Uighur women in China in crossfires of culture war

Uighur women in China in crossfires of culture war

The battle over female dress code is part of a larger struggle about what it means to be Uighur in Xinjiang

Fond of denim and lace, fluent in multiple languages and proud of her success as an international business translator, Luna appears to be a model of the assimilated Uighur that the Chinese government is striving for.

She grew up in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where marrying and mothering was the paramount role for women of her largely Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority ethnic group, and eventually moved to distant Beijing, where she feels more comfortable among the country’s Han majority than in the conservative world of her youth.

But Luna, who like others interviewed for this article asked to be identified by a nickname to avoid retaliation by the police, is increasingly torn between her professional ambition and her outrage towards official restrictions targeting the Uighur way of life. “The more the Chinese government forces us to live a Han lifestyle, the more we will find ways to express our Uighur identity,” she said.

As the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang intensify a deadly campaign framed as a battle against Islamic separatists, they have cast their net over a wide range of Uighur practices, including the wearing of veils and long beards, which are seen as signs of religious extremism.

Some Uighurs have responded with alarm, redoubling efforts to safeguard centuries-old traditions they fear could disappear. Critics argue that the government’s increasingly assertive policies have inadvertently bolstered the appeal of conservative Islam, with its emphasis on morality and traditional roles for women.

Stuck in the middle of this intensifying culture war are Uighur women who want to embrace modernity without forsaking their heritage. “Uighur women are really the first victims of mounting tensions and repression in Xinjiang,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “They are under pressure from the state to adopt new standards, and pressured by their communities to cut ties with a society seen as unclean.”

At a popular night market here in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, women in black burqas hawk fake designer undergarments next to stalls doing a brisk business in blue jeans and silk head scarves decorated with the Louis Vuitton logo. One scarf vendor, her face framed by a yellow hijab, explained the concealment of her hair as an act of piety. “Allah tells us women to be modest, so we cover up.”

But the state is making life increasingly difficult for faithful Uighurs. Along with deploying security forces armed with heavy weaponry, officials have instituted a wave of prohibitions meant to forcibly assimilate Uighurs into the Chinese nation.

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ended late last month, students and government workers were prohibited from fasting. A drive to repress female head coverings in some areas, marked by street checkpoints, Uighurs say, and barring such coverings at hospitals, schools and banks, gained sharper teeth on Wednesday when Karamay, a city in northern Xinjiang, banned men with long beards and women in veils from riding public buses.

The stricter rules add to longstanding grievances among the country’s 10 million Uighurs, who resent policies they say favour Mandarin over the Uighur language in schools and have made them a minority in their traditional homeland.

Eager to win over Uighur women, the government in 2011 introduced Project Beauty, a campaign to discourage women from wearing veils and head scarves that urges them to “show your pretty faces and let your beautiful hair fly in the wind.”

Officials say the campaign promotes female empowerment while nurturing a local fashion and cosmetics industry said to be worth $480 million. To drive home the message of gender equality, the campaign uses films, fashion shows and the state-controlled media, some of which claim that veils cause depression and scare children.

Wang Jianling, party secretary of the government-run Xinjiang Women’s Association, denied the existence of checkpoints and insisted that it was “extremely rare” for Uighur women to wear veils. Still, she praised Project Beauty as vital for encouraging Uighur women to embrace modernity. “It would be impossible to empower women and realize their full potential if you don’t say goodbye to outdated practices designed to hold women down,” she said in a phone interview.

Despite the cheerful propaganda, veils have become a point of contention for violent clashes. In May, protesters in southern Xinjiang beat up a school principal they had accused of helping the authorities round up female students wearing head scarves. Police officers opened fire on the angry crowd, killing at least four people, Uighur activists say. In June, four Uighur men were shot and killed during a confrontation with officials who had lifted a woman’s veil during a house inspection.

Struggle for identity

The battle over the female dress code is part of a larger struggle over what it means to be Uighur in Xinjiang, a place long known for its moderate brand of Sunni Islam. Though some Uighur women cover their hair and faces for religious reasons, a growing number appear to be embracing the practice as a gesture of quiet defiance.

“Whenever I go home to Xinjiang, I wear a head scarf to show that I cherish my culture,” said Luna, the business translator.

As the self-appointed protector of Uighur culture, the government is fond of using the state-controlled mass media as a tool for guiding sartorial public opinion. On television, Uighur women are invariably typecast as loyal, exotic props in a state-scripted patriotic epic that stars the ruling Han majority.

Their costumes — traditional ethnic dresses, embroidered caps and long braids — reinforce the official message that veils and head scarves have no place in Uighur daily life.

Just as there are women in other countries who see the veil as a symbol of female repression, some Uighur women reject the conservative religious traditions of their ethnic group. “In traditional Uighur culture, women are below men,” said Zoe, a proudly assimilated Uighur magazine editor, who never covers her hair and has a Han boyfriend, despite her parents’ objections. “Many young women like me don’t want to follow the same rules as their mothers did.”

Beijing has spent heavily wooing women in Xinjiang. From 2000 to 2010, according to government figures, well over three million ethnic minority women enrolled in classes that taught tailoring, cooking and computer skills. In Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road oasis that is predominantly Uighur, officials have distributed about $640 million in microloans to women since 2011, said Wang, the women’s association party secretary.

In some ways, Beijing’s heavy-handed governance has overshadowed its measurable success in bolstering opportunities for Uighur women. “Before, when families wanted to find a bride for their son, they looked for a girl who could cook,” said Rahile Dawut, director of the Xinjiang Folklore Research Center at Xinjiang University in Urumqi. “Now, they want an educated girl with a job.”

Dawut is particularly inspired by her female master’s students, an intrepid band of academic achievers who travel across Xinjiang to record oral histories. But these days, Dawut’s pride is tinged with alarm as more Uighur women turn to conservative Islam.

The shift is visible on the streets of Urumqi, long bastion of secular cosmopolitanism, where head scarves and veils now mingle with pants, skirts and high heels. “Some of my friends come back to Urumqi and say, ‘This is not the place where we grew up,’ ” she said. “Every day we feel like things are changing around us.”