What Not to Wear: Uzbek Muslim Leaders Don’t Want Women to Wear Arab-Imported Hijab

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an Uzbek imam who was preaching for women to wear “traditional dress” rather than “foreign” hijabs. I expressed disappointment over the fact that, despite what seemed an attempt to reinvigorate Uzbekistan’s historic Islamic identity, he was just another man telling women what to wear.

A news report this week confirms my suspicions that Uzbek officials and imams may not have women’s choices at heart. Uzbek officials reportedly devoted 25 minutes of television airtime to educating female viewers about fashion. But this wasn’t the Uzbek version of the Style network: the program stated that “traditional attire” was in, hijabs were out, and Western clothing was undesirable.

This was more than a simple matter of taste or opinion: the program featured Sohiba Abdullayeva, who is a representative for Uzbekistan’s Committee for Religious Issues, telling viewers that, “You may recall that religious extremist women used to wear this kind of clothes, women might have carried guns under their hijabs.” Two doctors appeared on the program, insisting that Arab-style headscarves cause calcium deficiencies (supposedly from a lack of Vitamin D absorption) and that Western clothing led to “unspecified health problems.”

Apparently, propaganda is more fashionable than anything else in Uzbekistan.

Faith at Muslimah Media Watch dismantled some recent studies surrounding the supposed Vitamin D deficiency found in women who wear headscarves: despite the way that media outlets frame the issue, Vitamin D deficiency wasn’t any higher in women who didn’t wear headscarves in most studies. And let’s not even get into the supposed “health problems” caused by “Western” clothing. Ironically, traditional Uzbek attire covers about as much as Arab style headscarves and abayas do.

But the largest issue I have with this push for traditional clothing is the disregard for what women themselves want. Pushing Uzbek women to wear government-approved attire will step on everybody’s toes: the women who want to wear Western styles, the women who want to wear Arab-style headscarves, etc. It also creates a value hierarchy among women: women who wear “revealing” Western clothes are “immodest”, women who wear Arab-style headscarves are “extremist”, etc.

This story, coupled with the “mini skirt war” in 2000 (almost a decade ago, yes, but telling of the country’s issues with women’s dress, particularly since the fall of the Soviet Union), paints Uzbekistan not as the democracy it claims to be, but as a nation that hasn’t quite shed its Soviet skin when it comes to treatment of its populace. The extremism that has plagued other Asian countries, notably Afghanistan, has Uzbekistan understandably worried. But in the country’s attempt to run from religious extremism, it needs to be careful about running into the “secular extremism” that leads to disenfranchisement of women who choose to wear headscarves in Turkey.

The bottom line is that legislating or persuading people to wear a certain type of clothing (or not wear it) doesn’t work for Uzbekistan’s aims. The resulting alienation of a population that feels they’re not being respected leads to frustration and resentment, which can lead to the kind of extremism Uzbekistan is hoping to avoid.

Plus, it’s never polite to give a woman wardrobe advice unless she asks for it.