Researching and reporting on Central Asia is tremendously difficult for myriad reasons, not the least being governments that would rather not grant a visa to a nosy researcher and make a habit of jailing local journalists. But difficulty is no excuse for flattening reality — which is complex and messy — into overly simplistic narratives.
In the introduction to her recent article, published by George Washington’s Central Asia Program (and available here) Marintha Miles, a Ph.D. student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University, makes the case for nuance in understanding religious laws and their enforcement in Tajikistan. Miles writes that researchers increasingly rely on news reports and social media, and that “these methods remove the nuance of everyday life and can lead to faulty conclusions.”
With regard to religious repression, in particular, there are multiple levels that get flattened in news reports and distorted by social media. I’m not innocent in this process, having written about the Tajik government’s repressive religious policies. Miles makes a key point: “While human rights violations by government authorities, including torture, should not be downplayed, closer examination reveals uneven legal enforcement and the circumvention of religious laws across the country.”
In pursuit of nuance, she sought to “better understand how laws pertaining to religion affect the everyday lives of people in Tajikistan” by asking three questions: What are some of the laws the state has instituted that restrict religious practice? To what extent does the state enforce the laws, and how uniform is enforcement? Do people know what the laws are? If not, do the laws matter?
Because you should read the paper yourself (and it’s free!) I won’t rehash the entire argument (which features, among other things, an excellent discussion about fortune tellers) but will address one issue that has appeared in Crossroads Asia: beard shaving and hijab bans.
As Miles notes, while there have been reports in other parts of Tajikistan about local police forcing men to shave their beards and women to remove hijabs, most of the reports come from Sughd, suggesting localized enforcement; Miles cautions about drawing conclusions from that. Observation indicates localized enforcement, but does not provide an explanation for why that is. Observation also indicates that men in Tajikistan still wear beards and women still wear headscarves. The religious restrictions — and crackdowns — reported are real, but enforcement is not total and that tells us something valuable. “At the very least,” Miles concludes, “the lack of uniformity in law enforcement across the country signals that not all power flows from Dushanbe.” Power may, in fact, still flow from Dushanbe, but it has to flow through intermediaries. All the while, life goes on.