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Uzbek Teachers Get Tough Assignment: 'Remove Their Hijabs, But Don't Hurt Their Feelings'

Teachers wait outside the gate of a school in the Tashkent region early on October 4.
Teachers wait outside the gate of a school in the Tashkent region early on October 4.

Teachers in Uzbekistan's Tashkent region have been instructed to stand outside schools every morning to demand female students remove their head scarves before entering the building.

The new, unofficial government order is part of a large-scale crackdown on clothes or a physical appearance -- particularly long or bushy beards -- deemed by the authorities to be too Islamic.

Uzbek educational officials are increasingly tightening the measures against the hijab, or female head scarf, and Islamic symbols at schools and other public places.

RFE/RL obtained an audio recording of a Tashkent district education-department meeting at which officials ordered school administrators to stop female students from wearing the hijab on school premises.

Two officials who attended the meeting confirmed the authenticity of the recording. They requested anonymity to prevent reprisals in the tightly controlled country, where there is little tolerance for criticism of the government.

The officials said the meeting was held in late September, a few weeks after the start of the new school year.

In the recording, the head of the education department can be heard explaining the new anti-hijab measures to school principals. "You must assign a teacher to stand on duty outside the school gate at 7 a.m. every morning," he says.

To make sure his order is followed, the official demands proof in the form of photographs of the teachers standing on duty every morning. "Send me the photos by direct message by 7:15," he adds.

Acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue in the conservative, predominantly Muslim society, the department head urges school directors to exercise caution not to hurt the feelings of female students who wear the hijab -- or their parents.

"The fathers of these girls get offended if a male teacher tells them to take off their head scarves," he says. "For them it sounds like someone is telling them to take off their pants. Therefore, only assign women teachers for this task."

He goes on to explain in detail that once the students remove their hijabs outside the main entrance of the school, the staff must "neatly place the head scarves in boxes."

"After the classes finish, the teacher on duty must personally return the hijabs to each of the female students outside school grounds," the department head explains.

The official says that "the students must obey the school requirements" and that parents "should not make ultimatums." He acknowledges that the task is "complex and serious."

One school director who attended the meeting told RFE/RL that the instruction put a strain on teachers and means longer working days for school staff. "Now we have to come to work at 6:30 a.m. and effectively be held responsible for every single hijab-wearing student," the director said.

District officials told RFE/RL after an inquiry that the schools only take measures against students so that they comply with officially approved, secular school uniforms. They rejected the suggestion that teachers are standing in front of schools every morning to check if schoolgirls are wearing hijabs.

School regulations require pupils in Uzbek schools to wear a uniform, and the hijab and other items deemed to be religious symbols are explicitly banned -- for both students and teachers.

Violent Reaction

This alleged unofficial campaign by state education officials against the hijab has angered some parents and family members, with at least one case of violence reported.

The husband of a teacher in the eastern city of Andijon violently assaulted an acting school director and a staff member after they advised his wife -- a math teacher -- not to wear a head scarf at work, officials told RFE/RL on October 8.

Eyewitnesses said the math teacher refused to comply with the official's advice and instead threatened to call her husband to talk to him.

The husband came to school with a friend and attacked the deputy director and a second staff member with a baseball bat, witnesses told RFE/RL. The men also hit several female teachers who tried to stop the attack.

The victims were taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, Andijon education and hospital officials said. Uzbek media said the two victims sustained serious head injuries, broken teeth, and other injuries.

The incident occurred on October 5 at Andijon school No. 50, officials said.

New Restrictions

One school director in the Tashkent region told RFE/RL that the hijab ban was somewhat loosened after President Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in 2016.

Mirziyoev introduced some religious freedoms, released hundreds of prisoners convicted on religious extremism-related charges, and removed thousands of others from a blacklist of potential extremists.

In recent months, however, reports from Uzbekistan say the authorities are once again tightening their grip on people's religious practices.

In the eastern city of Qoqon, some schools have reportedly made lists of female students who wear Islamic head scarves. Sources told RFE/RL the lists were given to city authorities so they could begin "explanatory works" with the students and their parents.

In the capital, Tashkent, and the eastern city of Namangan, police reportedly raided bazaars and rounded up young men with long beards. The men were taken to police stations and their beards were shaven off.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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