Headscarves provoke controversy in Azerbaijan

world | Aug 27, 2007 | By Nigar Musayeva

When Humai, a young Azerbaijani women, decided to begin wearing a Muslim headscarf, her mother took the news with surprising composure. According to her daughter, she said only, "Well, you've made your choice, so do as you wish. But you should know that this will make your life very difficult. You will never be able to achieve many of your plans and dreams."

Just a year later, Humai found that her mother was right. The first unpleasant surprise awaited her when she went to the passport office to get an identity card, which she needed to enter university.

Although Azerbaijan is a secular state, girls and women wearing headscarves in public are an increasingly frequent sight. Attitudes towards them range from sympathetic to extremely hostile.

The problems often start with obtaining official identity documents. Azerbaijan's passport, visa and registration offices refuse to accept photos of women wearing headscarves for official use. For their part, most of these women won't be photographed with their heads uncovered.

There is inconsistency in the law, which requires that a passport photo should show a person "without a head-covering," but also that it should be his or her "everyday appearance".

Humai grew up in a secular family. "Our home has never been religious," she said. "But ever since I was a teenager, felt something was lacking, something to give me spiritual comfort. I was in a constant state of searching until I met people, who were performing namaz [daily Muslim prayers]. They taught me the principles of the Muslim faith, the Koran, and then I understood that this was just what I had been looking for."

Because of the headscarf issue, Humai never obtained a passport and as a result, she was unable to continue her education at college. She has had to give up her dream of getting a good professional job and becoming a diplomat. In the only college that agreed to enroll her without a passport, she took accountancy courses. Because she speaks good English, she has been able to earn money on the side as a tutor.

The silver lining in Humai's story is that in the course of her legal actions to defend her right to wear hijab, or Islamic dress, she met her future husband - also a devout Muslim - and they now have a two-year-old son.

Today, she is a member of DEVAMM, a group set up to defend the rights of women who wear hijab. It is headed by the cleric Ilgar Ibrahimoglu (the subject of another IWPR report, Young People Increasingly Drawn To Islam), who founded the organization after his own wife encountered problems because she wore the hijab.

Those women who do proceed into higher education are generally banned from wearing the headscarves in classes, which has led to a number of confrontations at Baku State University, Sumgait University, the Bulbul musical school and other colleges.

These institutions argue that the women play on the issue so that they can claim discrimination, sometimes when they are failing in their studies.

DEVAMM has received scores of complaints from women who say their rights were violated. The group makes the argument that wear a headscarf is a civic right that is in line with the country's international obligations.

The organization also notes that female family members of Azerbaijan's official religious leader, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, were given special permission to have their passport photos taken wearing the hijab.

The headscarf issue is dividing families and believers right across Azerbaijan.

Outwardly, 30-year-old Mariam Ismailova does not seem pious. She looks like a fashion-conscious, attractive young woman with gorgeous long hair. But for several years, Mariam has been regularly performing the namaz, keeping fasts and trying to stick to the rules set out in the Koran. She smokes, but refuses alcohol on religious grounds.

However, Mariam does n



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