WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 556 Part 1, November 17, 2008

KYRGYZSTAN: REBELS WITHOUT COMMON CAUSE  Part of the opposition is forging a 
new alliance, but prospects for a broader anti-government coalition remain 
slim.  By Gulnara Mambetalieva in Bishkek


fears of Islamic extremism may be counter-productive.  By Abdumomun Mamaraimov 
in Jalalabad and Saodat Asanova in Dushanbe


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Part of the opposition is forging a new alliance, but prospects for a broader 
anti-government coalition remain slim.

By Gulnara Mambetalieva in Bishkek

As a number of leading Kyrgyz parties plan a new campaign against the 
government, the absence of other groups from the coalition suggests the 
opposition is as fractured and disunited as ever.

Political observers say they have seen it all before – promises of a revival in 
political action that are marred by lack of cohesion between the various 
groups. They predict that the parties will remain divided by ambition and 

Although price rises, power-cuts and the impact of global financial crisis have 
created hardship and discontent in Kyrgyzstan, the opposition parties have been 
unusually quiet this year, in contrast to 2006 and early 2007 when massive 
street protests were almost commonplace. 

On November 3, a loose coalition of ten political parties, 12 non-government 
organisations and several notable politicians made an attempt to rebuild the 
opposition – or part of it – as a potent force. 

In a joint memorandum, they announced a concerted plan of action to tackle 
political and economic problems for which they hold the government of President 
Kurmanbek Bakiev responsible. 

The document paints a picture of “catastrophic decline” in people’s living 
standards, and goes on to lay the blame squarely on the Bakiev administration 
and a flawed political system which, it says, has left ordinary people shut out 
of decision-making. 

When it comes to a cure, the memorandum is less specific, simply prescribing a 
major overhaul of the system to ensure rule of law and a truly competitive 
electoral process. Details of a new opposition programme, entitled Road to 
Justice, are to be unveiled at a “kurultay”, a public assembly that the 
coalition has scheduled for November 29. 

The group, which characterises itself as “the opposition and constructive 
forces”, includes major parties like Ata Meken, Ak Shumkar, Asaba and the 
Social Democrats – the latter the only political group represented in 
parliament apart from the governing Ak Jol. 

Social Democrat leader Bakyt Beshimov was upbeat about the latest attempt at 
collaboration, arguing that in contrast to previous opposition actions, this 
one was not about getting the president to resign, but about transforming 
Kyrgyzstan from a presidential to a parliamentary system. 

“This is the first time opposition forces have united in this format,” Beshimov 
told IWPR. “The nucleus of the alliance is formed by the Social Democratic 
Party and Ata-Meken – parties that have a wide support base and are effectively 
national parties.” 

However, there are some notable absences as well. The People’s Revolutionary 
Movement for the Resignation of President Bakiev, led by prominent politician 
Azimbek Beknazarov, is still pursuing its hard-line, maximalist agenda of 
removing the head of state. It refused to sign the memorandum and is planning 
to hold a kurultay of its own on November 18. 

“In talking about constitutional reforms, they are effectively turning away 
from the political struggle,” Beknazarov told IWPR. “We, however, believe we 
should ask people what form of government they want. We have our own concept, 
including a specific demand for the leadership to resign, so I did not lend it 
[the opposition memorandum] my support.” 

Meanwhile Felix Kulov, the former prime minister who became the most prominent 
and arguably most radical opposition leader of 2007, is now busy with a 
government job, heading up a department in charge of developing new power 
stations. Bakiev appointed him to the post in May 20089. 

Jany Kyrgyzstan, which brings together political heavyweights both in and out 
of power, has no plans to team up with the opposition grouping, either. 
Traditionally supportive of the regime, the party appeared to veer towards a 
more combative stance in October with a statement condemning the government’s 
handing of economic problems. (See Kyrgyz Political Elite Hit by Infighting, 
RCA No. 552, 21-Oct-08.) 

The opposition grouping’s agenda might be too weak for the Revolutionary 
Movement, but it is far too radical for Jany Kyrgyzstan. According to leading 
member Miroslav Niazov, “They are obsessed with a single idea – getting rid of 
the leadership. But at the moment, Kyrgyzstan does not need revolutionary 
shocks of this kind.” 

As for the group’s broader aims, Niazov said it was too soon to shelve the 
current presidential-style system, even if Bakiev and his predecessor Askar 
Akaev – ousted after opposition protests in 2005 – had proved less than ideal 
as presidents. 

“Yes, both presidents turned out to be not much good, but we are just not ready 
for a parliamentary republic; our parties have not yet matured,” he said. 

Many observers of the political scene greeted the latest attempt to forge a 
united front with a jaded sense of resignation. Among representatives of the 
opposition and the ruling party as well as neutral commentators, the 
factionalised nature of the opposition parties, each with its own strong 
leader, was a recurring theme. 

“The Kyrgyz opposition has tried to unite on numerous occasions, but it’s never 
amounted to anything,” said Kubatbek Baybolov, himself a leading member of the 
opposition. “My biggest disappointment with regard to the opposition movement 
is that everyone is out for personal gain and his own interests.” 

Begaly Nargozuev, a member of parliament from the pro-Bakiev Ak Jol party, 
offered a similar diagnosis, “At the moment, no strong political party exists 
in Kyrgyzstan. There are leaders and there are groupings of like-minded people 
around them.” 

Political analyst Valentin Bogatyrev believes that the prospect of a 
presidential election might focus politicians’ minds – but the next ballot is 
not until 2010, and even then he is sceptical that they will make common cause. 

“Only the nomination of a single opposition candidate for the 2010 election can 
make the opposition forces unite. But unfortunately, until that happens it is 
very unlikely that the opposition will come together,” Bogatyrev said in an 
interview to the Bishkek Press Club the day after the opposition memorandum 
came out. 

“As we move closer to the presidential election, joining the crowd means a loss 
of face for certain opposition politicians.” 

The separate events planned by various opposition groups will serve as clear 
reminders of this lack of unity. To add to the Revolutionary Movement’s 
assembly on November 18 and the main opposition grouping’s kurultay at the end 
of the month, the Erkin Kyrgyzstan party last week announced plans to stage 
anti-government protests on December 16. 

Gulnara Mambetalieva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Bishkek.



Linking hijab controversy to fears of Islamic extremism may be 

By Abdumomun Mamaraimov in Jalalabad and Saodat Asanova in Dushanbe

“We face a difficult choice – take the headscarf off or give up on school,” 
said Sahiba Yusupova, whose daughters are under increasing pressure from their 
school in southern Kyrgyzstan to remove headscarves on the grounds that they 
are too public a display of Muslim faith. 

Yusupova has already had to take her elder daughter out of school in Jalalabad 
and send her off to the capital Bishkek to study at a private Turkish-run 
institution. Now the second of her three daughters is having trouble. 

“The heads and teaching heads won’t listen … I see this as a kind of purge,” 
she said. 

Seventeen years after the Soviet Union collapsed and people began to practice 
their faith more freely, religion remains a contentious issue in the 
predominantly Muslim Central Asia republics, where secular governments are 
fearful of Islamic extremists. 

The Muslim woman’s headscarf continues to embody the tensions between 
governments and their more devout citizens. The battle is being played out at 
universities and in the workplace, but most of all in the schools where the 
authorities have greater powers to enforce a dress code. 

Neither side appears ready to give ground. IWPR interviews in Kyrgyzstan and 
Tajikistan revealed uncompromising stances on either side, backed by a whole 
set of attitudes and grievances about the other. Muslim women who want to wear 
headscarves believe their human rights are under threat from abusive state 
officials, while to many officials, outward signs of adherence to Islam reflect 
an unreasonable and potentially extremist state of mind. 

In Kyrgyzstan, IWPR looked primarily at the situation in the schools, where the 
issue arises every autumn at when a new school year begins and girls turn up 
wearing headscarves. In the past, schools tolerated the practice, but last year 
many of them began insisting that scarves did not count as part of the 
prescribed uniform and warning that anyone who broke the rules would be 
excluded. (See Kyrgyzstan: Hijab Row as New School Year Begins, RCA RCA No. 
511, 04-Oct-07.) 

The debate became more acute this year following a set of instructions issued 
by the Kyrgyz education ministry to reinforce the school uniform rules. The 
ministry says the document is more of a recommendation than a rule-book, but 
schools are interpreting it as an outright ban and girls are being excluded for 
flouting it. 

In the education sector in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, “hijab” – the requirement 
for modest dress which can include both a headcovering and a long over-garment 
– usually means only a headscarf tied under the chin. To complicate matters, 
the looser headscarves tied backwards that are commonly worn by women in the 
region are considered “non-religious” and therefore acceptable by the 

Tajikistan imposed a formal ban on hijab in both schools and universities in 
autumn 2005. At the time, Deputy Education Minister Farhod Rahimov said girls 
who disobeyed would be expelled. Education Minister Abdujabor Rahmonov has 
equated wearing hijab with conducting “propaganda for religious ideas in a 
secular society”, while his officials have explained that the ban was needed 
because of the growth of radical groups which want to use Islam as an 
instrument to undermine the state. 


When Ayjarkyn Kamaldin Kyzy took to wearing a headscarf one month ago, she was 
immediately excluded from her secondary school in the southern Kyrgyz city of 

Ayjarkyn recalled what happened when her mother was called in to discuss the 
issue. “The school head made fun of me in front of my mother, saying the next 
thing would be that I’d come in wearing a ‘paranja’,” she said, referring to a 
long-obsolete Central Asian version of the Afghan burka. 

“The head of studies Alla Vladimirovna and some of the teachers accused me of 
wearing the headscarf for fashion reasons. That was offensive.” 

Unlike many other wearers, Ayjarkyn is not supported by her parents. Her father 
Kamildin says she took to praying and wearing conservative dress after a summer 
job at the market where she worked alongside devout Uzbek girls. 

“We aren’t against praying, but why wrap yourself in a headscarf?” he asked. 
“We’re worried our daughter has fallen under the sway of extremists.” 

“Grown ups don’t understand,” responded Ayjarkyn. “I want to go to school, but 
I can’t.” 

Ayjarkyn belongs to a Kyrgyz family. Although strict adherence to Islam was 
traditionally more common among the sizeable Uzbek minority of southern 
Kyrgyzstan, in recent years the wearing of Muslim-style headscarves has become 
more popular among Kyrgyz women as well. 

In Kyrgyzstan, the headscarf dispute is most apparent in the south, and 
although it is hard to assess the scale, Jalalabad’s education department 
estimates that there are seven or eight cases in each of the city’s 20 schools. 

Local teacher Mukarram Muminova says her observations suggest there are up to 
15 girls in each school who want to be allowed to wear hijab. “In addition, 
many have simply stopped coming to school because of the headscarf issue,” she 

Zilola Akbarhojaeva, who is Uzbek, is in seventh grade at a school in Jalalabad 
in the south of Kyrgyzstan. She has been wearing a headscarf for the last four 
years and is a good student but every year it is getting tougher. 

At the start of the academic year on September 1, the school authorities said 
she was at the wrong school because of where she lives and would have to go 
somewhere else. But as the argument progressed, it quickly became apparent that 
the real reason for attempting to get her to leave was her headscarf. After her 
parents discussed the matter with the local education department, an uneasy 
compromise was reached where Zilola can wear the scarf on a temporary basis on 
the grounds that she has a sore ear. 

“We are not against the uniform – we have bought everything the school asks 
for,” said her mother Saida. “The only thing we’re asking for is that they let 
our daughters wear headscarves. We bought white ones that look nice and don’t 
make them look very different from the other kids. But the school has banned 
even this. 

“They treat them very badly at school; they humiliate them and insult our 
religious sensibilities.” 

The ban on hijab in Kyrgyz schools extends to teachers as well as pupils. A 
male head teacher who asked to remain anonymous, disagrees with the ban but 
says it is being widely applied in Jalalabad region. 

“It goes against religious convictions and also local custom, which requires 
married women to wear headscarves,” he said. “A school… recently refused to 
take on a young teacher who wouldn’t remove her headscarf.” 

IWPR found similar cases in Tajikistan, where religion plays a similarly 
contentious role. Mamnuna Karimova complains that her 13 year old daughter 
Mavzuna faces outright discrimination at her school in the northern Sogd 

“My child wears a headscarf not because it’s fashionable but because of the 
religious views of our family,” she said. “Now she gets a lot of humiliation at 
school. The children see how negatively the teachers view these girls – making 
them take their headscarves off in public or barring them from lessons – and 
that behaviour naturally provides [schoolchildren with] a motive for 
mistreating them.” 

The Garm valley of eastern Tajikistan, where Islam has traditionally had a 
strong hold, has seen many girls dropping out of school because of the 
headscarf ban. 

Local teacher Halima Yunusova claims pupils’ insistence on wearing hijab is a 
pretext. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many girls stopped going to 
school after [the penultimate] year nine, mainly because of early marriage and 
concerns at home. Now they’re campaigning to wear hijab because then they’ll be 
officially banned from going to school,” she said. 


However, claims that women are deliberately trying to drop out of education are 
clearly not true of those who go on to university. Malohat Sobirova, who comes 
from a remote village in southern Tajikistan, found it impossible to continue 
at university because of the general hostility to her insistence on wearing 

“I really wanted to get a higher education, have a career and be a useful 
member of society, but unfortunately I was excluded because I wear hijab,” she 
said. “It got to a point where I felt like an outcast. I couldn’t keep on 
fighting for my rights so I had to go back home to my village. I abandoned my 
dream of higher education and now I’m unemployed.” 

She insists she was right not to give in, “I grew up in a traditional Muslim 
family and I regard it as an obligation to wear hijab. I can’t appear in public 
without my head being covered; that’s unacceptable for a true Muslim woman.” 

Last year, student Davlatmo Ismailova brought the first and so far only court 
case against the education ministry and the Institute of Foreign Languages, 
which had excluded her for wearing hijab. 

She lost her case, and remains bitter about it. “Under the constitution, all 
citizens of Tajikistan are supposed to be equal, but my case showed that if 
spiritual values don’t coincide with spiritual ones, girls like me have no 
chance of getting a good education and working anywhere prestigious,” she told 

By contrast, another student, Rahima Davronova, has opted for a compromise with 
the authorities at Khujand State University in the north of Tajikistan. Outside 
the premises, she can tie her scarf under the chin to fulfil the hijab 
requirements, but when she goes in she knots it behind her head to make it into 
the traditional Tajik headscarf with no religious connotations. “I just use a 
big scarf,” she explained. 


Unlike Tajikistan, where the hijab ban is official, education officials in 
Kyrgyzstan are quick to insist no instructions have been given to schools, 
merely a recommendation. 

According to Chyrmash Dooronov, head of the education department for Jalalabad 
city, school heads “have no right to stop children attending classes”, since 
the order issued by the education ministry does not explicitly ban headscarves, 
but simply fails to mention them in the list of required uniform items. 

Kylym Sydyknazarova of the national education ministry’s schools department 
says the document is really only a set of general guidelines. 

“The education ministry recommended that schools opt for a single school 
uniform themselves; in other words, that parents and teachers decide what the 
uniform should be and set this down in the school rules,” she said. “We can 
neither allow or forbid the wearing of headscarves.” 

Abdumalik Sharipov of local human rights group Spravedlivost says the ministry 
document does not say anything about headscarves, so “everything that isn’t 
forbidden by law should be allowed”. 

“None of the schools in Jalalabad that we asked could produce a copy of the 
order. It isn’t clear what they are basing their ban on…. If the order did ban 
the wearing of headscarves, we’d contest it in court,” he said. 

Attempts by local government education officials to blame the schools for the 
hijab ban may be disingenuous. One school headmaster confirmed that local 
officials were exerting verbal pressure on schools to change their internal 
rules. “We couldn’t initiate that by ourselves as the parents wouldn’t back 
this kind of change to the rules,” he said. 


As officials argue their case, the subtext to the dispute rapidly becomes clear 
– they are hostile to headscarves because they regard Islamic clothing as an 
external sign of radical extremist views. 

In both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, their main concern is Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a 
group that advocates the removal of Central Asian secular governments and the 
creation of an Islamic state. Although members insist it is non-violent, 
regional governments have blamed it for a number of attacks over the years. 
Despite sweeping arrests in Uzbekistan, and smaller numbers of detentions in 
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the group still attracts new members, in part 
because its messages speak to socially and economically marginalised groups in 
a way that governments seem unable to do. (For more on this, see Islamic Group 
Quietly Builds Support in Kyrgyzstan, RCA No. 516, 16-Nov-07.) 

Unlike other regional states, the Kyrgyz criminal code does not explicitly ban 
Hizb-ut-Tahrir membership, although the country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling 
prohibiting the group from operating in 2003, and the constitution prohibits 
faith-based political parties in general. 

In Dooronov’s view, in some cases Hizb ut-Tahrir has “addled parents’ minds”, 
while in others it is the children themselves who are drawn towards the group. 
In the former case, he would like to see “irresponsible” parents prosecuted for 
depriving their children of an education. 

Damira Alimjanova, who used to head the regional educational department and now 
serves as deputy governor of Jalalabad, is a well-known opponent of headscarves 
in schools. Like other officials, she says schools should not exclude wearers, 
but she remains extremely suspicious of them. 

“I don’t want to accuse all headscarf-wearers of extremism, but how can one be 
sure there aren’t some among them?” she asked. 

The activities of Hizb ut-Tahrir worry the opponents of hijab in Tajikistan, 
too. But some like Gallia Rabieva, a member of Tajikistan’s parliament, also 
look back to the 1992-97 civil war, in which the opposition force was led by 
Islamic guerrillas. “We’ve already been burnt by that one…. We are always 
afraid these religious organisations will try to drive the thin end of the 
wedge in somewhere else,” she said. “We fear the secular nature of our state 
will be placed under threat.” 

Recalling Soviet-era campaign against the veil or “paranja”, Rabieva said, “Our 
grandmothers risked their lives to throw off the paranja in the 1920s….they 
fought for women’s freedom, so when I see a young woman dressing herself like 
that of her own free will, it makes me feel ill.” 

Mainstream Muslim groups disagree strongly with such views. They oppose 
extremists, and say it is wrong to lump all devout people together with 

In Tajikistan, the Islamic Rebirth Party, the civil war-era armed opposition 
referred to by Rabieva, is now a legal political party and has taken up a 
number of hijab cases where women felt their rights were being abused. 

The head of Kyrgyzstan’s official Islamic establishment, Mufti Murataly-Ajy 
Jumanov, says his local representatives are dealing with requests for help they 
have received from hijab wearers. 

At the same time, the mufti says the Kyrgyz intelligence services have good 
reason to be concerned about extremist groups. “You have to understand them; 
they have a job to do,” he said. 

By contrast, the muftiate’s representative in Jalalabad, Abibilla-Aju Bapanov, 
is more outspoken in his opposition to the way the state authorities are 
handling the headscarf ban. “In a country where the overwhelming majority of 
the population are Muslim, you can’t just copy the Europeans. That might have 
been possible 15 years ago, but not now, because Islam has taken deep roots in 
people’s consciousness.” 

Bapanov’s predecessor as chief cleric in Jalalabad, Dilmurat-Ajy Orozov, goes 
even further, saying, “The state doesn’t respect its citizens’ rights, the 
[parliamentary] deputies don’t see that there’s a problem, and the president 
isn’t paying any attention.” 

Tursunbek Akun is Kyrgyzstan’s human rights ombudsman, and well known as a 
defender of Muslim rights. On a recent visit to southern Kyrgyzstan, he 
described the headscarf ban as a “gross violation of human rights”, and 
promised to make the national authorities aware of the concerns expressed by 
local people. 

Some analysts interviewed for this report were more concerned about the spread 
of Islamic practices than the rights of those who want to wear headscarves. 
Manuchehra Jumanova, a political scientist in Tajikistan, for example, thinks 
the authorities there are basically doing the right thing by placing 
restrictions on what . 
“After all, we have a secular state, not an Islamic one where all women wear 
hijab,” she said.

Experts in Kyrgyzstan, however, warn that this issue is potentially explosive 
and the government should therefore try more subtle approach than simply 
banning – or appearing to ban – the wearing of headscarves. 

“It’s a very sensitive issue that requires a delicate approach,” said Sania 
Sagnaeva, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. “There’s a risk 
of conflict [even] if there are no other motives for this. This is about 
society’s tolerance overall. Headscarves are a symbol of belonging to one 
religion, but officials see the issue as an attempt to dictate terms.” 

Sharipov of the Spravedlivost group added, “There’s no point in unnecessarily 
creating problems where there aren’t any. They need to allow those who want to 
wear headscarves to do so and set general guidelines for this,” he said. 
“Haven’t we enough things engendering popular discontent already – the energy 
crisis and price rises?” 

He added, “People are already saying openly that all this is directed against 
Islam generally. If the problem isn’t resolved once and for all, parents will 
demand that new schools be set up where the children can dress according to 
religious precepts. That would divide society along religious lines.” 

Spravedlivost’s leader, Valentina Gritsenko, says her group is planning legal 
action against Kyrgyz officials who stop girls wearing headscarves and expel 
them from school. 

“The [local] education departments are breaking two rights at once – the girls’ 
right to religious observance and their right to receive an education.” 

If the authorities in Kyrgyzstan fail to move, some are warning of growing 
social tensions. 

“People are planning to hold protest rallies,” said Bapanov. “We are 
restraining them and asking them to keep the peace until the matter is resolved 
through legal channels.” 

Jamal Frontbek-Kyzy, who heads the Mutakallim women’s group, has succeeded in 
getting the authorities to sit up and take notice. Last week, she wrote to 
President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the Kyrgyz parliament, and a subsequent meeting 
with officials resulted in a promise to resolve things “in a positive manner”. 

Having already won a four-year battle for women to be allowed to keep their 
headscarves on in passport photos, Frontbek-Kyzy is confident about this 

“I am sure the outcome will be positive, as the headscarf ban was thought up by 
officials who are not only ill-informed about Islamic issues, but also have a 
poor knowledge of the constitution,” she said. 

Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an IWPR-trained journalist in Jalalabad, and Saodat 
Asanova is IWPR Tajikistan Country Director. 

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