Students at Tajik State University in
Dushanbe on April 12 (RFE/RL)
Students are vowing to appeal to the president over the Education Ministry's ban on headscarves, including the hejab worn by conservative Muslim girls.
Other students have expressed discontent for a completely different reason -- they are unhappy with broader restrictions on student life at secondary schools, colleges, and universities.
President Emomali Rahmon ordered the ban on phones, cars, and parties in late March. In fact, he alleged all sorts of behavior that hurts students -- from permissiveness among educators to extravagant graduation parties, known as "alphabet" parties.
"Teacher and student sit in a restaurant together and drink alcohol. What kind of behavior is that? You must prohibit it," Rahmon said. "Only children who start school should participate in the 'alphabet' parties. This should be outlawed. Neither secondary-school leaving parties nor 'alphabet' parties should be advertised through radio and television. Don't do it. Would a student who had a mobile phone in his pocket pay attention to the lessons? Would a 10th-grade student who drives [themselves] to school by private car pay attention to their studies? Check the issue from a legal standpoint. Whoever does not obey, take their car away."
Shortly after the president's announcement, traffic police appeared outside university buildings in the capital, Dushanbe, to punish students who drove to school.
"I didn't know that the minister was standing right behind me, [but] he tapped me on the back and said, 'What kind of face and figure is that?'"
Education Minister Abduljabbor Rahmonov carried Rahmon's initiative further, prohibiting the Islamic hejab -- apparently, as well as short skirts and plunging necklines. Few female students in Tajikistan wear the hejab, but traditional clothing -- including a long dress, trousers, and headscarf -- is popular with some girls.
'I Felt Insulted'
Mamlakat Safarova is a student at Tajik National University who wears a head scarf. She tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that she was surprised to see Education Minister Rahmonov visiting her university in person to see whether students were complying with his order.
"I didn't know that the minister was standing right behind me," Sararova says, "[but] he tapped me on the back and said, 'What kind of face and figure is that?' I felt insulted, of course. It was quite a blow."
Davlatmoh Safarova is a student at Dushanbe's primary languages university who says she's been prevented from even entering the building because of her head scarf. She claims the university is looking for any pretext to expel female students who choose to cover their heads.
"Since April 6, we have no right to enter the university gate," Safarova says. "Just before we were forced out and banned from entering, they checked our records -- trying to find out whether we had been absent some days. They couldn't find anything. Then they checked our grades. They are simply looking for any reason to expel us."
Schools Caught In The Middle
Saidahmad Odinaev, the rector of the National University, says the university has no choice but to follow the order from what he described as the "upper authorities." Odinaev says he recently had a meeting with parents who were demanding an explanation.
"We haven't so far forced your children out of lessons," Odinaev says. "However, since there is a decree -- the university must obey all decrees and rules established by the Ministry of Education."
Authorities suggest they are not simply targeting conservative religious groups. Education authorities have announced that short skirts and skimpy tops will be forbidden, too.
Kids Will Be...
But European-style clothing is popular among Dushanbe's female students, and universities do not appear to be rushing to implement that decree. They have claimed that they will "deal with that issue separately."
In the meantime, some students are more concerned about the prohibition on mobile phones, cars, and parties.
One student who does not want to be identified by name calls it humiliating and tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that he is not the only one who feels that way.
"It is like the government is looking down on students," he says. "Students are furious. There are rumors that some students will go to the authorities to express their dissatisfaction."
The presidential ban on mobiles, private cars, and parties is being welcomed by some Tajiks. They appear to regard it as a victory for modesty among the younger generation.
Merely A Distraction?
It is all part of a public debate that critics say is a distraction from more serious concerns. Some commentators describe the decrees as an attempt by political leaders to divert attention away from unemployment, electricity shortages, and other social and economic hardships.
Shokirjon Hakimov, a politician and the head of the Faculty of Law and International Relations at Tajik International University in Dushanbe, says that every now and then, politicians look for a sensational topic to keep the media and public minds busy.
"The latest decree was one of those moves by the Tajik president that is, first of all, populist," Hakimov says. "Second, it is an attempt to overshadow the problems in social, economic, political, and cultural life in Tajikistan and to direct people's attention to unimportant issues."
Hakimov says recent presidential decrees like the de-Russification of surnames, as well as bans on gold caps on teachers' teeth and lavish parties, remind him of the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.
Niyazov was notorious for seemingly arbitrary decrees -- including a ban on operas and ballet to "spare" his countrymen from "seeing the suffering of heroes."
Back in Tajikistan, President Rahmon has a seemingly firm hold on power, and was reelected to a new seven-year term in November.
If the first half-year of this term is any indication, Tajiks might be facing their own barrage of decrees and bans aimed from an increasingly mercurial administration.
(Mirzo Salimov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed
to this report.)