Its backing for a female presidential candidate last year helped win new supporters.
Analysts say Tajikistan’s Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP) is making a strategic choice by courting the female vote ahead of next year’s parliamentary election.
The IRP is Tajikistan’s leading opposition group and the second-largest political force after President Imomali Rahmon’s People’s Democratic Party, although it holds only two of the 63 seats in parliament.
Some 40 per cent of the IRP’s approximately 42,000-strong membership is female, a high proportion that reflects changes in Tajik society over the last two decades or so.
As millions of men of working age travel to Russia as labour migrants, women have assumed more responsibilities in both family and public life. Their votes are especially valuable as Tajik men in Russia often neglect to vote, sometimes out of apathy and sometimes because there are no polling stations in the area.
IRP leader Muhiddin Kabiri recently said he believed that women would play a key role in the 2015 election, and his party wanted to offer them more opportunities as candidates and campaigners.
“We need to show that we have greater faith in them and in what they can do, and to bring them out from under the shadow of men,” he said.
This offer appeals to party members like Bibisoro, a 40-year-old from Dushanbe who has been part of the IRP for the last 14 years.
From a devout Muslim background, she has found it difficult to reconcile herself to official restrictions on expressing religious identity in public life.
Although Tajikistan’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, the post-Soviet, secular government frowns on outward expressions of the faith. Women are unable to wear Islamic dress if they work in government offices and public institutions such as banks, and discouraged from doing so in schools.
At university, Bibisoro recalled, she was pressured to take off her headscarf during lessons.
Bibisoro told IWPR that she was first attracted to the IRP by the prospect of combining her faith with her political aspirations, her civil rights and her desire to serve people.
The party’s decision to support a woman as a joint candidate in last year’s presidential election was particularly inspiring, she said.
Oinikhol Bobonazarova, a leading civil society activist and not a member of any party, was fielded as a consensus candidate by opposition parties including the IRP. She did not make it through the registration process due to a mix-up over signatures in support of her application.
Political analyst Rashid Ghani Abdullo said the party was seeking to overturn perceptions about Muslim women being excluded from public life.
Bobonazarova agreed, telling IWPR, “The majority of the [IRP’s] female members… would like to go into politics without abandoning the values of their Muslim faith.”
Analysts say the enthusiastic support that Bobonazarova’s candidacy received among female IRP members cemented the party’s resolve to make women a central force in future elections.
The fact that Bobonazarova was selected had a positive impact, Bibisoro said, adding, “I took part in the campaign to collect signatures for our candidate… and the campaign taught me a great deal.”
Bibisoro has gained further campaigning experience by twice running for office in Dushanbe local elections. She says that her own party’s exit polls suggested she won both times, but she lost in the final count, which she believes was rigged.
The experience gave her an insight into the trials of political life, but she is committed to standing in the February 2015 parliamentary contest if the IRP selects her.
“If the party regards me as worthy of representing it, I am ready to give it a go,” she said.
IRP was the dominant group on the rebel side in the 1992-97 civil war in Tajikistan. In the 1997 peace deal, the opposition disarmed its guerrillas and its leaders were granted a share in government, although they have since been eased out.
Central Asia’s only legal Islamic party, the IRP has come under more and more pressure from the Tajik authorities. Party leader Kabiri has complained that members are increasingly being subjected to harassment. Recent incidents have seen party activists beaten up, their meetings disrupted and regional offices closed by local authorities. (See Tajikistan’s Islamic Opposition Under Pressure.)
Kabiri told IWPR about the experience of one woman who, although not a member of the IRP, had worked at the party office in an administrative role. She approached him to ask for a letter confirming that she was not a member so that she could apply for another job without this black mark on her record.
Bibisoro told IWPR that she had not personally experienced harassment, but that “the pressure the party is under is felt by every member”.
Muhtarama Huseynova, who now heads the IRP’s department for women’s affairs, joined the party in 2002 because it backed active public roles for Muslim woman.
“For example, during the  presidential election the majority of observers were women,” she said.
Speaking to IWPR, Kabiri reiterated that his party was ready to throw its weight behind female candidates.
“We will even support those who are not members of our party,” he said.
Farangiz Nabieva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.