TASHKENT – Increasing its surveillance on Muslims, Uzbek authorities have prohibited the sale of religious clothing, specifically hijabs and face veil, at several Tashkent markets following a secretive ban on sales, Eurasia Net reported on Friday, March 16.
“Islamic clothing is being sold under the counter,” Tashkent businesswoman Mutabar, who imports goods from Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, said. “I am selling it from home, but only to trusted customers.”
The ban came to effect earlier this month after the vendors said they received an oral order from the Uzbek government.
Vendors at several markets, including the massive Chorsu Bazaar, have pulled headscarves and other coverings from their racks. Local authorities reportedly confiscated some clothing, but they did not confirm reports about banning hijab.
“There’s a ban on the sale of Islamic clothing, but I can’t discuss hijab,” an official at the Chorsu market, who asked for anonymity, told the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.
Another local tax officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the authorities wanted to keep the ban quiet. “No one will discuss it openly now,” he said. “It’s the same with halal cafes, which have been closed.”
There is no legal provision banning sales of hijab, but legislation passed in 1998 sets out fines and short jail terms for wearing religious clothing in public. Punishment ranges from a fine of five to 10 times the monthly minimum wage to 15 days in jail.
In the first known prosecution under the law, a court in Syrdarya region fined a woman the equivalent of 155 US dollars for wearing hijab. Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.
Along with banning hijab, Uzbek authorities installed cameras in and around 181 mosques in Namangan Region.
“The authorities are trying to control what happens during prayer, to track what imams say to believers and to see whether young people are attending prayers,” an Uzbek imam living across the border in neighboring Kyrgyzstan told Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek Service.
Authorities claimed the installation of security cameras follows thefts at some mosques.
Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous nation, is at the heart of a geopolitical power struggle between the West and Russia.
The country, where Muslims make up 88 percent of the 28 million population, is one of the world's biggest producers of cotton and has huge natural gas and mineral reserves. Yet, economy is sluggish and unemployment is towering.
Rights groups have long accused Uzbekistan of suppressing religious freedoms as part of a campaign against Islamic extremism. In a 2012 country report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the Uzbek authorities of continuing “their unrelenting, multi-year campaign of arbitrary detention, arrest and torture of Muslims who practice their faith outside state controls”.