Tajikistan officials are texting women to tell them what to wear

Tajikistan officials are texting women to tell them what to wear
The hijab has been a particular source of tension. The head covering became popular after the fall of the Soviet Union, to the chagrin of the government. - Photo for illustration purpose
IF you have a phone in Tajikistan, odds are you've received a text message reminding you what not to wear.

In: "national" Tajik dress, now required by law at all "traditional" gatherings. Out: the hijab, and other kinds of Muslim dress.

"Observe Tajik traditional clothes," one message read. Another advised citizens to "respect traditional clothes."

"Let's make it a tradition to wear traditional clothes," demanded a third.
The messages were sent as part of a national effort to publicize a new law. The measure, signed last month, requires people to "stick to traditional and national clothes and culture" at events like weddings and funerals. It also bans "nontraditional dress" and "alien garments." Activists say those are euphemisms for the hijab, which officials have labeled part of "alien culture and traditions" in the past. The country's legislators are still figuring out how they might punish those who don't oblige.

The government says the new rule, passed by legislators in August, will help combat Islamist radicalism. The country's Muslims, though, see a more nefarious aim - an effort to regulate their faith. Ninety percent of Tajiks are Muslim, but the government has worked assiduously to stamp out most markers of the faith.

Last year, the government shuttered scores of shops selling women's religious clothing. In March 2016, government officials forcibly shaved about 13,000 Muslim men. In August, more than 8,000 women were stopped across the country because they were wearing a hijab. According to reports, teams of state officials instructed the women on how to tie their headscarves in a more "traditional" way, warning them to tie the scarf from behind, which would leave the front of the neck exposed. One woman told Radio Liberty that she had been separated from her children and forced to remove her hijab. "They told us to wear national clothing only," the woman said. She was so shaken that she said she's now nervous to go out in public.

All religious groups must register with the state, and the government has final say over whether houses of worship can be built and whether children can attend religious schools. Officials also regulate the distribution of religious literature. Those younger than 18 cannot participate in public religious activities, and Islamic prayer is tightly monitored. Even religious weddings and funerals are regulated by state officials.

The hijab has been a particular source of tension. The head covering became popular after the fall of the Soviet Union, to the chagrin of the government. Officials have tried to discourage women from wearing it through advertisements and news reports on state media suggesting that women who cover their faces might be prostitutes. In 2015, President Emomali Rahmon said the hijab was a sign of "poor education and incivility." Last month, an official told Radio Liberty that "all Salafist wives wear hijabs."

"We have many examples where women wearing the hijab take drugs, deal in human trafficking and other things that are far from Tajik culture and the honor of Tajik women," he said.

The government says these rules are important because they allow the government to root out terrorists. Officials say that hundreds of Tajiks have gone to fight for the Islamic State, though activists contest that number.

But Muslims and human rights advocates say the government is obsessing about the wrong things.

"Defending our culture, traditions and national values is undoubtedly important for the Tajik people and the unity of the population," Faiziniso Vohidova, a lawyer and rights activist, told Eurasianet. "But this should not be accompanied by the violation of human rights and interference in people's lives. . . . I think lowering poverty levels and improving the economy are more important matters than women's clothing."