Eid al-Adha would be marked with a three-day public holiday on September 2-4. The country announced an additional “day off” on Wednesday, September 5, to compensate for the Sunday that coincides with one of the Eid days.

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Farangis Najibullah