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Tajikistan: President's Remarks On Women And Mosques Draw Sharp Reactions

By Bruce Pannier

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov has backed an edict from the country's Muslim spiritual council that bans women from attending mosque. In an address to the nation on 6 November, Rakhmonov laid out his arguments for supporting the ban, but not everyone is certain of his motives.

Prague, 11 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- President Rakhmonov's recent remarks on women and Islam are drawing sharp reactions.

In an address to the nation marking the 10th anniversary of the Tajik Constitution, Rakhmonov reminded women that the Council of Ulema -- the country's highest Muslim body -- has forbidden women from attending mosques, calling them a distraction.

Farrukh Umarov is an expert on Islam at the Center for Strategic Research in Dushanbe. He said he believes Rakhmonov's reinforcement of the August ban is correct: "The position of the president on this subject is positive. He just wants to prevent any religious conflicts."

Umarov said he believes there are no situations in which women should attend mosque and mix with men.

Rakhmonov said as much in his speech. He said religion helped fuel tensions during the country's civil war from 1992 to 1997. "Some religious figures and former politicians," Rakhmonov said, "didn't draw the right conclusions from the lessons of the recent civil conflict in the republic."

Hikmatullo Saifullozoda said he disagrees. He is the head of the central office for Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), which has been attracting an increasing number of women into its ranks.

Saifullozoda hinted that the prohibition against women in mosques is an attempt to discredit his party: "The head of state is hoisting unresolved problems onto the shoulders of others, and I see this as preparation for the [February 2005 parliamentary] elections."

The IRP is legal in Tajikistan now but was banned during the civil war. During the war, the IRP was the backbone of the United Tajik Opposition, which grouped Islamic fighters with democratic and regional organizations.

The war was a stalemate, and Iran and Russia eventually helped broker a peace agreement that legalized banned parties -- among them the IRP -- and gave the opposition 30 percent of the positions in the government. But that arrangement has since proven problematic.

Tajik politician and lawyer Shokirjon Hakimov said Rakhmonov's comments appear to be part of unresolved issues that date back to the civil war: "The dispute is between the government and the Islamic party and some clergy. It is interference in the activities of religious organizations."

While Rakhmonov's warnings were likely intended as a general admonition about the misuse of religion, he also said racial hatred and terrorism are being taught in some mosques. He indicated that he believes women are increasingly vulnerable to these radical teachings.

But Hikmatullo Baratov, a teacher at Tajikistan's Imam Termezi Islamic University, said he has not heard of any such problems: "To what extent it is true, we do not know. We have not heard that there are some [radical] activities in the mosques."

During his speech, Rakhmonov also called on women to raise their children properly to help ensure the country's future.

"We can't hide the fact that we are not allowing our children to learn a profession, to study technology. We can't build the Rogun hydro-energy plant because of this," Rakhmonov said. "For three years, we have been negotiating the purchase of three Boeing [aircraft], but we can't buy them because we have no pilots."

The Tajik president added that there are plenty of young people studying religion, and that some are regrettably concentrating on more extreme forms of Islam.

Rakhmonov appealed to the "mothers and sisters, the young women of Tajikistan," telling them to "please freely read your prayers at home." He said "no one is trying to offend your rights."

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

Copyright (c) 2004 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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