Authorities in two Uyghur villages in China’s restive Xinjiang region are punishing relatives of Muslim women who cover their faces by not authorizing their marriage applications and disallowing them to perform pilgrimage to Mecca, according to local officials.
Community officials in Beshtugmen and Igerchi villages outside Aksu city have been enforcing the measures after residents in Beshtugmen opposed fines against women in the village who wore headscarves in June last year, villagers said.
Since then, community officials had eased restrictions on women wearing headscarves, but women who cover their faces with traditional veils still face curbs enforced by Beshtugmen’s United Front office, the local branch of a ruling Chinese Communist Party organ tasked with guiding local religious and ethnic policy.
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, which is home to some 9 million mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs.
“We do not approve the applications for marriage certificates or pilgrimages to Mecca if the applicant has relatives who cover their face,” the head of the United Front office in Beshtugmen village, who gave his first name as Eziz, told RFA’s Uyghur Service.
He said “three generations” of the relatives of women who cover their faces are screened for possible punishment.
The United Work office community officials first identify women wearing face veils at the local bazaar.
“Our job is to uncover the faces of veiled women,” said Eziz, who refused to give his surname.
He said the curbs on the relatives are part of the United Front’s policy of encouraging local residents to support the Chinese Communist Party’s policies on ethnicity and religion.
“We work on changing their stubborn attitudes to make them follow our government and not their religion,” he said.
“We mainly counsel and explain the development of our region and compare it to what it was like before the [Chinese Communist] Party’s rule. We propagandize our Communist Party’s warm policy and shed light on the farmers’ thoughts.”
“It is not easy, because these people are brainwashed with religion,” he said.
A top official of the United Front office in neighboring Igerchi village said similar restrictions were in place there for women who wore the veils.
"We explain to them our policy, and if they do not listen then we crack down on them according to law,” he said, refusing to give his name.
“We do not approve their relatives’ applications for pilgrimage to Mecca, and we do not give them marriage certificates,” he said.
Fines for veils
Both officials refused to specify whether women could be fined for wearing veils over their faces, but local residents in Beshtugmen said some women had faced steep fines.
Rights groups have hit out at local restrictions in Xinjiang curbing Muslim women dressing and discouraging men from sporting beards, saying they hindered not only religious practices but also Uyghur traditions.
One Beshtugmen farmer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the women’s husbands also faced detention.
“If a woman who wears a veil over her face is discovered by the community watch group from the United Front office, she faces a 1,000 to 5,000 yuan [U.S. $160 to $800] fine, and her husband will be detained for 10 to 15 days,” he told RFA.
Eziz said that community officials do not arrest women who wear veils over their faces.
“We can’t arrest them, because there is no law or regulation for us to do that.”
Eased since last year
Women in Beshtugmen who wear the veils avoid going to the local bazaar for fear of being caught, sources said.
But they said that restrictions on traditional dress in Beshtugmen had eased since June of last year, when community officials gathered women in the village who wore headscarves and told them to stop the practice, fining them 400 yuan (U.S. $65) when they refused.
“Last year in June, they forcibly gathered all of the women in Beshtugmen village who whore a hijab,” one local woman farmer speaking on condition of anonymity said, referring to headscarves.
“These women included government workers’ wives, village cadres, and imams’ wives. But these women all together strongly opposed taking off their hijabs, so they were fined 400 yuan and then allowed to go.”
Other sources also said the women had been fined for wearing headscarves, not veils over their faces at that time.
When community officials gathered women wearing headscarves again in July, local residents refused to cooperate, and since then the community officials had stopped pressuring women not to wear headscarves, the woman farmer said.
“This time, all of the farmers, government workers and imams all together opposed the community workers and said that if their women are going to be told to take off the hijabs, no one will cooperate.”
“Since then, they have stopped bothering women who wear the hijab as much,” she said.
Top regional officials have rejected claims of curbs on traditional Islamic dress in the region, with Kuresh Kanjir, a Uyghur delegate to the 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 to 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.
“Chinese authorities have launched numerous campaigns on women wearing headscarves and men wearing beards, in an attempt to dilute Uyghurs’ adherence to their Muslim beliefs,” the UHRP said in a report last year.
In a report this year, it said officials in the region had also targeted students and teachers with campaigns against Islamic dress.
One Uyghur teacher in Aksu city told RFA this month said that in May last year she had been forced to remove her headscarf—which she had been wearing while her head was bald due to a skin condition—after being threatened with losing her job.
“They forced me to take off my hijab. I showed them my bald head and begged them to leave me alone,” she said.
“But they didn’t listen and threatened that I would be fired from my teaching job if I continued to wear a hijab.”
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 and translated by Rukiye Turdush for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.