Authorities in at least one city in Tajikistan are keeping track of women who wear hijabs, a traditional Islamic head covering. The country's staunchly secular authoritarian government disapproves of attire or grooming that would suggest supposedly radical Islamic beliefs.
According to a report cited by EurasiaNet.org, a website that tracks current events in Central Asia, police in the northern Tajik city of Khujand have a list of more than 600 women who wear hijabs. During a recent spate of raids in the city's bazaars, police "found that at 38 retail points in the city there were saleswomen" wearing hijabs, said local police chief Emin Jalilov.
Security officials in the country have no qualms about the traditional, colorful Tajik headscarf but frown upon other trappings associated with devout Islamic belief.
Earlier this year, authorities in the country's south compelled thousands of men to shave off their beards. In 2015, President Imomali Rakhmon, a long-ruling autocrat and former Soviet apparatchik, denounced women who wore "foreign" black hijabs, and state television subsequently (and somewhat bizarrely) implied they were sex workers.
Part of what inflames this rhetoric is the legacy of the country's brutal civil war in the 1990s, in which tens of thousands died. Rakhmon's loyalists triumphed over an Islamist faction, but his paranoia over their threat remains. Recently in Khujand, where the president survived an assassination attempt in 1997, police rounded up dozens linked to banned Salafist outfits.
Tajikistan is one of the poorest countries in the region and a nexus for smuggling routes linking extremist groups in Afghanistan with other parts of the Muslim world.
The country, which is majority Muslim, implements some of the most restrictive policies on practicing religion — shuttering mosques with little notice, fining women for their Islamic headdress, discouraging children from prayer and even banning parents from giving their newborns Arabic names.
"The government of Tajikistan suppresses and punishes all religious activity independent of state control," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom concluded in its annual report.
Critics of the government say this is part of Rakhmon's effort to stamp out any viable democratic challenge, which hinges on an Islamist opposition party that was legal for a decade and a half until it was banned last year. There are fears that such moves will only further radicalization in the country. Last year, a colonel in the country's elite anti-terrorism force disappeared and was later discovered to have joined the Islamic State militant group.
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