Azerbaijan’s unofficial ban on Islamic head coverings for girls in public schools is stoking an increasingly emotional debate over how Azeri culture reconciles re-emerging Shi’ite Muslim beliefs with Soviet-era secularist practices.
Islam has been steadily gaining in popularity in Azerbaijan since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Although no official statistics are available, one local non-governmental organization (NGO), the Peace and Democracy Institute, estimated in 2010 that about 7 percent of the country’s population of roughly 9 million people actively practices Islam.
Signs of resurgent Islam are commonplace. Many large companies and NGOs, for example, now have special rooms in their offices where believers can perform ritual prayers during work hours. In addition, women wearing a traditional head covering, or hijab -- often with fashionable, eye-catching designs – are seen throughout the capital Baku.
No law is currently on the books that prohibits the wearing of a hijab, or addresses what Azerbaijani women should or should not wear. Indeed, the Azerbaijani Constitution provides for the right to religious freedom. To enforce a de facto hijab ban in schools, the Ministry of Education cites the Law on Education, which stipulates that public school students wear uniforms.
Protests against the informal hijab ban in public schools kicked off on December 10, on the Shi’ite holy day of Ashura, when about 1,000 religious activists, shouting “hijab is our honour!” and “freedom for hijab!,” blocked the road outside the Education Ministry for about an hour. Fifteen protestors were arrested; seven were sentenced to up to 10 days in prison.
Despite the arrests, the protests continued. About 150 people gathered in the town of Masally, 230 kilometers south of Baku, on December 15; three days later, in the conservative Baku suburb of Nardaran, roughly 200 residents held a rally at which they burned a photo of Education Minister Misir Mardanov. Police did not interfere.
Pro-opposition political analyst Zafar Guliyev contended that the hijab controversy reflected what he characterized as the government’s “Islamophobia.” Official wariness of Islam, he added, was a factor in recent government moves to close mosques and restrict the dissemination of religious literature. If the government does not tread cautiously on the hijab issue, “the number and emotional volume of the religious protests will definitely grow,” Guliyev predicted.
So far, Azerbaijan’s senior cleric, the pro-government Allahshukur Pashazade, chair of the Religious Council of the Caucasus, has tried to straddle the issue. On December 1 he told reporters that wearing a hijab “was decided by God and has to be followed by Muslims,” but added that Azerbaijan’s “laws cannot be violated, either.”
Some civil society activists agree that the ban on hijabs in schools violates the constitutional right to freedom of religion. Humay Hajiyeva, a representative of the Freedom of Conscience and Religion Defence Centre (DEVAMM), argues that wearing a hijab does not interfere with the learning process. “[P]arents have the right to form the world-view of their children,” Hajiyeva said during a December public debate in Baku.
The government shows no inclination to revise the policy. “We are all Muslims and outside the school everyone is free to wear whatever they want,” Education Minister Mardanov told a December 14 news conference.
While the de facto ban does not apply to schoolteachers and university students, some civil society activists contend that university students who wear a hijab still encounter problems. The garment, for example, is not permitted to appear in photos for identity cards or passports.
One Education Ministry official conceded that conflicts in Baku schools relating to hijabs are not uncommon. In November 2010, recounted the official, who asked not to be named, parents of students at one Baku school requested that a nine-year-old girl who wore a hijab be separated from her classmates after the girl allegedly told other girls that they will burn in hell for not wearing the head covering. The school complied with the request, he said, without elaborating.
The ministry official believes that the incident demonstrates that hijabs, or the wearing of other religious clothing can cause tension among pupils too young to grasp the nuances of religious doctrine.
Similarly, some pro-government politicians have condemned what they term attempts to politicize Islam in Azerbaijan. “After reaching maturity, women are free to choose their dress style and the government does not interfere,” Parliamentary Human Rights Committee Chairperson Rabiyat Aslanova was quoted as saying by the Turan news agency.
Other officials worry that permitting the wearing of hijabs in public schools might lead to the eventual introduction of separate schools for boys and girls – a frequent practice in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, but forbidden in Azerbaijan.
Mardanov has claimed, without elaboration, that the December 10 protest was “organized by some groups inside and outside of the country.” For now, the most outspoken foreign reaction has come from Azerbaijan’s southern neighbor, Iran, where Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, a senior cleric, condemned Baku’s de facto hijab ban as “anti-Islamic.”
In December 29 remarks to reporters, Mardanov rejected the criticism, arguing that the ban “is not aimed against either Islam or the Muslim world.” Rather, the ministry is striving to secure “respect for the laws of Azerbaijan,” he asserted, Azerbaijani news agencies reported.
“Let no one doubt that the ban on wearing a hijab in schools will remain in force,” Mardanov said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Foundation - Azerbaijan.