Petrol stations in China's troubled western region of Xinjiang have displayed notices in recent days calling on Muslim women to remove their veils if they wish to be served, residents said on Tuesday.
The notices were mostly evident in the predominantly Uyghur-populated Hotan and Kashgar prefectures in southern Xinjiang, according to residents interviewed by RFA's Uyghur Service.
"They are targeting women who wear veils or headscarves, whether they are young or old, on the grounds that it is supposed to have some connection to terrorism," a resident of Hotan, who declined to be named, told RFA's Mandarin service.
"[The petrol stations] just blindly ban them," he said. "It's not just the petrol stations, but also the hospitals and other public places," he said, adding that the policy was a recent phenomenon in Xinjiang, which is periodically hit by ethnic violence.
"When I was a kid it wasn't like this," he said.
At least two gas stations contacted in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi said they did not put up such notices.
A Uyghur woman in Kashgar's Poskam county said that dressing curbs for Muslim women were not new in her area, saying notices to the effect have been introduced even in hospitals and libraries.
“Yes, they have such notices in the gas station which would restrict covered-up ladies from getting gas," she said. "They also face prohibitions in hospitals. It is extremely hard for the ladies with hijab [veil]."
The woman said she would sell her newly bought car rather than obey the notices put up at the gas stations.
In Hotan city, sources said local authorities adopted procedures this month prohibiting women with veils from entering government offices, post offices, and banks, among other government and commercial buildings.
Last month, community officials in Beshtugmen and Igerchi villages outside Xinjiang's Aksu city enforced punitive measures against the relatives of Muslim women who cover their faces by not authorizing their marriage applications and disallowing them to perform pilgrimage to Mecca.
But the reinforced directives appear now to have spread to everyday businesses, and across a wider geographical area than before.
One sign in Chinese and Uyghur script, a photo of which was posted to the Uyghur Online website, read: "Please would ladies remove their veils, to avoid obstructing a modern and civilized society,"
A second photo showed a similar sign, printed out and stuck above the door of a business, while a third read: "Veiled women are forbidden to enter the family compound of the land and resources bureau."
Rights groups have hit out at local restrictions in Xinjiang targeting women in veils and discouraging men from wearing beards, saying they hinder not only religious practice but also Uyghur traditions.
A number of listeners made calls to RFA's hotlines in recent days, reporting similar signage in petrol stations in Xinjiang, which is home to nine million mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs and is the scene of recurring ethnic violence.
Sichuan-based rights activist Pu Fei, who is himself a Uyghur, said such restrictions were frequently justified by the authorities in the name of "anti-terrorism."
"Basically, this is nothing but racial discrimination," Pu said. "The reasons given are combating terrorism, maintaining stability, and so on. But none of them stand up."
"We hope that the authorities will soon stop this ridiculous measure, or else it will create further ethnic tensions in the region," he said.
Many Uyghurs say headscarves are a marker of Uyghur rather than Muslim identity. Chinese authorities, however, discourage the wearing of headscarves, veils, and other Islamic dress in the region.
Top regional officials have rejected claims of curbs on traditional Islamic dress in the region, with Kuresh Kanjir, a Uyghur delegate to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress telling a Hong Kong newspaper late last year that there is “absolutely no ban.”
In a report this year, the U.S.-based Uyghur Human Rights project decried an “open discrimination” against Uyghurs, especially women leading religious lives, raising concerns about public signs barring entry and reports of government assistance withheld from Uyghurs dressed in “Islamic” fashion.
Most of the restrictions are aimed at women who wear veils and men who have beards, but campaigns against headscarves have also been reported in different parts of Xinjiang.
Earlier this month, students in Xinjiang’s Atush city took to the streets in a rare protest over the right of Uyghur girls to wear headscarves to school.
Local residents had said some 70 students wearing headscarves and doppa, traditional Uyghur caps for men, had taken part in the demonstration outside the Kezhou No. 1 High School’s gates after the school tried to enforce a ban on the head coverings.
School officials rescinded the ban after the protest, online reports said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service and Gulchehra Keyum for RFA's Uyghur Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie and Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie.