On Friday 10th December, thousands of protestors gathered outside the Education Ministry in Baku, Azerbaijan to oppose the regime’s restriction on Islamic headscarves being worn in the country’s schools. They demanded the right for Muslim girls to be educated while adorned in their Islamic dress. It followed remarks by Azeri Education Minister Misir Mardanov who insisted that Muslim girls wearing the headscarf should comply with secular official rules on school uniform that forbid students from wearing any form of religious attire. Dozens of students wearing scarves have been expelled from schools in the country in the past 2 weeks alone. Police and security forces used batons and tear gas to disperse the crowd and a dozen protestors were arrested.
Azerbaijan lies in the despised autocratic league of other aggressively secular Muslim states such as Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Turkey, and Tunisia who despite having populations that are predominantly Muslim and embrace the Islamic belief have imposed bans of Islamic headscarves in their educational institutions. Such actions are clearly aimed at stemming the ever growing influence of Islam within their societies that threatens to bring to a welcome end decades of dictatorial secular rule. The Azeri regime has also censored Islamic organisations, opposed the introduction of religious studies into the secondary school curriculum, attempted to ban the issuing of passports to women wearing the headscarf, and created the SCWRO, a state committee that has closed Muslim schools and designed measures to limit the building of mosques.
This enforced secularisation merely highlights the fast-dwindling influence of secularism in Central Asia against the unstoppable tide of Islam sweeping across the region. The huge rise in women adorning the Islamic dress in the Muslim world is the most visual representation of Muslim women overwhelmingly rejecting secularism and turning to Islam as an alternative social and political framework for life and society. This is unsurprising considering that these Muslim secular dictatorships have delivered nothing but rigged elections, crippling poverty, widespread unemployment, corruption, and repression to their people for decades alongside turning a blind eye to abuses against women within their societies. These regimes have had no vision for their states other than securing their seats in power and attempting to cleanse their societies of any vestiges of Islam in public life. Their legacy of rule through fear and intimidation needs to be brought to a swift end.
Furthermore, as illustrated by headscarf and face-veil bans in France and many other Western states, whether the secular ideology is implemented by democracies or dictatorships, its inadequacies, religious intolerance, and fault lines are clear for all to see. Its fragility is highlighted in its need to strip young girls of an education and deny them their career aspirations in order to protect its own values. Its lack of universality is emphasized by its inability to accommodate the religious beliefs of all, forcing citizens to make a choice between deeply held religious values and rights of citizenship. Its resorting to headscarf and niqab bans to win the minds of Muslim women rather than reasoned debate simply demonstrates that when it comes to an intellectual battle with Islam it has already lost the argument.
The Azeri regime and other Muslim dictatorships should understand that repressive measures such as religious dress code bans aimed at desperately clinging to power will prove fruitless in stemming the resurgence of Islam in the region. It will fail dismally to quell the desire of Muslim women to live by Islam and under Islamic governance through the establishment of the Caliphate state – rather it will make them stronger in their resolve. A fragile ideology that feels threatened by a piece of cloth is no match for a belief system that intellectually convinces and has a rich history spanning over centuries of creating economic progress, technological advancement, justice and securing the rights of people from all beliefs under its rule. Muslim women therefore long for this Caliphate state that will end decades of repression and enable them to pursue their education free from harassment and discrimination while adhering to their religious obligations, and that will guarantee their economic, social, and political rights as prescribed by Islam.
Dr. Nazreen Nawaz
Women’s Media Representative of Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain