A government-run council on Sunday decided to ban Muslim headscarves in a school in Uzbekistan's Ferghana Valley - the country's religious heartland.

The Uzbek constitution already bans the wearing of religious dress for those working in the public sector.

Gulnora Salokhiddinova, a 14-year-old girl from the village of Margilan, was sent home from her school for wearing a hijab – but only after all students were gathered at a general assembly to witness her being publicly criticised.

Family reaction

Gulnora’s grandfather, Sadriddin Salokhiddinov, stated that the family interprets such criticism as an assault on the right to be able to practice religion.

"There is no law prohibiting Muslim scarves!" said Salokhiddinov. "No such law! If parliament issues such a law, then OK, we would admit our fault."
 
Her father could not be contacted as he is one among the hundreds arrested as a suspected member of the Islamic radical group Hizb al-Tahrir following two bomb attacks last March.

But Shoazim Minovarov - chairman of the Cabinet of Minister's Committe on Religious Affairs - stated that the school's decision to "persecute" people for wearing headscarves was unlawful.

Fear factor

However, School Headmaster Zafar Amirov believes that forbidding the scarf is his duty as a teacher.

"Students at school must wear a uniform," said Amirov, who asserted that he had not received orders "from higher up" to ban the scarf. 

"There are two women in our makhalla [local council] who wear hijab. Presently, we take preventive measures for them ... they are very timid, but we still monitor them"

Nazira Ismailova,
local council 8 chairperson

"We must gradually reform this girl."

Gulnora said that the school’s staff and students would only express support for her decision to wear the headscarf in private.

"Many students and even teachers told me 'we would love to wear Muslim scarves...but we are scared'," she said.

And there is good cause to be scared.

In Bukhara, for instance, Nazira Ismailova - the chairperson of local council number eight - keeps a special file called Dangerous Groups.

Defining dangerous

Dangerous groups include families that have relatives working abroad or children under the age of 18 whose "immature minds" could be influenced by Islamist extremists.

"There are two women in our makhalla [local council] who wear hijab," Ismailova said.
 
"Presently, we take preventive measures for them. They wear headscarves and long dresses covering the whole body. They are very timid, but we still monitor them."

In justifying their bans on hijab and headscarves, local councils and schools explain that Uzbekistan is a secular state.

Despite the constitutional ban on religious clothing, however, no clear consensus exists on whether that provision applies to women's Islamic headscarves.

But the eldest son of Abidkhan Nazarovon, a popular former imam of the capital Tashkent's Toktabi mosque who called for women to be allowed to adopt the hijab, was arrested on 17 May and has not been accounted for since.