Several Uzbek soccer fans say they were barred from entering a stadium while wearing beards, in what could be a sign of a crackdown on what the government sees as displays of potential Islamic radicalism.
One fan in the central city of Bukhara told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that he and others were about to enter a stadium to watch a May 29 friendly between Bukhara and Navbahor when plainclothes police stopped those with beards.
"There were thousands of people lining up to enter the stadium when a man in civilian clothes approached me and said 'Go and remove your beard and then you can enter,'" said the fan, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals.
He said that he was defiant at first, complaining that no one had warned him in advance that beards were prohibited, but changed his mind when he saw that the man who had stopped him was not alone and that "four other men were standing next to him."
"I had no choice but to run to a nearby barber shop" for a shave, he said.
Authoritarian President Islam Karimov's staunchly secular government strictly controls religious institutions in the predominantly Muslim Central Asian nation of 29 million. The authorities are nervous about behavior, practices, and modes of dress that officials see as potential signs of religious radicalism or militancy.
When restrictive policies are enforced, it is often unclear whether there is a formal ban in place and whether an order was issued at the national, regional, or local level.
Uzbek citizens speaking on condition of anonymity have told RFE/RL recently that several bearded university students have been barred from entering classrooms. They also reported instances of bearded men being stopped in streets and bazaars and taken to police stations for questioning.
Ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts next week, there are reports of a ban on holding "iftar" -- fast-breaking dinner gatherings -- in restaurants and mosques in the former Soviet republic.
During Ramadan last year, an Uzbek police officer confirmed reports that women wearing Islamic scarves, the hijab, were being stopped by police for questioning in the eastern Ferghana Province and the capital, Tashkent. http://www.ozodlik.org/content/article/27089290.html
A leader of the Bukhara soccer fan club, who didn't want to give his name, told RFE/RL that there is an informal ban on beards in the city's stadiums for men under 40 years old.
"Young men with beards aren't allowed to stadiums," the fan club leader said.
But spectators say they have not been told of any beard ban.
"They could have put a sign at the ticket office [saying] that bearded men aren't allowed into stadiums," one fan said.
Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service