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.