Muslims seek voice in changing Uzbekistan

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Luiza Muminjonova wanted to work in the country’s booming Islamic tourism sphere but last year she was expelled from a university in the capital Tashkent. (AFP)
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A picture taken on March 13, 2019 shows Uzbek women as they stand near a court building in Tashkent. (AFP)
Updated 28 May 2019

Muslims seek voice in changing Uzbekistan

TASHKENT: Uzbek student Luiza Muminjonova wanted to work in the country’s booming Islamic tourism sphere but last year she was expelled from a university in the capital Tashkent.
The 19-year-old’s only fault was being a pious Muslim and wearing the hijab, a staple of female Islamic dress.
“How dare they discriminate (against) me and stop me from getting the education I want because of my religion?” she fumed in an interview with AFP.
Instead of giving up, the student took a stand that has placed her at the center of Uzbekistan’s religious freedom debate.
Her family has sued the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, taking its legal battle all the way to the country’s top court.
Muminjonova’s case points to the Uzbeks’ increasing readiness to openly practice their faith as believers become emboldened by political change under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The formerly communist country’s repression of the religion persisted long after it gained independence from Moscow in 1991.
The first president Islam Karimov frowned upon religious adherence and was criticized by rights groups for conflating piety with radicalism.
Extremists mounted a challenge to Karimov’s rule in the 1990s and were blamed for a spate of car bombings in 1999.
More recently, hundreds of Uzbeks are believed to have joined militants fighting in Iraq and Syria including Daesh.
Karimov’s death and the coming to power of Mirziyoyev in 2016 has seen the government offer an olive branch to believers.
Last year mosques were allowed to call Uzbeks to prayer over loudspeakers for the first time in over a decade.
During a visit to a shrine in the historic town of Termez last month, Mirziyoyev called the past approach of authorities to the religion “our tragedy” and said Islam symbolized “light.”
Over 90 percent of Uzbekistan’s 33 million population is Muslim and social conservatism runs deep, especially in the provinces.
Amid an Islamic revival, school uniforms have recently become a cultural battleground between conservatives and supporters of secularism.
A universal school uniform insisting on below knee-length skirts for female students was rolled out last year. A television report that criticized teachers and students for wearing short skirts immediately followed.
The September report set the tone for an explosive debate that played out on social media and saw the channel’s director demoted.
Conservative bloggers were reportedly detained the same month for calling for the right for girls to wear the hijab in schools.
Muminjonova said the university that expelled her and nine other students last September “set a condition” to around a hundred freshmen students.
“(They said) either you take off a headscarf, or you will be expelled,” Muminjonova recalled, smoothing her fingers over the rose-colored cotton headcovering.
After she refused to comply, Muminjonova was kicked out of the dormitory and was not allowed to attend classes.
She said that being asked to take off the hijab was “like being forced to give up on my faith.”
Ironically, the school focusses on religious learning.
What happened next was remarkable for a country where nationals have for decades toed the government line.
Muminjonova’s family took legal action against the academy in order to reinstate the student and affirm her right to attend university wearing the headcovering.
Even more surprisingly, a local court agreed to hear the case, which saw over a dozen hijab-wearing girls and their mothers stand near the courtroom during hearings in a show of solidarity.
After failing to secure a university climbdown in both district and city courts, Muminjonova’s family has taken the case to the Supreme Court.
Seemingly in recognition of more breathing space for religion, the US State Department last year removed Uzbekistan’s sanction-carrying designation as a “country of particular concern” for religious freedom.
But in April the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said that “severe violations of religious freedom persisted” and recommended the State Department put Uzbekistan back on the watchlist.
International rights groups have used a newfound dialogue with the new administration to push for more religious freedom, both for Muslims and other groups.
Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, cited anecdotal evidence “that perhaps hundreds of religious prisoners have been released” since Mirziyoyev came to power.
Campaigners believe the extremism charges the people were jailed on were brought without due process and that torture was used during the investigations.
“There are many, many more (religious prisoners) still in jail,” Swerdlow told AFP.
Almost an entire academic year on from her expulsion, the family’s lawyer Abduvahob Yakubov — whose own daughter was also expelled for the same reason — fears the judiciary is stalling the case.
“The Supreme Court should have responded to our appeal within 30 days,” said Yakubov, adding they lodged an appeal in late March.
A defiant Muminjonova said she would turn to international courts if the justice system at home failed her.
“We cannot keep silent anymore,” she said.

Dharavi slum beats Taj Mahal as India’s top tourist destination

Updated 25 June 2019

Dharavi slum beats Taj Mahal as India’s top tourist destination

  • The squalid district was featured in Oscar-winning movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire’
  • Tour groups to Dharavi normally consist of around five to six people, with visitors guided through its cramped alleys

NEW DELHI: One of the world’s biggest slums, located in Mumbai, has pipped the famous Taj Mahal to become India’s favorite tourist destination.

Dharavi, where close to 1 million people live in an area of just over 2.1 square kilometers, was named by travel website as the 2019 top visitor experience in India and among the 10 most favorite tourist sites in Asia.

The slum has grown up on swamp land in the center of the coastal city of Mumbai over the past 150 years and has poor infrastructure and a lack of basic sanitation and hygiene facilities.

The squalid district was featured in the 2008 Oscar-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” which tells the story of a Mumbai teenager accused of cheating on the Indian version of TV gameshow “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

However, in 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Katherine Boo portrayed a new side of life in the slum in her book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum,” which showed it bubbling with hope in a changing world.

The recent Bollywood movie “Gully Boy” also gives the slum a new look with a coming-of-age tale based on the lives of street rappers.

“Slum tourism started in 2003 for the first time but it picked up after the movie ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’” said Dinesh Bhurara, who runs travel agency Mumbai Dream Tours.

“Dharavi is not like a slum, but it is a city within the city. It is well-organized and people from all communities and religions coexist together. They work very hard. When tourists come, they see a new life in the slum which they don’t see in Mumbai and outside. This connects with foreigners,” Bhurara told Arab News.

Bhurara, 24, was born and brought up in Dharavi and started his travel business three years ago after gaining experience with other tour operators.

“People have lots of misconceptions about Dharavi. Movies like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ stereotyped the slum by showing its poverty, underbelly and by typecasting characters. But it’s not like that. When tourists visit it’s an eye-opener for them,” he added.

Tour groups to Dharavi normally consist of around five to six people, with visitors guided through its cramped alleys, and shown around houses and businesses.

“For tourists this is an educational tour. They learn how business is done here, and how people survive with their sheer efforts and aspirations. They also go to business and industry areas,” said Bhurara.

The peak season to visit Dharavi is between November and May with travel agents recording an average of 200 foreigners touring the slum every day during the season.

Bhurara charges 700 rupees ($10) per person for a four-hour trip to Dharavi and has five partners who run the tours with him. “When we take tourists inside the slum, we not only take them into an area, but we also take them into our lives and show them how life can exist even in this space. Many get inspired and are awestruck by the sheer energy inside the slum.”

He said the tourist influx had encouraged many Dharavi youngsters to learn foreign languages as a way to earn a living and he himself had taken up Spanish.

According to Bhurara the majority of tourists are from Europe and China. “People in Dharavi are now attuned to foreigners visiting them and they really appreciate that. For youngsters it’s an extra opportunity to earn some more. So many college students pick up foreign languages to earn something extra,” he added.

Dharavi is a hub of small industries with exports of leather and recycled goods reportedly worth $1 billion a year. More than 4,000 businesses operate there alongside thousands of single-room factories where migrants workers from eastern and western India are employed.

“Many people, even in Mumbai, are not aware of this part of Dharavi,” Vinay Rawat, a tour operator, told Arab News. “In Mumbai people come to see the most expensive house of the industrialist Mukesh Ambani and they also want to see the cheapest place in Mumbai which is Dharavi.”

Rawat added that wealthy people lived in Dharavi where new high-rise buildings had been constructed. He said people had lived there for four generations but that there were fears that the prime land could fall into the hands of property developers.