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Tajik Lawmakers Approve Bill Supporting 'Traditional Clothes'

A composite photo showing the "alien" Islamic hijab (left) and a scarf tied in the traditional "Tajik" way behind the head, exposing the neck under the chin.
A composite photo showing the "alien" Islamic hijab (left) and a scarf tied in the traditional "Tajik" way behind the head, exposing the neck under the chin.

DUSHANBE -- Tajik lawmakers have approved legislation that obliges individuals and organizations "to stick to traditional and national clothes and culture," a move widely seen as an effort to discourage people from wearing the hijab and Islamic clothing.

The lower house of parliament passed the bill -- an amendment to an existing law governing the practice of traditions, rites, and celebrations -- on August 23.

The bill is expected to be approved by the upper house of parliament and signed into law by President Emomoli Rahmon, who has endorsed the legislation. It was first published on his website on August 11.

Hilolbi Qurbonzoda, chief of the lower chamber’s Committee on Social Affairs, told RFE/RL that the legislation supports a government program to promote what authorities define as Tajik culture, traditions, and clothing.

Qurbonzoda said that separate legislation on possible punishment for those who wear "alien Islamic garments" rather than "traditional" Tajik clothing will be outlined by parliament soon.

Since May 2016, authorities in the predominantly Muslim Central Asian country have closed down scores of shops that sell women's religious clothing that does not conform with what the government calls "national traditions."

Human rights activists say Tajikistan’s government uses the term “nontraditional dress” and "alien garments" as euphemisms for the Islamic hijab.

Although the bill passed by the lower chamber does not specifically mention the hijab, authorities in the past have said that head scarves that cover the front of a woman’s neck are a form of “alien culture and traditions.”

In early August, more than 8,000 hijab-wearing women were stopped in public places across Dushanbe by teams of state officials who pressured them to wear head scarves in the style of “traditional national clothing” -- that is, by tying the scarf with a knot behind the head in a way that leaves the front of the neck exposed.

Tajik police have asserted that some women and girls associated with extremist terrorist organizations can be identified because they follow "alien culture and traditions."

Regional authorities also have threatened to detain women in hijabs in order to investigate whether their husbands are "militant Salafists" from the ultra-conservative movement within Sunni Islam.

They have justified the threatened detentions on the grounds that "all Salafist wives wear hijabs."

The Tajik Constitution says citizens have the right to adhere to any religion, or to no religion at all, and to observe religious customs and ceremonies.

It also says religious organizations must be separate from the state and cannot interfere in "state affairs."

The constitution does not prevent Tajikistan’s government from passing legislation that regulates religion.

The U.S. State Department has raised concerns with Dushanbe about what it says are the Tajik government’s attempts to control all aspects of religious life in the country.

That includes government control over the approval and registration of religions, the construction of places of worship, the distribution of religious literature, and religious education for children.

A May 2016 constitutional amendment bans political parties that are based on religion.

The opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan was outlawed and designated an extremist group by Tajikistan's Supreme Court in 2015, and several of its leaders have been prosecuted.

Tajikistan's laws on religion also restrict the locations of Islamic prayer and prohibit children under the age of 18 from taking part in public religious activities.

Private religious ceremonies, including funerals and weddings, also are increasingly regulated by state officials.

Two provisions in the latest legislation would impose further restrictions on religious ceremonies.

The bill outlaws celebrations marking the return of Muslims from hajj pilgrimages in Saudi Arabia.

Private feasts that commemorate the dead also would be restricted only to relatives of the deceased and would not be allowed to involve the slaughter of livestock -- a practice that currently is common.

Tajikistan’s government argues that its strict controls on religion are necessary to prevent the growth of what it calls Islamic "extremist" organizations and terrorist groups.

Religious groups banned in Tajikistan as "extremist" organizations include Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic State (IS), Jindullah, Ansarrullah, and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

About 90 percent of Tajikistan's 8.3 million citizens are Muslims, and the majority are followers of the moderate Hanafi school of Sunni Islam.

The government has said that hundreds of Tajik citizens have joined IS extremist militants in Syria in Iraq.