17 december 2017

Central Asia news

Headscarf as symbol of faith in Kazakhstan


In Western Kazakhstan, religious parents are suing the Ministry of Education: their daughters are not allowed to attend schools because they wear headscarves. Officials, representing a secular state, admit the possibility of a cross-claim - the failure to comply with parental responsibilities. Why is it important at all, do the girls wear headscarves in school or not, and what do parents and teachers think - Fergana News tells.

In Western Kazakhstan, the current academic year has started with a scandal. Thirty-seven Muslim parents have sued the Ministry of Education because their daughters are denied the right to education. Headscarves the girls cover their heads with became the formal reason for the conflict.

Nine-year-old Bilkis Kenzhegaliyeva from the town of Aksai in the West Kazakhstan region every morning, like many of her peers, prepares for school lessons but she is distinguished only by the fact that she does not go to school. She studies all lessons, and this is about four hours, remotely via the Internet. Bilkis was the first girl in Western Kazakhstan (although it is possible that all over Kazakhstan), who is officially banned from attending school for wearing a headscarf.

It happened three years ago, when parents on 1 September 2014, led her to a line in the first class at school number 3 in Aksai.

"First, the headteacher approached me and said that my daughter should come to school without a headscarf. I asked: "What will happen if she would not?" The headteacher answered: 'We simply will not let her go to school,'" tells Azamat Kenzhegaliyev, father of Bilkis. "I asked my daughter if she was ready to take off her headscarf to go to school. She said no. It all started, in fact, with this."

Azamat had been challenging this decision in three court instances for three years. In all cases, the courts left his claim against the school unsatisfied. Judges, making decisions, used the charter of the school as the basis for the verdicts.

The charter states that all schoolchildren have to wear a school uniform meeting certain requirements. In his claims, Azamat has been guided by the norms of the document, which is much more weighty than the charter of the school, the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan. But it hopelessly has lost to the school statute in the halls of the court.

Another one hundred and fifty

Before the start of the current academic year, Bilkis was the only example of her kind. Azamat Kenzhegaliyev admits that after a year of litigation he is tired of proving in court that his daughter has the same right to attend school, as well as millions of other children in Kazakhstan.

But this year, about 150 schoolgirls in the West Kazakhstan region have encountered the same situation. Since the beginning of the school year, the editorial offices of local media have been receiving mass reports that in one or another school girls in Muslim headscarves are forbidden to attend school. At the same time, the school directors referred to the Order No. 26 of the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Kazakhstan. More precisely, the paragraph 13 of the order says: "The inclusion of elements of religious clothing, belonging to various denominations, in the school uniform is not allowed."

The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan
Article 1, Part 1:
"The Republic of Kazakhstan proclaims itself a democratic, secular, legal and social state whose highest values are an individual, his life, rights and freedoms."

Article 14, part 2.
"No one shall be subject to any discrimination for reasons of origin, social, property status, occupation, sex, race, nationality, language, attitude towards religion, convictions, place of residence or any other circumstances".
The ministerial order was issued in January 2016, but the school administrations have diligently begun executing it only this year. Moreover, actively closing the doors for the girls in the headscarves the school administrations had started not on 1 September, but after the first quarter, when the children returned to their desks after the autumn holidays.

"At the beginning of the school year, 112 schoolchildren had been attending classes in headdresses (headscarves - author's note)," Zhanslu Turemuratova, head of the education department of the city of Uralsk (West Kazakhstan region), told. "After the work carried out by the education department and the school administrations together with the parents' committees, 40 girls started attending school in accordance with the requirements for compulsory school uniforms."

Zhanslu Turemuratova assures that school administrations had received the requirements for school uniforms from the moment of the publication of the order, and they followed its implementation last year, and not only in this. At the same time, she does not hide her regret that another 72 schoolgirls do not want to take off headscarves and therefore are not able to attend schools.

"We do not forbid them to attend classes." I particularly emphasise this. We just insist on compliance with the requirements for the school uniform," Zhanslu Turemuratova said.

"You cannot photograph a school!"

32-year-old Berikbek Samat works as a rural teacher in the village of Chapaevo, Akzhayik district of the West Kazakhstan region. He has been teaching physical training for several years. We met at his house in mid-November, three weeks after his daughter, a twelve-year-old Gulsezim, was told to take off her headscarf at school. The girl does not take off her headscarf. Every day after lunch (Gulsezim learns in the second shift), she collects her satchel and goes to school. Every day, before the doors of the school, the same scene repeats: the school guard stops the girl, calls the head teacher or director, who turns the schoolgirl back home.

Neither the head teacher nor the school director met with the journalist. They told they are ready to any questions of the journalist only after a written request to the district education department is sent.

"And the headteacher said you should not take pictures of the school," the guard said escorting us out of the schoolyard.

Berikbek invites us into the house, after yelling into the open door his wife to go to her room.

"We are a believing family. It is appropriate for us that a woman would go to her half of the house and not be seen by unknown men," Berikbek explains to me.

Berikbek and two other parents (fathers of families) in Chapaevo do not intend to comply with the order of the Ministry of Education. A week before I arrived in Chapaevo, where twenty-four schoolgirls do not attend school because of their headscarves. Two days before my appearance in the district centre, a large parent meeting took place in one of the local schools, in which the head of the district education department, the district attorney, and several people in civilian clothes participated. The latter did not take an active part in the meeting but diligently wrote down in notebooks and shot all the dissatisfied Muslim parents on video cameras. After this meeting, twenty girls who had not previously come to school because of headscarves came to learn with their heads uncovered. Four girls from three families refused to do this.

"This is a matter of principle," Berikbek said. "I have been raising my daughter from infancy taking myself as an example of commitment to faith. And now they propose me to convince our child to participate in deception: to sacrifice principles, faith. I told Gulsezim that she could take off her headscarf if she wants it herself. I assured her that my attitude towards her would not change if she takes such a decision. But I did not want to. I know that behind our backs they say that we force our daughters to wear these headscarves. Believe me - we don't."

Currently, Berikbek and 36 other parents from all over the West Kazakhstan region filed a class action lawsuit against the Ministry of Education. They want to declare the Order No. 26 illegal.

"We know that they turned to the court," said Tlek Gabdushev, deputy akim (head of administration) of the Akzhayik district. "I was present at that parent's meeting, and I assure you, there was no compulsion or arm-twisting. We talked to parents. Listened to their arguments. Explained that the secular nature of our state dictated the ministry's order. Most parents heard us and agreed that their daughters would take off their headscarves.

As for the remaining four girls, we are collecting the materials and will send it to the regional department of education and the department for the protection of the rights of minors. I do not know what decision they would take. Under the law, there is an administrative responsibility for a failure to perform the duties of the parent. And if it does not work, then most likely the materials will be sent to the court. And there is a responsibility up to what can raise the issue of deprivation of parental rights. Well, this, of course, is an extreme measure, and it will not come to this. I am confident that we will find a common language with these families before the trial."

West wind

Meanwhile, in the city of Uralsk (the West Kazakhstan region centre), the situation has changed by mid-November. Most of the 72 girls, whose fathers had insisted on wearing headscarves, abandoned their demands. At the time of writing this article (19 November), only four parents fundamentally uphold their position. Now they have hired one lawyer and sued the city department of education. They and 36 parents from the districts of the region, who filed a lawsuit against the ministry, are the "core of resistance", as Mirbulat Gabdullin, a lawyer who will represent the interests of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the ministry, jokes.

"The fact is that this situation is not countrywide in Kazakhstan. Please stress your attention - reports on the ban on wearing headscarves were recorded only in the West Kazakhstan, Aktyubinsk, Atyrau, and Mangystau provinces. That is, in the Western Kazakhstan. Now we are establishing contacts with all families whose children are not allowed to attend schools. Families from Aktyubinsk, Atyrau, and Mangystau provinces, or more precisely, from the town of Zhanaozen, also want to sue," Mirbulat Gabdullin said.

I asked him why there is such a ban in Western Kazakhstan only.

"Because there are few of us. If you look at particular schools, then 5-8 girls in each school are not allowed to the classes. Do you think there are no schoolgirls in headscarves in Shimkent? In Almaty, in Kyzylorda, in Astana? They are everywhere. Simply there are more Muslims. There, if you introduce such a ban, half of school will not be allowed to study. And this is, again, the attention of the press, great noise, conflict. I am sure that the authorities understand this, and therefore there is no such fundamental prohibition as in the west of Kazakhstan," Mirbulat Gabdullin believes.

In the West of Kazakhstan, the topic of Islamic extremism has already been used several times in the rhetoric of the authorities to explain the causes of social tension and the causes of very strange terrorist attacks.

Since 2011, in Atyrau and Aktobe, there have been five armed attacks against government officials, which the law enforcement agencies of Kazakhstan regarded as terrorist attacks. Almost in all cases, according to the authorities, the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks were supporters of "unconventional Islam".

In Chapaevo, the conflict between religious parents and the local school administration coincided with the KNB's operation to detain two residents. Officially, the authorities do not comment these detentions, but rumours are circulating in the village that a large amount of cash of unknown origin and banned Islamic literature have been found with the detainees (both practising Muslims).

The struggle for the "internal market"

The Almaty journalist Makhambet Auezov follows this situation not only out of professional interest but also as a practising Muslim. He wears a characteristic beard, performs five times prayer and regularly visits the mosque. He believes that the ministry's order is just an instrument in the hands of the Kazakh authorities, who are fighting not so much with religious extremism, as with the competition in domestic politics. And Makhambet Auezov sees the result of the inertia of the political thinking of the Kazakh authorities in the current situation.

"The same British - they are not afraid of headscarves, beards, and namaz, while in our country these are actually perceived as a manifestation of a potentially dangerous ideology. It is possible, of course, to blame everything for the historical inertia of Soviet society, artificially, but very effectively opposed to religiosity in general, as against the manifestation of "backwardness, stagnation, mediaevalism".

But I believe that this is far from everything and does not explain the purposefulness of the policy pursued by believers: they have de facto banned from civil service, army, police, political career. I believe that the reason for distrust of religion on the part of the authorities of the former Soviet republics lies in the peculiarity of their statehood, built around the administrative-territorial division of the Soviet Union time, and not around the ideas of independence and statehood. In other words, we do not have national ideas, the cement of nations. In their absence, any kind of mobilising ideology, and this is more often religious, looks like a dangerous competitor.

In established systems, where there is no fear of ideological competition, no one is afraid of such things, so Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans are included in the uniform of the British police, military, there is a school uniform with headscarves. In our country, the processes of nation building, the formation of the political nation remain in an embryonic state; we have not even fully decided whether Kazakhs or Kazakhstanis live in the country. Knowledge of the state language, self-identification, even simple language graphics - all this is only the today's agenda.

The fact that the ban on headscarves, in fact, is the struggle against competitors "on the domestic market," says also Sanat Urnaliev, a journalist from Uralsk.

"I covered the criminal trial of the case of Sheikh Khalil, Abdukhalil Abdujabbarov, an ethnic Uzbek who was accused of recruiting people in Kazakhstan to be sent to the Middle East. And in court, I saw why the authorities are trying to put such religious leaders in prisons. Because of their education, charisma, influence on people, government officials (absolutely dim and inexpressive) cannot compete with anyone like Sheikh Khalil. Because, unlike the official state ideology, when on the one hand it struggles against corruption, and on the other hand, offshore accounts of high-ranking officials come up, Islamic leaders do not practice doublethink. And then the most important thing: in all this history, with the ban on headscarves, everyone somehow missed the most important point: there are not only girls who profess Islam. The authorities simply do not know how to formally identify Muslim boys.


Neither Muslim parents, nor representatives of schools and officials want the increased attention of the press. Azamat Kenzhegaliyev, who willingly talked with journalists in 2014, three years later asked not to photograph his daughter and allows only old photos to be published, provided that we obscure the faces. Four parents, who sued the city department of education, forbid journalists to photograph them and prefer not to comment to journalists

Meanwhile, nine-year-old Bilkis Kenzhegaliyeva every day turns on her computer and visits the site of one Moscow school, which gives her lessons on a remote basis. In addition to Bilkis, about 300 girls from different regions of Western Kazakhstan also study remotely at the same school.

Marat Doszhanov, Uralsk, especially for Fergana News Agency

Международное информационное агентство «Фергана»