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Clothing of Discord. How Kazakstan Struggles against Wearing Hijabs at Schools

The conflict between parents of Muslim girls and school administrations has intensified in Kazakstan.

Русский Қазақша

A few trials in the west of the country have ended in favour of the ministry of education that has banned wearing religious accessories at schools. And parents who keep on sending their girls wearing traditional Muslim veils to schools have been not only fined, but also placed under administrative arrest. Pupils are often not allowed to attend classes.

“We, four girls, have been sitting in a separate empty room for two weeks. No one teaches us, we just sit here. Sometimes, they teach math, literature to us, and that’s it. We don’t understand why we are not allowed to communicate with other children. We feel bad because we have been isolated in an empty room and they don’t teach us like other children,” an 8-year-old Amina Abdivali kyzy, pupil of 2nd grade of Almaty-based school No. 152, said.

Her mother Zhanar Damirbekova added, “My daughter was allowed to come into school, but she is sitting in a separate room where no one teaches her. Some other girls sit together with her. This situation has lasted for two weeks. My daughter doesn’t want to take her veil off. I listened to her opinion and told her to take it off if she wants to. She said she wouldn’t, she would better not study. Teachers yell at her, push her. They gave me the address of some fee-paying college, but it’s expensive. I am a single mother with two children. I can hardly pay for the apartment, and I don’t have money to pay for the private school. So I refused.”

Courts on the side of ministry of education

At another part of the country – in Aktobe – on September 14, the two fathers of girls who were not allowed to enter school in veils were arrested for three days, and another one was arrested for five days for their attempt to get their children inside school No. 31. At the same town on September 1, the official start of the academic year, 28 pupils couldn’t enter schools because they refused to take their hijabs off.

According to the Office for Religious Affairs of Aktobe Oblast, 338 pupils wearing Muslim veils in this region attend schools; however, the majority of them have agreed to take them off while at school.

Shcoolgirls in Kazakstan. Photo: caravan.kz
Similar conflicts have occurred from time to time during 2018, but on September 1 the situation got worse.

In January, in Aktobe two Muslim families filed suits against the administration of schools, who didn’t allow their daughters to attend classes. They reasoned that the approved requirements of ministry of education regarding school uniform didn’t contain a ban on wearing hijabs as such.

Clause 13 of requirements allows for a double interpretation: “inclusion of any elements of various religious clothing into school uniform is not allowed.” The court dismissed their claim.

Similar courts had been held earlier in Uralsk and Astana. In both cities, dozens of families had filed suits against school administrations. Besides, in Uralsk 37 fathers of pupils had filed a class suit against ministry of education in an attempt to challenge school requirements as violation of children’s right to education. In all cases, courts had made identical decisions in favour of school administrations and ministry.

On September 21, parents of 16 pupils who refused to take hijabs off were fined 20 Euros each in Atyrau. They were charged under the administrative code clause “Failure or improper performance of duties in terms of education by parents or other legal representatives.”

The (ignorance) knowledge day

The most massive conflict occurred on September 1 this year in Firdoussi village in the newly established Turkestan oblast in the south of Kazakstan. 372 pupils and even some teachers wore hijabs in a large settlement. However, dozens of pupils were left behind schools on the knowledge day.

On the same day, school teachers had to visit every family asking them to make their children stop wearing headscarves at schools. According to reports, nearly fifty families refused to do that. Administrative protocols were made against thirteen parents. Five parents were fined nearly 20 euros each.

This February the head of the regional office of education, Isatai Sagyndykov, said about 400 pupils were wearing hijabs in the region. However, real figures differ from the specified ones.

Requirements to mandatory school uniform for secondary educational institutions, including prohibitions on wearing religious accessories within educational institutions, were approved by ex-minister of education and science, Aslan Sarinzhipov on January 14, 2016. Since then, conflicts regarding denial of access to secondary school for girls wearing headscarves have emerged everywhere. Yet the peak occurred this September 1, when school administrations throughout the country denied access to schools for girls wearing hijabs.

Two days before, the new minister of education and science of Kazakstan, Yerlan Sagadiyev, had confirmed the position of the ministry, “As for hijabs – they are banned at schools. Our position has not changed,” which could have given impetus to the confrontation between parents and school administration, which was harmful for children.

“We have received the instructions from the district department of education (district school board): our girl won’t be allowed to attend classes if she wears a hijab. She was wearing hijab for one more week, following which I was called to the commission for an explanatory talk. This commission consisted of representatives of our district akimat, prosecutor’s office, police, and a lawyer from district school board. They told me that if I don’t follow the instructions of the ministry of education and the school order, we won’t be allowed to attend classes, and they would file a petition in court to bring me to administrative responsibility. They just confronted me with the fact.

I have consulted the Human Rights Bureau, and lawyers advised me not to aggravate the situation and agree to their conditions for the time being, but to do something to protect my rights. So I didn’t go to court because I cannot afford now to pay fines,” Ruslan Kubiyev of Lenger (South Kazakstan region) said by phone to CABAR.asia.

His daughter, 10-year-old Sumaiat, goes to schools with Russian language of instruction. Another religious girl was studying with her. But now she has moved with parents to another town.

Along with Ruslan Kubiyev, 17 more families from Lenger, whose children study in four schools with Kazak language of instruction, have applied to human rights defenders to solve this problem. However, their children were denied access to school from the very beginning.

According to Ruslan Kubiyev, another neighbouring large city of Shymkent has several schools with single-sex education, where religious accessories can be worn. However, it would be too expensive and take much time to drive his daughter from Lenger every day.

Illustrative photo. Source: youtube/AzattyqTV
However, the e-government website, which is an official source of information, specifies: “requirements to mandatory school uniform for secondary schools shall apply to all general education institutions, regardless of proprietary form and departmental affiliation.” Nevertheless, private schools in large cities allow wearing accessories, but tuition fees in such schools are unaffordable to the majority of people.

Religion for free choice

This January 10, the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Kazakstan, which controls almost all mosques and religious educational institutions in the country, made a statement. It attempted to mitigate the situation since many faithful Muslims thought that, according to Sharia laws, girls should have their heads covered from the age of nine.

“In the Islamic law, it’s not right to limit the age of puberty to 9 years old. Based on the opinion of the majority, the age of puberty of girls is 15 years old according to the physiological make-up of girls. Islam does not bind little girls with unstable mindset, who have not yet reached puberty, don’t understand the deep meaning and significance of wearing a hijab, to wear headscarves,” it said.

Supreme mufti of Kazakstan Serikbai kazhy Oraz. Photo: muftyat.kz
On September 25, the supreme mufti of Kazakstan, Serikbai kazhy Oraz, in his comment for Astana TV channel, also expressed his point of view, which was close to the government’s position:

“Parents of 7-8-year-old girls studying at grades 1, 2, 3 determine their destiny in a wrong way. These children will make their own choice in due time, and parents must not persist in their point. We should not deprive our children of their future.  First of all, parents and school are responsible for that. A compromise should be reached in this issue, without violating religious principles.”

Segregation and violation of children’s rights

At the same time, human rights defenders call on the state to revise its policies mainly in view of children’s interests set forth in the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

Roza Akylbekova. Photo: azattyq.org
“The state does violate all rights and liberties of a child when it shuts school doors against them. And if the state wins trials against parents, if it fines and arrests such parents, this is not the state who wins. It doesn’t win anything by using such approaches. Private schools or even separate classes in public schools are not a way out because they mean segregation.

The state must stop to think how to resolve the situation. It must reach out to people taking the best interest of children into account. However, this order issued by the ministry of education is a violation of children’s and families’ rights,” Roza Akylbekova, deputy director of Kazakstan International Bureau for Human Rights and coordinator of Working Group of NGOs of Kazakstan on protection of children’s rights, said.

Islamic public activist Murat Telibekov has suggested an original solution to the problem during the interview to CABAR.asia:

“The hijab issue is a very complicated one. On the one hand, we should prevent minor children from being forced to wear religious clothing, which we can see everywhere. On the other hand, we may not infringe on human rights to express religious feelings even when it comes to a little child. How can we find the golden mean? How to reach a compromise? I’d suggest to the ministry of education to develop their own model of hijab for pupils that wouldn’t look like an ascetic traditional hijab.”

According to the previous national census of 2009, 70.2 per cent of Kazakstanis deem themselves Muslims. This strict position of the government regarding hijab-wearing is obviously associated with the threats posed by the increasing radical Islamic moods. Although the country has not seen violent incidents with the participation of Islamic radicals for a long time. The last incident occurred in Almaty on July 17, 2016, when a former prisoner Timur Kulekbayev, the follower of radical ideas, shot 10 people dead, who were mainly the officers of security agencies.

“Kazakstan is not the first country in the post-Soviet space that has turned to the prohibition of hijab-wearing at schools on the basis of secularism principles and for safety reasons. The importance of Islam among people is increasing and the authorities don’t know how to respond amid the need for a wider fight against extremism and crimes. Conservative moods develop in response to these new tendencies, which is proved by the adoption of the law on mandatory school uniform,” political analyst Eduard Poletayev said.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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