The Kazakh government's announcement banning the hijab headscarf in educational institutions, as reported by Deutsche Welle (DW), has stirred fierce debate within the country.
The statement, dated 16 October, justifies the ban by stating that school uniform requirements prohibit the hijab to maintain the equality of all religions and uphold secular principles.
While almost 70% of Kazakhstan's population practises Islam, the ban applies not only to students but also to school teachers.
Despite the emphasis that the ban doesn't extend beyond schools, it has led to significant consequences and protests.
Kazakhstan, being a secular state, has supporters defending the ban, asserting that privileging any particular religion contradicts the nation's secular principles. On the other hand, opponents argue that the ban infringes on freedom of conscience, prompting protests and raising concerns about religious freedom.
Education Minister Gani Beisembayev, speaking to DW, confirmed reports of girls dropping out of school due to the ban, and in some instances, extreme measures like physical assault against school officials have been reported.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev addressed the matter at a national teachers' congress, stating that a school is an educational institution for acquiring knowledge, and religious beliefs are a private matter. He emphasised that Kazakhstan is and will remain a secular state, ensuring freedom of religion.
Despite these statements, protests persist, with social media organising flash mobs and public figures joining in. Opponents argue that the ban is illegal and creates a form of segregation.
Togjan Qojaly, a member of the Almaty social council, criticised the ban, stating that the hijab is a cultural practice for girls in Kazakhstan, not necessarily a religious symbol. She emphasised the ban as an artificial barrier to education, questioning its necessity.
The Grand Mufti of Kazakhstan proposed a solution, suggesting that girls wanting to wear a hijab should attend a madrassa (a Muslim educational institution) from the 10th grade onward.
Despite this proposal, the ban currently applies to all educational institutions in Kazakhstan without exception.
According to the 2021 Census, Islam is the largest religion practised in Kazakhstan, with estimates of about 69.31% of the country’s population being Muslim. Most of them are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, but there are also small numbers of Shias and Ahmadi Muslims.
Geographically speaking, Kazakhstan is the northernmost Muslim-majority country in the world, and the largest in terms of land area. Islam first arrived in the region in the 8th century from Arabs, and later spread through the influence of the Golden Horde and the Samanid rulers.