KULOB, Tajikistan - Adding to Tajik Muslims struggle for hijab, women in the ex-Soviet Muslim-majority country are facing health problems from low-cost headscarves imported from China as the government continues its crackdown on the religious outfit.
"We never before had so many people coming at once with the same symptoms, so we decided to do [some] research to find the root cause of the problem," Alikhon Murodov, the head of Kulob's regional hospital, which specializes in treating skin diseases, told Radio Free Europe on Friday, August 31.
Looking into the issue, doctors proved that synthetic fabrics of the type often used in hijabs imported from China were the main cause behind the problems.
"Our research showed that the skin conditions were caused by synthetic textiles," Murodov says.
In many cases "the irritated and itching skin has turned into small wounds. We advised our patients to avoid synthetic fabrics," he added.
Like many other hijab-wearing Kulobi women, Kulob resident Madina Jabborova wears affordable Islamic clothing made in China.
A complete outfit, consisting of a head scarf, a long dress, and trousers all made of synthetic fabrics, sells for the equivalent of around $20.
Jabborova says she developed skin rashes and itching around her neck in early summer.
"It would get worse with sweating during the hot weather," says Jabborova, whose condition erupted into a full-grown skin infection.
Tajikistan is one of the five Central Asian countries of the ex-Soviet Union which won independence in 1991.
Muslims constitute nearly 90 percent of Tajikistan's 7.2 million population, according to the CIA factbook.
But under the Soviet rule, any sign of religion such as hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, or performing prayers was punishable.
Though advised to wear cotton or silk hijabs, high cost was forcing many Tajik women to resort to their much cheaper synthetic counterparts.
"These types of hijabs don't sell well, so I don't stock them a lot," Rahima Qayumova, a merchant in Kulob's central bazaar, said, noting that silk and cotton hijabs can cost up to five times more than their synthetic counterparts.
"But there is a high demand for the Chinese-made Islamic attire."
Some Tajik Muslim women denied any link between hijab and rashes.
"Don't blame all your problems on the hijab," a middle-aged woman who says her name is Munarava said.
She added that she's been wearing the hijab for several years without any problems.
If anyone wearing the hijab has skin problems, she says, it's a result of "poor" personal hygiene.
Suggesting a solution for high cost hijab, Munarava asked women to buy cotton fabrics and take them to local dressmakers.
Buy cotton fabrics and take them to local dressmakers, which would cost a lot less than buying ready-made hijabs," she said.
Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one's affiliations.
Tajik Muslim women have been facing repeated attacks on religious freedoms after the government imposed a ban on hijab in schools, frowned upon the outfit in the workplace, and banished it from passport photos.
Despite the official ban on the hijab in schools and government offices, the Islamic garment has become a permanent fixture in the predominantly Muslim country.