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
HEADSCARF BAN REMAINS LIVE ISSUE IN CENTRAL ASIA Linking hijab controversy to
fears of Islamic extremism may be counter-productive. By Abdumomun Mamaraimov
in Jalalabad and Saodat Asanova in Dushanbe
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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
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 peoples 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
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
However, there are some notable absences as well. The Peoples 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 governments
handing of economic problems. (See Kyrgyz Political Elite Hit by Infighting,
RCA No. 552, 21-Oct-08.)
The opposition groupings 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 groups 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
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 its 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
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
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 Movements
assembly on November 18 and the main opposition groupings 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.
HEADSCARF BAN REMAINS LIVE ISSUE IN CENTRAL ASIA
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 wont listen
I see this as a kind of purge,
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 womans 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.
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
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.
EXCLUDED FROM SCHOOL FOR WEARING HIJAB
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 Id 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 arent against praying, but why wrap yourself in a headscarf? he asked.
Were worried our daughter has fallen under the sway of extremists.
Grown ups dont understand, responded Ayjarkyn. I want to go to school, but
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, Jalalabads education department
estimates that there are seven or eight cases in each of the citys 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 were asking for is that they let
our daughters wear headscarves. We bought white ones that look nice and dont
make them look very different from the other kids. But the school has banned
They treat them very badly at school; they humiliate them and insult our
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 wouldnt 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 its 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
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
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 theyre campaigning to wear hijab because then theyll be
officially banned from going to school, she said.
TAJIK BAN EXTENDS TO UNIVERSITY
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 couldnt 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 Im 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 cant appear in public
without my head being covered; thats 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 dont 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.
OFFICIALS DENY EXISTENCE OF BAN
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 ministrys 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 isnt
forbidden by law should be allowed.
None of the schools in Jalalabad that we asked could produce a copy of the
order. It isnt clear what they are basing their ban on
. If the order did ban
the wearing of headscarves, wed 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 couldnt initiate that by ourselves as the parents wouldnt back
this kind of change to the rules, he said.
EQUATING HIJAB WITH ISLAMIC EXTREMISM
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 countrys Supreme Court issued a ruling
prohibiting the group from operating in 2003, and the constitution prohibits
faith-based political parties in general.
In Dooronovs 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 dont want to accuse all headscarf-wearers of extremism, but how can one be
sure there arent 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 Tajikistans parliament, also
look back to the 1992-97 civil war, in which the opposition force was led by
Islamic guerrillas. Weve 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
fought for womens 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 Kyrgyzstans 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 muftiates 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 cant just copy the Europeans. That might have
been possible 15 years ago, but not now, because Islam has taken deep roots in
Bapanovs predecessor as chief cleric in Jalalabad, Dilmurat-Ajy Orozov, goes
even further, saying, The state doesnt respect its citizens rights, the
[parliamentary] deputies dont see that theres a problem, and the president
isnt paying any attention.
Tursunbek Akun is Kyrgyzstans 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
MORE NUANCED APPROACHES NEEDED
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.
Its a very sensitive issue that requires a delicate approach, said Sania
Sagnaeva, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. Theres a risk
of conflict [even] if there are no other motives for this. This is about
societys 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, Theres no point in unnecessarily
creating problems where there arent any. They need to allow those who want to
wear headscarves to do so and set general guidelines for this, he said.
Havent 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 isnt 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.
Spravedlivosts 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
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 womens 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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