Even with his country falling into economic ruin, the deputy head of Tajikistan’s central bank found time recently to talk about women’s clothes.
Jamoliddin Nuraliyev revisited a theme favored by many top officials of late.
“We must resist improper mimicry of foreign cultures. We must protect and observe our genuine national, spiritual, religious and cultural values,” 39-year old Nuraliyev, who is also President Emomali Rahmon’s son-in-law, told a staff meeting on March 7, on the eve of International Women’s Day.
Nuraliyev did not need to spell it out. Authorities have for several years been waging a rearguard campaign against fashions perceived to be overtly Islamic: Dark clothing and anything covering the face for women; beards for young men.
The official clamor around clothing habits began to intensify early last year, when Rahmon used a speech on Mother’s Day to discourage women from adopting foreign customs.
In the immediate wake of those remarks, police mounted a series of raids on markets and city streets to detain women wearing hijabs and men wearing beards. The customs service banned the import of black clothing, hijabs, and police officers confiscated any such suspect clothing from bazaar traders.
When enforcing these arbitrary rules, police typically cite a non-existent law or presidential decree.
Since the rules are informal, local officials are given a lot of room for arbitrary interpretation and overzealous enforcement.
In January, the head of police in the southern Khatlon region boasted that 13,000 bearded men had been forcibly shaved and 2,000 women had their hijabs confiscated over the course of 2015.
The apparent scale of those efforts bore hallmarks of similar undertakings in the 1920s, when Soviet authorities carried out a drive to reinvent the role of women in Central Asian society, including an aggressive campaign to abolish veils. The trade-off pledged to women by Soviet authorities was greater participation in the workplace and the inexorable chipping away of traditional patriarchal oppression in the home.
Tajikistan’s authorities have offered no bargain and are reluctant even to admit there is any anti-Muslim clothing policy in place.
Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda on January 25 summoned a press conference to downplay the news coming out of Khatlon. The wave of detentions happening there was simply a security measure, he explained.
“During checks it often emerges that people’s appearances do not correspond to that in their documents. In that case, we are obliged to take the person to the police station and work out ways to properly identify them,” Rahimzoda said. “We do not forcibly shave beards or take off hijabs. But we do have information, and you’ve seen this on television yourselves, about how criminals wear hijabs and try to evade capture in this way.”
There is only a vague understanding about what traditional local dress should constitute, and no objections are ever made about European-style apparel.
According to Idigul Kosimzoda, head of the government committee for women and family, the style of dress that the authorities wish to see is that worn by Tajik people in the past. As it is, most women in rural areas adopt the style preferred by Kosimzoda — long, bright and colorful and simply woven dresses worn over wide-cut pants. Headscarves are commonplace but do not, as a rule, cover all the hair. Turkish-style headscarves incorporating a band obscuring the top of the forehead appear to be tolerated, judging by the frequent appearance in the capital, Dushanbe.
Kosimzoda said that her preference was to see Tajik women adopting the styles of their “mothers and grandmothers,” although evidently not the paranja (veil) outlawed by the Soviets. As for European styles, Kosimzoda said they should be accepted as a “trend of the modern world.”
Opening yet another front in the anti-veil battle, officials like Kosimzoda argue that styles popular in the Middle East might even be unhealthy.
“Women in Saudi Arabia wear black to protect themselves from dust and preserve their beauty,” Kosimzoda said.
But conditions in Tajikistan are different, so the health ministry has issued guidelines stating that shrouding the skin in fabric could lead to skin conditions, Kosimzoda said.
Husein Shokirov, a member of the State Committee for Religious Affairs and Regulation of Traditions, meanwhile, said that he objected to clothes that created problems in identifying their wearer. That could apply equally to the burka and the niqab, which are customary items of clothing in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and cover the entire face.
As soon as a person becomes recognizable, then all issues are resolved, Shokirov said.
Despite this welter of official views, the people tasked with enforcing the informal rules remain confused about what they are doing, and why for that matter.
Dushanbe resident Ramesh Ibragimov illustrated the point with an account of his own strange run-in with the police.
“The police wanted to know who I was and why I was wearing a beard. And they told me that there was a presidential decree that beards could only be worn by individuals over the age of 45, that this was not acceptable, that this is radicalism and is the kind of behavior one might expect of a terrorist. And then they carried on about other aspects of my outer appearance and my piercings, so I answered that that was how I liked things and that I like my beard because… well, I just like it, and that’s that,” Ibragimov said.
The conversation did not end there, however.
Ibragimov said one policeman demanded to know whether he was a Muslim. The answer Ibragimov offered — that he was an atheist — provoked even more indignation.
“He said: ‘You’re not a Muslim? You’re not worthy to wear this beard!’” Ibragimov recalled.
Rustam Gulov, a blogger, who said he had his own beard forcibly shaved off, said it was particularly hypocritical that campaigns about clothing tend to be focused almost exclusively on women.
“But they [officials] themselves have no intention of giving up Western style — ties, shirts, suits. But customs change and wasting resources on protecting them, particularly at a time of crisis, is more than foolish. And especially when what the government calls the protection of culture is nothing but conservatism, the freezing of a primitive form and nothing more,” Gulov said.
In an unusual gesture of defiance, Gulov attempted to bring the police to account for the loss of his own beard. That effort failed.
“If the Interior Ministry internal security service hadn’t messed about and investigated properly, they would have managed to accumulate a lot of evidence, including surveillance camera footage, showing that I was in the right,” he said.
“And yet I didn’t get so much as an apology, despite promises made by top Interior Ministry officials,” Gulov said.
This article was originally featured on Eurasianet.org.