On September 30, the governor of Uzbekistan’s Fergana region, Shuhrat Ghaniev, was reprimanded by the Uzbek Senate — of which he is also a member — for rude remarks regarding women in hijabs and men with bushy beards.
Days earlier, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service reported on an audio recording in which Ghaniev, who has served as governor of Fergana region since 2011, is heard railing against Islamic clothing and grooming practices.
Ghaniev… can be heard issuing an angry warning to district governors that he had zero tolerance for women wearing traditional Islamic clothing:
“Remember this, dear governors: if I see a woman in such clothing in your official meetings — I don’t care if she’s a neighborhood chief, a teacher, a businesswoman, an activist, a lawmaker — I’ll remove her head scarf and shove it in your mouth,” he growled.
Ghaniev urged officials to take action against businesses that import and sell Islamic clothing in Uzbekistan. “These garments that belong to Arabs, Turks, and Syrians don’t suit us. Uzbeks have their own national clothing,” he said.
Ghaniev, who is known for his rude remarks, also called those at the meeting “stupid.”
In a meeting of the Uzbek Senate’s ethics and regulator commission on September 30, Ghaniev’s remarks were put up for discussion. According to a readout of the meeting posted to the Senate’s official website, Ghaniev used phrases that infringed on the rights of citizens, were degrading, and which sparked a negative public reaction. As such, the body reprimanded Ghaniev for failing to uphold his ethical obligations as a senator and put him on three months’ probation. It’s not quite clear what that probation entails, but the public manner in which the issue was tackled by the Senate is interesting in context of a wider apparent crackdown on bearded men which contrasts with the country’s reform efforts.
Uzbekistan is not the only Central Asian state to wrestle with this hairy issue. For example, Tajikistan has had its own beard-shaving episodes in the past. One overarching issue is a discomfort with public displays of religiosity paired with an arbitrary, but powerful, linkage between clothing or grooming choices and extremism. Meanwhile, in an effort to define what is “traditional” in a strict sense — to bolster national distinctiveness and pride, part and parcel of establishing sovereignty among a young cadre of states — authorities in the region often overreach.
Whether rooted in a Soviet-era discomfort with Islam, or a War on Terror-era paranoia about extremism, the result is that Central Asia’s governments appear ill-at-ease with their own most prominent religious communities. Combined with a wider autocratic discomfort with matters of personal choice, and a broad policing culture that leaves much to be desired regarding the rights of the individual, this leads to bizarre news stories of men being nabbed off the streets and forcibly shaved.
What’s interesting about the Ghaniev episode is the public manner in which he was reprimanded for comments that are, on balance, not exactly uncommon in the region. While a public rebuke is also not necessarily unusual, the context is: RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service remains unaccredited in Uzbekistan, even as other media organizations have regained accreditation under the reform program pushed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. That the service’s reporting uncovered an ethical violation by a government official who was then reprimanded is an illustration of how media works to hold the powerful to account.
What happens next, of course, is what matters most. If a regional governor is rebuked for making such comments, what should happen to police officers who pressure men to shave their beards? What’s needed is consistent messaging from all levels of government — from the president to local leaders, including law enforcement. Surely the Uzbek police have better things to do than work as part-time barbers.