A bill under consideration in Tajikistan would allow the state to take over some responsibility from parents in setting limits for children. While officials argue that the draft legislation is primarily designed to combat delinquency, critics say the state wants to use the legislation to mold the religious outlook of young Tajiks.
The proposed legislation, published in mid-February, includes a list of restrictions on children’s behavior, including a ban on the wearing of jewelry, visiting Internet cafes in the evening, and watching obscene films. It would also, proponents point out, seek to root out the abuse of child labor. Should a child break any of the provisions specified in the legislation, the child’s parents would face fines, or even lose custody.
The bill also seeks to prevent anyone under the age of 18 visiting a place of worship or attending religious ceremonies, except funerals. One provision obliquely recommends that parents “give the child a worthy name consistent with national values.” Most interpret that provision as a ban on “Islamic” names, which have been growing in popularity. Critics, including the US government, complain the bill is another move in a quick succession of steps to stymie religious freedom in Tajikistan.
Since last summer, when authorities struggled to contain alleged Islamic militants in the Rasht Valley, Dushanbe has engaged in a wide-ranging crackdown on religious expression, closing mosques, harassing men with beards, and coercing some 1,400 students studying in religious schools around the Middle East into returning home.
The connection between the draft law – which is expected to sail through Tajikistan’s rubber-stamp legislature -- and the pressure on believers is clear to many observers. “Everyone has the right to learn about religion, life and spirituality,” Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, told EurasiaNet.org. “Of course we are opposed to the new law, especially when it comes to the ban on children visiting the mosque. … We propose that children should be allowed to attend places of worship outside of school hours.”
Christians, too, are appalled. “While I agree that children need more parental supervision, my child should have the right to learn about religion,” a 32-year-old doctor and practicing Orthodox Christian, told EurasiaNet.org. “I want to raise my daughter with Christian morals. How can I do this if she cannot go to church?”
If adopted, the law “would constitute a serious violation of religious freedom,” the US ambassador to the OSCE said in a March 3 statement. “The most severe abuses of religious freedom take place under authoritarian governments; those that seek to control all religious thought and expression as part of a more comprehensive determination to control all aspects of political and civic life.” Dushanbe is using “concerns about political security as a basis to repress peaceful religious practice,” the statement said.
Tajik officials have rejected the assertions, but pressure on religion is sharply increasing. The number of people jailed on religious extremism charges jumped from 37 in 2009 to 158 last year, the Interfax news agency reported on March 7.
“It is obvious that the authorities are trying to prevent radical forms of Islam,” said Izatullo Shamsiddinov, who attends a mosque in the Shahmansur District of Dushanbe. “On the one hand, the state should not tamper with spiritual life of its citizens; on the other hand, such organizations as Hizb-ut-Tahrir continue recruiting poorly educated young people. The baring of attendance at mosques would hardly resolve the problem, though.”
Many Tajiks find themselves divided over the bill, agreeing on the need to address behavioral issues, while seeing religious extremism as a separate issue.
“In the last two decades, public values have changed drastically. This concerns not only the problems of education, but respect of elders and good manners. Very often we face impertinence, hooliganism and aggression from children. It is quite logical that parents must bear responsibility for what their children do,” journalist Munavara Ryabikina told EurasiaNet.org. She added, however, that she is against any regulation of children’s attendance at religious ceremonies. “It is absolutely unfair to keep them from church. Children must learn about spiritual values.”
The draft does contain provisions designed to combat child labor, a common problem, especially in the country’s large cotton sector, where local officials often close schools during the harvest and force pupils into the fields.
The change would amplify Tajikistan’s international commitments to end child labor under agreements that the country ratified in 2002. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), in the past five years the number of children aged 12-14 who work at least 1 hour a week has increased by almost 35 percent to include approximately 35 percent of all children of that age; 10 percent of 12-14 year olds work more than 20 hours a week.
Nevertheless, the Tajik bill violates the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Tajikistan is a signatory, contended Shoira Davlatova, a legal expert from the Tajik Bureau of Human Rights, a non-governmental organization.
As some question the government’s ability to enforce bans on child labor, many say regulating the religious life of children is simply going too far. “Many parents do not look after their children, they let them do what they like, leaving them open to negative influences such as radical Islam,” said Nargiz, a 36-year-old mother of four. “But it is my right to name my child as I chose. It is not the government’s responsibility to control this.”
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance writer based in Tajikistan.