In Xinjiang, Uyghur Identity Under Siege

Continuing his series of observations from the western frontier province of Xinjiang, Graham Adams (a pseudonym used to protect the author’s identity) details the measures taken by authorities to suppress Uyghur identity:

The political situation in Urumqi is particularly tense now that the Party Congress is taking place. During noontime prayers on Friday, a Uyghur teacher must stand by the outer gate of an assigned mosque and make sure that none of his students attempts to enter the premises. If one does, he will receive a demerit from his school. A Chinese teacher accompanies the Uyghur teacher to ensure that the latter does not turn a blind eye to student rule-breaking. In addition, there are cameras inside and outside the mosque, as well as public security officers in the streets, to ensure that students do not enter. If students are caught, the teachers who failed to stop them are reprimanded as well.

The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government also forbids students and teachers from wearing headscarves or traditional hats on school campuses. One Uyghur professor with whom I spoke argued that these head coverings are a cultural marker, rather than strictly a religious marker. In fact, many Uyghurs have remarked that the July 2009 riots acted as a major turning point in their society. Since that time, the number of Uyghur women wearing headscarves has increased dramatically. They argue that they wear them to stand in solidarity with other Uyghurs as well as identify themselves as Muslim.

One day, I encountered a handful of students on a college campus wearing traditional hats and headscarves. I asked one of the young women why she chose to cover her head in spite of the ban. “It’s part of our culture,” she responded. When I subsequently inquired what might happen if she continued to defy the ban, the student said that the school could choose to expel her. Such acts of resistance, albeit on a small scale, seemingly indicate the desire of Uyghurs and other Central Asian ethnic groups to assert their own identity as well as their rights.

When asked about the dress code that Adams refers to, one Uyghur member of the Xinjiang delegation to the Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress said that there was “absolutely no ban” on the traditional Islamic dress that Uyghurs wear. From The South China Morning Post:

Some Uygurs and human rights groups have blamed policies enacted by the region’s Han-dominated government – which they say suppresses religious freedom – for sparking riots in the autonomous region.

Residents of the southern Xinjiang city of Hotan said a policy of discouraging women from wearing traditional black Islamic robes was one of the main triggers for a deadly attack on a police station in July last year that resulted in the deaths of at least 18 people.

“We have never said people cannot wear traditional ethnic dress,” Kurex Kanjir said on the sidelines of the congress on Sunday. “But we are now in a civilised society and we hope to use modern culture to guide a somehow backward culture. It is something not to be forced, but something to be achieved through guidance.”

See also the first two installments of Adams’ “Xinjiang Perspective” series, in which he discusses the propaganda deployed by the government to foster stability and the frustrations felt by many Uyghurs who work within the government.