(Photo: Pro-headscarf protest at the education ministry in Baku, December 10, 2010/Turkhan Karimov)
Hundreds of people protested in Azerbaijan on Friday for the right to wear Islamic headscarves in schools, challenging the strictly secular regime. Around 800-1,000 people took part in the demonstration outside the Ministry of Education, far more than Azerbaijan’s opposition has mustered in recent years to demand reform in the tightly-controlled former Soviet republic.
Some Islamic communities in mainly Shi’ite Azerbaijan complain of discrimination by a regime analysts say is anxious to stem any challenge from politicised Islam or radicalism as a potential threat to stability in the oil and gas exporter.
There is no explicit ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools, but the government this year introduced a standard school uniform which precludes traditional Islamic dress.
The country of 9 million people is bordered to the West by Turkey, where a secular state must accommodate growing conservative religious influences, to the south by the Islamic Republic of Iran and to the north by Russia’s North Caucasus, gripped by an Islamist insurgency against Moscow.