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Social Experiment: How I was Wearing Headscarf in Tashkent for One Week

A journalist based in Tashkent, Louiza Atabayeva, was wearing a headscarf for a week and told what it was like to hold business meetings, travel by underground, meet boyfriend’s friends and hear personal insults when you wear a headscarf.


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Luiza Atabayeva. Photo: Z. Milibaeva

— I live away from my parents, so I didn’t tell them anything. They are non-religious and a headscarf causes very negative associations in them.

I explained to my friend, who I live with in Tashkent, and to my boyfriend it would be a kind of a social experiment. Otherwise, my friend could kick me out of home and boyfriend could break up with me. Why take such unjustified risk?

But then I asked my boyfriend, “What would be your reaction if I wanted to wear a headscarf for religious grounds?” He said, “I would think no need to worry as she would calm down and then take it off.”

It was interesting to carry out this experiment because in Uzbekistan we have bipolar attitude towards headscarf.  During the ruling of the first president Islam Karimov, it was prohibited to wear religious clothing in educational institutions according to some unspoken instruction.  And in August 2018, the government decree banning schoolgirls from wearing a headscarf was issued.

A headscarf in Uzbekistan is like Schrödinger’s cat, it’s both desirable and undesirable.

Uzbek bloggers have started to call for the right to wear a Muslim headscarf in the social media, and eventually they have been arrested for a few days. Many similar cases with prohibition have been reported by the media. However, if a girl wears a headscarf, she is thought to have more chances to get married successfully, for one thing and for another. These are very dissonant cases. A headscarf in Uzbekistan is like Schrödinger’s cat, it’s both desirable and undesirable.

My first appearance wearing a headscarf

On February 1, the World Hijab Day, I went to buy a headscarf to a local market Chorsu. I selected one of jersey headscarves because it didn’t require from me watching a mass of tutorials on YouTube.

The saleswoman taught me how to wrap it. You should place a bonnet cap on first, then wrap the long parts around your head covering your neck and shoulders. It’s that easy. Bought.

Luiza Atabayeva. Photo: Z. Milibaeva

Putting on a coffee-coloured headscarf, wide-leg trousers and long jacket, I went the same evening to a photo exhibition together with my friend and boyfriend. It was very uncomfortable to appear in a headscarf in a public place. I thought people looked at me not at photos.

I thought people looked at me not at photos.

A photographer I knew greeted me nicely at the exhibition, and then wrote on Instagram, “What’s with the getup?” I am very active in social media and my friends, acquaintances, followers know that I am sceptical about religious dogmas and reject the existence of God, so many of them thought I was just provoking the public.

Destroying the stereotypes

In the underground people were staring at me from head to toe with a measuring look. My headscarf in combination with weird piercing (septum) must have caused dissonance in them. Two women even tried to figure out my ethnic background. Finally, they thought I was a Kazak. But, curiously enough, the women wearing headscarfs had neutral attitude towards my appearance.

Luiza Atabayeva. Photo: Z. Milibaeva

However, my work day at the architectural firm was the most stressful. My chief delicately avoided any comments, he didn’t move a muscle. The outsourcers paid absolutely no attention to my appearance at the business meeting. But all colleagues in my office kept asking me about why I decided to wear a headscarf.

I was very embarrassed when one of the directors of our company, who was always kind to me, tried to protect me all the time: he handed over a phone charge to me without touching my hands, or sneakily, without drawing attention, offered me a cigarette.

I learned that smoking and headscarf were incompatible when I heard a seller insulting me.

Later on I learned that smoking and headscarf were incompatible when I heard a tobacco seller insulting me. While I was buying cigarettes from him, he rudely told me to my face in Uzbek, “Look here, this j***p (a prostitute in Uzbek) buys cigarettes again with the thing in her nose”. However, this is a loose translation of his words.

I couldn’t respond to him; I just pretended I didn’t understand the Uzbek language. The austerity of speech, put it that way. When I told about this unpleasant episode to my friend, she was laughing long, “This guy has destroyed all possible stereotypes!”

Meeting my boyfriend’s friends

One day my boyfriend invited me to his friend, to a company of intelligent architects. I went there with my friend, and of course I was wearing a headscarf. My purpose was not to hit it off or to win my boyfriend’s friends over, but to collect enough data for my empirical study.

We had a nice talk (although, I was quiet and felt myself more like an unwelcomed guest), were drinking beer (I was drinking too, but only for the experiment), and watching Adventure Time (animated TV series – editor’s note). My friend was making jokes and my boyfriend’s friends liked her more. It was so obvious that they asked me about my friend’s life and ignored me smoothly.

A piece of fabric on my head might have nothing to do with it and I might not be interesting for people, but I also felt that the headscarf was creating a sort of obstacle in communication. They were very polite and decent with me, although they tried not to show their feelings. But my boyfriend later told me they had cognitive dissonance because of my headscarf.

His friends still don’t know I am wearing a headscarf for experiment only. But they don’t invite us anymore. That’s fine.

Luiza Atabayeva. Photo: Z. Milibaeva

Job search

For the first time in my life I could use my English language teacher diploma. I decided to finish my experiment by searching for a job at an educational institution.

I visited two schools: one was a French one and didn’t need English teachers, and the second one had a sufficient number of teachers. But the principal of the second school turned out to be very friendly. She was sad to see me, a young and pretty woman, wearing a headscarf.

“You shouldn’t have rushed,” she said pitifully.

And I used this chance and asked her, “Do schools hire women wearing headscarfs?”

“It’s advisable not to wear them,” the principal said.

Luiza Atabayeva. Photo: Z. Milibaeva

Outcomes

I am not a public servant so I didn’t feel any social pressure on me. Generally, I could easily move around the town, and I couldn’t find places prohibited for women wearing a headscarf.

One of the best advantages of a headscarf is that men stopped looking at me wistfully. I was comfortable to walk around the town, relax at a coffee house, I felt myself protected with a headscarf on my head.

The headscarf was hiding my hair, not my personality.

But, on the other hand, I felt myself a fake and therefore ashamed. I thought I was pretending to be good, although the headscarf was hiding my hair, not my personality. I was still good old Lu, who likes to make jokes, watch TV series, eat pizza and stand for women’s rights.

As to the fact that a headscarf is deemed a symbol of oppression, I think the main task of feminism is to create such environment in the society that women could really choose safely whether to wear a headscarf or go topless. A headscarf ban and disapproval is just a fight against effects, not causes.


This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia». The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial.