HONG KONG—With authorities detaining hundreds of men belonging to the Uyghur minority group in China’s northwest, Uyghur women are moving increasingly to the forefront in protests and public life, experts say.
“They have to fight. They have to protect their families, their children, their husbands,” one Uyghur woman, living in U.S. exile and in constant contact with Uyghurs back home in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), said in an interview.
“Of course the first thing they want is justice. They want all the Uyghur men free. But I think they fight for freedom, for dignity.”
Many take courage from Uyghur exile leader Rebiya Kadeer, a laundress turned self-made millionaire who was a favorite of the authorities until she began speaking out on behalf of the millions of mostly Muslim Uyghurs living under Chinese rule—and spent nearly six years in prison before she was paroled and exiled to the United States.
The XUAR is a remote, impoverished region, overwhelmingly rural and historically populated by Uyghurs, a Turkic people who practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam.
Under Chinese control for the last six decades, the region has been the object of Beijing’s aggressive “Go West” campaign, under which majority Han Chinese have received incentives to leave more populated areas to help bring development westward.
But Han migration, along with China’s sometimes heavy-handed treatment of Uyghurs and hundreds of arrests over the last year for alleged separatist crimes, has led to simmering resentments.
These erupted July 5 in several days of deadly ethnic rioting. Chinese officials say the clashes left 197 dead and more than 1,600 injured, although Uyghurs set the figures far higher.
Immediately afterward, some 300 Uyghur women surprised reporters by gate-crashing a guided foreign media tour, protesting the detention of hundreds of men from their neighborhood.
Tursun Gul, a migrant worker and mother of two, was photographed standing behind police lines in front of an all-female crowd, speaking to police, pointing her finger, and eventually forcing them back.
“My husband, younger brother, and older brothers, five in all, were arrested,” she said, according to one report.
“We were eating when it happened. The police came and took them away and they never returned. I don’t know why they took them.”
To many observers, photos of Gul evoked the iconic earlier image of a lone man staring down tanks during the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 1989, when the Chinese military used deadly force to disperse unarmed protesters, killing hundreds.
On July 7, Xinjiang authorities announced that police had detained 1,434 suspects in connection with the protests—55 women and 1,379 men. More than 800 others have been detained since, the majority believed to be men.
Women step up
Uyghur sources question those figures, saying the actual number of detentions is far higher. With their male relatives either detained or fearing detention, women have taken on a leadership role, experts say.
“It is fairly common for women to be at the forefront of protest movements in repressive societies ... When husbands and sons go missing, are killed and/or arrested in such societies, it tends to be the women who are most willing to stand up to authorities,” Sean Roberts, a Xinjiang expert at George Washington University, said.
“It makes for potent symbolism to see armed men attacking unarmed women,” Roberts said. “It’s more difficult for authoritarian regimes to respond to women protesters with violence.”
Joanne Smith-Finley, a lecturer in Chinese studies at Newcastle University, agreed.
“As the ethno-political situation in Xinjiang worsens, more women are becoming politicized,” she said, adding that Uyghur women are “angered by cultural repression and economic inequalities between Uyghurs and Han Chinese within the modernizing society.”
Crackdown on women clerics
Chinese authorities appear to have taken notice.
In recent months, two Xinjiang local governments reported online a new effort to train and regulate buwi—female clerics who traditionally perform funeral rites, recite the Qur’an, and pray for the dead.
The Peyziwat [in Chinese, Jiashi] county government, in the Uyghur cultural capital Kashgar, reported in April that government and Communist Party officials gathered buwi from 10 villages and trained them in Party policy toward religion, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China reported.
The women were required to sign pledges to refrain from wearing veils or long dresses, teaching religious texts, and forcing others to participate in religious activities.
In addition, Bayangol Mongol Autonomous Prefecture in the XUAR reported in June that religious training programs there had included 100 buwi.
Uyghurs and rights group have long claimed that Uyghurs are subject to unique and systematic harassment related to the practice of Islam and outward expressions of ethnic identity.
Anyone under 18, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, and government employees, and in some cases all women as well, are banned from entering mosques, and in some areas traditional Uyghur headscarves are banned on women, and men are required to shave off their beards.
“I think the CCP hopes through this religious training to strengthen control over Muslim women with the ultimate motive of fighting so-called separatism,” Winston Yang, a professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said.
“In my opinion, this is also politically motivated, as they hope to gradually Sinicize Muslim [Uyghur] women,” he said.
Previously, in March 2008, women in Hotan city and Qaraqash county led protests against the headscarf ban, and by some accounts 600 women were involved.
Following the death in custody of Mutallip Hajim, a prominent Uyghur businessman and philanthropist, protesters demanded that authorities scrap the ban, stop using torture to suppress Uyghur demands for greater autonomy, and release political prisoners.
Women’s protests “put authorities on higher alert,” making them “more aware of women as an organized force, and women’s religious beliefs and practices as having a powerful impact and influence,” said another Uyghur scholar who asked not to be named.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink in Washington. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.