A region-wide policy in northwestern China banning women from wearing long dresses and covering their faces, and men from wearing beards, restricts more than religious practice, according to members of Xinjiang's predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority.
An anonymous source from Hankhatam village in southern Kucha county, where nine police officers were killed in an attack on July 9, said the crackdown intensified during the Muslim Ramadan holiday from Aug. 11 to Sept. 9.
“If women wear religious clothes like a full veil, they can’t go outside. Male plainclothes officers will take them into an office and take off their covers, ” the source wrote in a text message.
“Men must cut their beards. If people have beards or religious clothing, they can’t open private businesses. The area is likely to see violence again if this policy continues.”
Uyghur men traditionally wear beards and Uyghur women often wear longer clothing out of modesty, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, called on Chinese authorities to end the ban.
"These restrictions are against Uyghur cultural traditions. These things have nothing to do with religion," he said.
Fines, jail terms
A former resident of Kucha, who has since relocated to Europe, said that throughout the summer women have been forced to uncover their faces and men forced to shave their beards or face a fine of anywhere from 200 to 1,000 yuan (U.S. $30 to $150).
“When I used to live in Kucha, my friend was taken to jail because he was a mosque imam who spoke out about the way the government was treating people wearing religious clothing. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail,” the former residents said.
“I also know that some Uyghurs had to leave Kucha for northern Uyghur cities, like Urumqi and Manas, because of the clothing and religious restrictions,” he said, noting that the policy tends to be less strictly enforced in northern Xinjiang.
Local officials in Hankhatam village refused to answer questions about the ban.
A Uyghur who answered the phone at the local village government office was initially cooperative, but then said he could not continue the conversation.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so busy. I don’t have time to answer your questions,” the employee said before hanging up.
At the same office, a Han employee surnamed Wang hung up immediately when asked about the policy.
Other areas affected
A resident of the Hotan area, in southwestern Xinjiang, said the ban has been enforced in her village since last year.
“The same situation is happening in my village, but it’s been better this year than last. Last year, the police would just go outside, detain people on the streets, and uncover their faces at the police station,” the woman said.
“This year they are only saying on the village radio that we cannot wear 'religious' clothing and beards or are entering people’s homes to [enforce the ban]."
“This year the government also prevented people from praying on Khadir Kedisi [a day of religious observance] and said people cannot congregate on Ramadan for Iftar," when friends and family gather together to break the fast each evening, she said.
Another source in Ili prefecture’s Gulja county said officials there have also been strictly enforcing the ban throughout the summer.
“All summer this year, the local government worked towards changing the dress of the women and cutting the men’s beards,” she said.
“Right now, women can no longer have covered faces in my area. All young men must have clean-shaven faces. Only the older men can keep beards.”
Original reporting by Mihray Abdilim for RFA’s Uyghur service. Translated by Mihray Abdilim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.