Strong Women in Uyghur History

Forget what you've learned about Muslim women as second-class citizens, experts say. Uyghur women have long played leading roles.

2009.08.24
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WASHINGTON—“Historically, Uyghur society has been particularly liberal with regards to gender relations,” says Sean Roberts, a Xinjiang expert at George Washington University.

Uyghur women are viewed as the principal educators in Uyghur society, responsible for educating children and passing on traditions through the family, experts say.

“Women have a strong position in Uyghur society,” one Uyghur woman living in U.S. exile said.

Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur exile who previously worked for Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur service and now supports herself as a translator, agreed.

“People have this misconception that women’s freedom or activities are restricted in Muslim culture. It’s not the Muslim culture—it’s the culture of what different ethnicities view as Muslim culture,” she said.

Uyghur legends include the story of an 18th-century heroine, Iparhan, who refused to become a concubine to the Qing emperor.

Another Uyghur heroine, Nozugum, joined the Kashgar uprising of 1825-26 and is celebrated in the poetry of Bilal Nazim.

According to legend, after the uprising was suppressed, she escaped from a Qing official who tried to force her to marry him and continued to fight Qing soldiers. She was later captured again and killed.

Rizwangul, a Uyghur nurse, died in 1945 while protecting soldiers who were defending the Second East Turkestan Republic from Chinese forces.

And the Uyghur figure best known around the world is Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the World Uyghur Congress, which Beijing accused of inciting violence in July.

Kadeer was a successful self-made businesswoman held up as a model by the Chinese government until she was accused of “endangering national security” in 2000.

"It was Rebiya Kadeer’s founding of a women’s movement in Xinjiang and her support to the mothers and wives of those arrested during the 1987 Ghulja [in Chinese, Yining] protests that first turned authorities against her,” Roberts says.

“In Xinjiang, women have been active in [political protests] over the last several decades.”

Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink in Washington. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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