On the afternoon of August 3, police officers and other officials descended on Shohmansur bazaar in Dushanbe. Over the course of several hours, the officials circulated around explaining to female traders, in expansive detail, how they should dress.
In Tajikistan, authorities are now frowning upon clothing that is either too conservative or too revealing.
“I don’t wear Arabic-style clothing, just a shawl that covers my neck. I am not young. But today they came and told us to take it off. Either that or we will have to pay a fine or face being fired,” one 60-year-old vendor told EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity in the wake of the inspections.
When authorities made their rounds at the bazaar, they cited regulations that they claimed laid down the rules for proper attire in public places. In reality, however, no such formal rules exist, although it seems there are plans to create them. All the same, officials warned violators that they faced stiff fines and other consequences.
If many are inclined to believe talk of strict laws on clothing, it is partly because state television airs lots of programming that inveighs against the hijab and other similar items of dress.
“The bazaar management told me that I am not such a rich woman who can afford big fines – about 1,000 somoni ($113). So they told me to take the hijab off or stay at home. They said the law is the law. I have two sons in the army. I am alone at home with an underage daughter. I have to work,” another trader at Shohmansur told EurasiaNet.org.
The raid at the bazaar was carried out by an array of government officials, including representatives of the Committee for Women and Family Affairs, the Committee for Youth and Tourism and the Interior Ministry. Although all those bodies are ostensibly geared toward protecting public welfare, the subjects of the raid expressed frustration.
“I only began wearing a hijab a year ago, because I suffered from skin irritations on my neck from the sun. My family was opposed, but I didn’t want to go around with a rash on my neck. But three times this week they called me into the police station in the Shohmansur neighborhood. They threatened to fire me or fine me. So today I came to work without the neck scarf, but I don’t know what I am going to do about my neck,” a third female trader at the bazaar told EurasiaNet.org, again on condition of anonymity.
The hijab began to gain popularity in Tajikistan in the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet regime. The issue of attire immediately became an object of contention between those inclined to turn toward Islamic traditions and others who preferred Western styles of dress.
Campaigns by the authorities to clamp down on clothing not deemed sufficiently Tajik have come in waves over the years, but the situation became particularly critical following a public address by President Emomali Rahmon, on Mother’s Day in March 2015, when he argued that certain types of Islamic women’s headdress were a sign of “poor education and incivility.” Rahmon blamed a host of societal ills on bad clothing choices.
“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,” Rahmon said.
Following those remarks, state television began running reports that suggested women who use clothing to conceal their faces might be prostitutes.
Many were appalled by such television broadcasts. One particularly notable critic of the long-standing campaign against Islamic clothing, Gulmurod Khalimov, cited the development as one of the reasons for abandoning his high-ranking position in the Tajik riot police to join the ranks of the Islamic State group.
While the “rules” being cited by officials concerning inappropriate attire do not exist for now, that state of affairs may not last for long. In a public address on July 11, Rahmon issued an order to bolster state regulations on clothing worn by Tajik women.
In the speech, Rahmon gave government bodies two months to come up with guidelines on what should constitute the Tajik national style. That task will fall to entities like the Committee for Women and Family Affairs.
But it is not just what is perceived as overly Islamic clothing that is in the crosshairs. State television and radio have begun stepping up criticism of excessively revealing clothing too.
“The working groups engaged in popularizing national dress are explaining that wearing hijabs and turbans is alien to Tajiks. And they are also paying attention to women walking around half-naked,” the deputy chairman of the Committee for Women and Family Affairs, Marhabo Olimi, said at a July 28 news conference.
While women are regularly pressured to fall in line with would-be traditional norms for attire, men are allowed to dress in Western style without any criticism. The stringent stance adopted by the authorities on the proper forms of female dress has now also spilled over into popular dialogue, dividing the population broadly into two opposing camps.
Some are contemptuous of the hijab. “The hijab is not intended to attract the male gaze, but some of our women are wearing them with that intention in mind, in order to draw more attention,” M.M., a female commentator, wrote during a lively discussion in a closed Tajikistan-themed Facebook group. “If a woman is dressed in national dress, she won’t attract any attention, but if she is in a hijab, she will be sized up from head to toe.”
Others are aggravated that more is not being done to rid the country of skimpy dress. “Why is nobody more concerned about mini-skirts that cover almost nothing? Is that not also a foreign import?” wrote Amid Yakubov in the same Facebook discussion.
Faiziniso Vohidova, a lawyer and rights activist, contends that authorities should expend time and resources on more pressing matters, in particular improving stagnant living standards.
“Defending our culture, traditions and national values is undoubtedly important for the Tajik people and the unity of the population. But this should not be accompanied by the violation of human rights and interference in people’s lives,” she said. “I think lowering poverty levels and improving the economy are more important matters than women’s clothing,” she said.