Vol. 11, No. 12 (D)
LAWS AND RULES REGULATING RELIGIOUS ATTIRE
Since the fall of 1997, university and primary school administrators in Uzbekistan have expelled or suspended at least twenty-eight students because they manifest their adherence to an strict version of Islam by wearing headscarves or beards. Most of those expelled were girls and young women. University officials also coerced some students into removing their religious clothing or shaving their beards on threat of expulsion or arrest. In conjunction with state security agents, they intimidated and harassed these students and their families.
None of the students dismissed was charged with violent acts or with disrupting public order. Instead, they were singled out on the basis of their dress or appearance, which the government claims is evidence they belong to "Wahhabi" sects seeking to establish an Islamic state. Nearly all of the students deny any such affiliation or aspiration and claim instead that the dress reflects their conscientiously held religious beliefs about proper attire and appearance. In the period May through July 1998, Human Rights Watch collected documentary evidence and conducted dozens of interviews with expelled students and administrators from five of the most prestigious universities in Tashkent and the Fergana Valley to confirm the patterns of expulsions and intimidation.
The expulsions of veiled and bearded Muslim students were carried out as part of a broader government assault on perceived Islamic "fundamentalists." These students exhibit a new strain of Islam which has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union and which Uzbek leaders perceive as a nascent opposition movement capable of fomenting civil strife comparable to that in Afghanistan or Tajikistan. The government's campaign, which began in 1992, grew more severe after the 1997 murder of several policemen in the Fergana Valley, which the government blamed on "fundamentalists." Police and security agents employed increasingly harsh measures, including mass arbitrary arrests of those believed to be adherents of independent Islam or particularly pious. Police arrested men in public who had beards, routinely planted small amounts of narcotics or bullets in suspects' pockets or homes, and beat and otherwise mistreated those in custody. The campaign's methods also included closing independent mosques and religious schools, arresting or "disappearing" independent Islamic leaders, and suppressing overt expressions of Islamic faith, either by force or the force of fear.
The Karimov government has stated that its goal is to preserve secularism. Whatever the merits of this goal, the government maintained its policy of secularism at the expense of individuals' rights to religious expression. Ironically, one government expert claimed that the ban is necessary to avoid giving the international community the impression that it is forcing people to dress religiously.
The government policy on religious attire is explicit. Indeed, in 1998, parliament enacted a law on freedom of conscience that expressly forbids "ritual dress" in public, which provides the legal justification for many of the dismissals. The ban is strictly enforced at all levels in academia. Rectors at institutions of higher education and directors of schools applied the same strict policy of intolerance toward this manifestation of religious belief to their own staffs. They intimidated, fired or demoted several teachers and professors who wore headscarves or beards.
University administrators also frequently threatened to call in police and security agents to jail or physically harm these students. Officials and security agents told students' families that their jobs would be at risk if students did not remove their religious attire or beards. Some administrators became violent with students or forcibly removed their headscarves. Police detained male students and forced them to shave. These coercive tactics were sometimes successful, as students were forced to abandon their religious practices in order to avoid expulsion by university officials and harm by police and security agents.
Others were more circumspect in carrying out the policy to expel. Administrators and teachers allegedly fabricated absences, erased grades, blocked access to exams, halted internships, and cut off stipends in order to force students to comply with the ban on religious attire or justify expelling them on other grounds.
Students were also turned against each other and encouraged to write statements denouncing their religious peers as poor academics and liars. Teachers, professors, and lower-level administrators were pressured too, to take the side of the government over that of religious students.
Students attempted to be reinstated. Despite intense intimidation and the limited channels open to them to voice their dissent, expelled students pursued justice through political institutions and the legal system. They wrote letters of appeal to university administrators and government leaders and brought civil cases to court. These efforts to obtain redress proved unsuccessful, however. As of September 1999, the government of Uzbekistan continued to deny openly Muslim students their right to access to education.