Human Rights Watch confirmed that in 1997-98, officials from four universities in Uzbekistan expelled or suspended twenty-six students, the vast majority of them female, for their religious appearance. This figure is not based on comprehensive information, and the total is believed to be much higher.44 Expulsions also occurred from primary schools.
Students were expelled from Tashkent State University, the Institute for Oriental Studies, Fergana State University, the Pediatric Medical Institute, and a primary school in Tashkent, for having a beard or wearing Islamic dress. Credible sources described patterns of expulsions and harassment in other institutions of higher education in Tashkent and throughout the country similar to those documented in this report, and some students suggested that discrimination outside Tashkent was particularly harsh.45
Those expelled and featured in this report were students of secular subjects, ranging from foreign language and history to mathematics, medicine, physics, and economics. A number of them had won top honors in nationwide academic competitions in their chosen field. Seventy-five percent of the students expelled were in their final year of university study, about to receive their diplomas.
Expelled female students generally wore solid colored scarves, clasped in the front, with a section covering their faces from the nose down. Human Rights Watch observed, however, that some students who were expelled also wore patterned scarves, worn as described above. There were also reports of students being expelled who wore scarves that left their faces uncovered.
A large number of the students interviewed by Human Rights Watch were relatively newly observant. They had been practicing Muslims for about one to three years, and had only recently adopted Islamic dress or decided to grow beards.
Students frequently related the difficulty they had communicating the importance of their beliefs to their parents, who, raised during the Soviet era, had not been so openly religious and had not raised their children in an overtly Muslim style. Rather than having pressed their children to adopt these traditions, the majority of parents reportedly were wary of their children's piety and even objected to it. Several female students told Human Rights Watch that their parents tried to force them to comply with university demands to remove their scarves. Parental pressure was reportedly successful in several cases where young women agreed to cease wearing hijab. Parents reportedly were motivated both by a genuine desire to see their children complete their education and a keen fear of the punishment that the young women and men could suffer if perceived as openly pious in the political climate of Uzbekistan today. In dramatic cases, two female students were shunned by family and friends after the university expelled them and branded them "Wahhabis." One student's former friends and neighbors ridiculed and scorned her upon her return to her home village. The other student said her family refused to take her back and cast her out of their home.46
None of the students interviewed by Human Rights Watch chose to identify him or herself as a "Wahhabi" and all appeared quite dismayed that others were branding them with this label. In fact, many had difficulty defining "Wahhabism" and could do so only by making reference to the negative stereotype put forth by the government through the national media.
An overwhelming majority of the cases Human Rights Watch documented involved the expulsion of women and girls from universities and schools (about 90 percent).47 Expulsions of female students were based on religious discrimination, but also suggested gender discrimination more generally, as they affected the gender composition of some academic departments.48
Rector Damin Abdurakhimovich Asadov of the Pediatric Medical Institute in Tashkent clearly did not regret the decrease in the number of female medical students. He told Human Rights Watch, "The institute is pleased that more men are coming to the university to study now, because all over the world medicine is considered men's work."49
University officials spoke about female expulsions in terms very different from those used to discuss male expulsions. Veiled female students were characterized as troublesome, disrespectful, and even a threat to security. Regarding the exclusion of male students with beards, however, university rectors muted their tones and even denied having taken action against the young men. Rector Turabek Dolimov of Tashkent State University expelled at least two men—Zafar Mamiev and Elyor Toshboev—because they wore beards and were perceived as "Wahhabis."50 When questioned about this policy, however, Dolimov explicitly denied it, saying, "Men are not expelled if they wear beards."51
Educational administrators censured and expelled even primary and secondary school students, all of them female. School administrators targeted girls as young as seven years old who wore headscarves and, in a pattern similar to that exercised in universities, reprimanded them for their dress and then posed an ultimatum: remove the religious dress or be expelled. Those who returned to school in headscarves were prevented from attending classes. The director of at least one school in Tashkent reportedly removed girls' headscarves.52
44 Independent human rights observers claim the true figure is much higher. Students from Tashkent State University, for example, claim that as many as forty students (thirty women and ten men) were expelled from that institution alone. Human Rights Watch interview, names withheld, Tashkent, May 23, 1998. Human Rights Watch regards these sources as credible, however, we were unable to confirm all of these cases independently.
45 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, May 27, 1998. Human Rights Watch received credible reports from Uzbek human rights groups and students, but was unable to confirm independently, that the following universities also expelled religious Muslim students: Karshi Pedagogical Institute; Tashkent Pharmaceutical Institute; Bukhara State University. Additional universities that reportedly put pressure on religious students include: Tashkent Medical Institute; Financial Institute; Tashkent Textile Institute; and Tashkent Institute of World Languages.
46 Human Rights Watch interview with students from Tashkent State University, names withheld, May 23, 1998.
47 Twenty-six of the twenty-eight students whose cases of discriminatory expulsion were confirmed by Human Rights Watch are female.
48 At Tashkent State University, the leading university in Uzbekistan, for instance, administrators reportedly expelled all eighteen females from the mathematics department. Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, May 27, 1998. Human Rights Watch received separate reports from credible sources naming seven of the eighteen. Document provided to Human Rights Watch, author's name withheld, June 1998. Two male students were also allegedly expelled from this department, for having beards. Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, May 27, 1998.
49 Human Rights Watch interview with Rector Damin Abdurakhimovich Asadov, Tashkent, June 3, 1998.
50 Another two male students were reportedly expelled from Tashkent State University for having beards. Fellow Tashkent State University students have claimed that as many as ten openly Muslim males were dismissed from that institution; however we were unable to confirm this report. Human Rights Watch interview, names withheld, Tashkent, May 23, 1998.
51 Human Rights Watch interview with Rector Turabek N. Dolimov, Tashkent, May 25, 1998.
52 Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, Tashkent, July 5, 1998.