The Kazakh Education Ministry doesn't allow girls to wear a hijab in school, but many parents in the country's increasingly conservative northwest believe such a ban violates the country's constitution and hampers girls' education.
Gulzhan Sabenova, a resident of Aqtobe, says the ban has prompted her daughter to end her education at the provincial capital's school N23. Instead, the teenager has opted for distance learning at an online school based in Moscow.
Aqtobe education officials confirm that at least 11 female students from the province have enrolled in the same Internet school. It's not clear if the Russia-based online school's credentials are officially recognized in Kazakhstan. But Sabenova insists her daughter will not return to her regular school unless the authorities allow girls to wear the hijab in school.
Kazakh laws do not explicitly ban the hijab in school, but an Education Ministry decree on student uniforms prohibits the wearing of religious symbols at school.
Sabenova was among 15 parents who attended a meeting with Aqtobe Deputy Governor Marat Tokzhanov and high-ranking representatives from the region's Education Department and Religious Affairs Directorate to discuss the hijab issue before the start of the school year.
Aqtobe resident Berik Sulekenov, who attended the August 29 meeting, said he and the other parents told the regional government that the effective ban on the hijab was unconstitutional.
"The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion, but the rights of our daughters and sisters are being violated," Sulekenov told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service. "Nobody has the right to undermine the constitution."
Sabenova said her group demanded the authorities "include the head scarf in the school uniform," a request the officials strongly deny was made. "If we change the requirements because of a demand from a small group of female students, then tomorrow everyone would do whatever they like," Tokzhanov said.
A historian by profession, the deputy governor argues that the hijab is not necessarily part of Kazakh culture. "According to Kazakh tradition, only brides wear head scarves. Young [unmarried] girls wore a hat adorned with bird feathers," Tokzhanov said. "The head scarf was a sign that the girl is married."
Tokzhanov told the parents that their daughters can wear head scarves outside school if they wished to. "But they must wear the uniform at school," he said.
Effective Hijab Ban
According to an Education Ministry decree issued in 2016, Kazakhstan's official school uniform for girls consists of a "classic-style blouse" worn with a skirt or ankle-length pants.
The color of the uniform and skirt length is decided by the individual school administrations and require official approval by parental committees, the document states.
While the decree on uniforms does not specifically mention headwear, it does not allow any religious symbols to be worn with the uniform, which would rule out the hijab. Schools across Kazakhstan have been using it as an official ban on the hijab.
According to the Aqtobe regional Education Department, about 340 female students in the province wanted to wear a hijab to school last year.
Nurgul Bertleuova, the deputy head of the department, said it took great effort and "explanatory works with the parents" before a majority of the girls agreed to conform to the school uniform without a hijab. Some of the girls remove their head scarves inside the school premises and put them back on when they leave.
Thirteen female students refused to take off their hijabs and left the province altogether. Authorities say those students have enrolled at a private school -- thousands of kilometers away -- in the southeastern city of Almaty that allegedly allows them to wear an Islamic head scarf.
Moving to another city is not an option for Aqtobe resident Galia Aminova, whose 15-year-old daughter wears a hijab. Aminova said that during the past school year, the teenager would remove her head scarf inside the school.
"She would take off her head scarf because she was under pressure to do so," Aminova said. "This year, my daughter refused to go to that school, saying she doesn't want to get education in an uncomfortable environment."
Concerned about her child's education, Aminova now sends her to a nearby private school, although the single mother can barely afford the $115 monthly school fees. "It's half of what I earn in a month, but my daughter's mental well-being is more important," she said.
Meanwhile, seven female students from two Aqtobe city schools have been required to repeat a grade since they did not attend school last year. The reason for their nonattendance was the hijab ban.
Three of the girls are siblings. Their father, Nuraly Shakkozov, has repeatedly sued the school over the hijab ban and the grade retention. "All courts, from the city and provincial courts up to the Supreme Court, ruled that the school decision was lawful. Now, I'm preparing documents to appeal to international organizations," he said.
The 15 parents who met with Aqtobe officials are unhappy with the authorities' insistence on the school uniform. They are planning to file a complaint with the country's new president, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.
Similar debates over the hijab and other "religious clothes" have gone on for a long time in different parts of the Muslim-majority Central Asian country.
Former President Nursultan Nazarbaev had called for a legal ban on body-covering black garments for women and so-called Salafi-style, ankle-length pants for men. Nazarbaev said in 2017 that the number of young Kazakhs wearing such garments was on the rise, adding, "We must combat the tendencies that pose threats to our statehood."
Kazakh authorities have increasingly expressed concern over what they deem to be the threat posed by Islamic extremism in the country. In June 2016, the government blamed a deadly attack in the city of Aqtobe on what they described as "followers of radical, nontraditional religious movements."
According to the official version of events, eight people were killed when a group of suspected Islamic militants entered the city, raided a gun shop, and attacked an army unit.
Aqtobe was also the site of what Kazakh authorities described as the country's first suicide attack by religious extremists, in 2011.