Behind the veil

By Bai Tiantian Source:Global Times Published: 2014-5-26 20:03:01

A woman in black religious garb talks on a phone at a market in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Roxiangul (pseudonym), a Uyghur woman in her 50s, always makes sure she has a veil in her purse whenever she leaves the house.

Not that she wants to wear it all the time.

Five years ago, during the infamous July 5 riot in Urumqi, capital of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, some young Uyghur girls suffered cuts on their arms and thighs because they were wearing short skirts.

The perpetrators, women in black gowns and black veils, called the girls "bitches" and cursed them to "burn in hell."

If that wasn't enough to frighten Roxiangul, a year or so later, when she was shopping near the International Bazaar in Urumqi, a group of random Uyghur men surrounded her and harshly accused her of debauchery for disobeying the teachings of the Koran about how women are forbidden to reveal their faces.

Even as a devout Muslim, Roxiangul was shaken and scared. After that, she began pulling a veil out of her purse whenever she sensed looks of disapproval on the street.

Although Roxiangul's story may not speak for every Uyghur woman in Xinjiang, in the eyes of some scholars and local residents approached by the Global Times, Uyghur society has been becoming increasingly conservative in recent years, a change that seems to be tied to the increasing prevalence of terror attacks in the region.

In 2013 alone, more than 300 terrorist attacks took place in China, both in and outside of Xinjiang. According to the Legal Daily, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a terrorist group, produced 107 terrorism videos in 2013 - more than any previous year.

As combating terrorism has become the top priority of the Xinjiang government, authorities are also taking measures to rein in fundamentalism, which many believe prompts women to cover their skins and provides the theoretical basis for terrorism.

One potential solution to this war of ideology, as the local government is coming to realize, could be the revival of Uyghur culture and Uyghur traditions.

A woman looks after a child in Urumqi. Veils that are not black are considered less conservative. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Clothing not optional

In a recently announced policy, the government said it is pushing for the "standardization of the traditional costumes of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang." The move aims to define Uyghur traditional costumes and differentiate them from conservative clothing of foreign Islam sects, such as the Burqa, a gown that covers the body of a woman from head to toe.

The move will help the authorities issue rules on conservative attire, which they say poses a risk to Uyghur traditions. The standardization will also highlight features of Uyghur costumes and help local industries produce more clothes with ethnic characteristics.

"Some argue that people should have the freedom to choose their own clothes. But in Xinjiang, your costume is more than a costume. Conservative clothing is often chosen not by personal preference but outside pressure," said Turgunjan Tursun, a scholar at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences.

For many years, Uyghur culture has been known for vibrant ethnic dances. Girls in red or pink Atlas silk dresses would tilt their heads, thrust their chests and push out their waists with smiles on their faces. When they dance, people are often mesmerized by how fast they are able to spin, to the point that their dresses fly like blossoming flowers.

But that impression is being replaced with other imagery.

Ever since the 1980s, increasing numbers of Uyghur women, especially those in southern Xinjiang, have begun to wear veils. Their attire changed from traditional Atlas silk dresses with vivid colors to black gowns and the black "Niqab," a veil worn by Muslim females that covers their face and chest.

In recent years, pictures posted on social media of girls with skin showing also began to receive insulting online comments. In one extreme case, a Uyghur girl, wearing a western wedding dress, had watermelon rinds hurled at her and her guests by some religious conservatives during the ceremony. 

The number of men who have quit drinking and smoking is increasing significantly.

A village official in southern Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture told the Global Times that many local Uyghurs have stopped dancing their traditional dances at weddings. Music is prohibited. Family members of the deceased do not offer guests Nazer meal, a Uyghur tradition, at funerals. Some have even ceased to visit their parents' graves.

What troubles the local authorities even more is the spread of extremist thoughts that are often deeply rooted in, and sometimes indistinguishable from, conservative ideologies.

The Phoenix Weekly reported that many teenagers in southern Xinjiang hang pictures of Taliban soldiers, with one hand holding a gun while the other holds a copy of the Koran, on their wall. They look up to these Taliban soldiers as heroes and role models.

An expert on Xinjiang issues, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Global Times that extremist and terrorist groups are seen as men of virtue in their communities. At the grass-roots level they teach young Uyghur men to be obedient to their parents and Allah. They provide money, doctors and jobs for those in need. "And in return," added the expert, "when the government claims they are terrorists, the villagers think the government is at fault."

On the margins

According to Tursun, an important reason for the rise of religious conservatism and extremism in Xinjiang is the stagnant economy and the difficulties of societal transformation in the modern age.

"Xinjiang adopted the opening up and reform later than other parts of China. This and other factors, such as the lack of quality education among the minority ethnic groups, have put the Uyghurs in a disadvantaged position in terms of market competition," said the anonymous expert.

Extremists have placed blame on the Han ethnic group, stating that "the best jobs are grabbed by the Han" and "the Hans are taking away our natural resources," comments that spark hatred between both ethnic groups, says Turgunjan Tursun. He believes that "extremism would not survive here if Uyghur society was prosperous."

As society has transformed and many traditional values have collapsed, conservative Islam sects, such as Salafism, have found fertile ground.

The term refers to one of the strictest forms of Islamic fundamentalism. According to Jonathan Brown, an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Salafism preaches political quietism that often requires Muslims to have no political participation but the same texts also teach that, if a ruler ceases to be a Muslim, he can be opposed violently.

Fostering traditions

Nafisa Nihmat, a Uyghur lawyer who now works in Shanghai, mourns the loss of Uyghur traditions.

 "The best way to counter extremism and fundamentalist thoughts is to revive Uyghur traditional culture," she told the Global Times.

Like a fearless warrior, she fiercely debates those who believe Uyghur women should cover their skin for their husbands and firmly defends Uyghur women's rights to equal education, social independence and dignity.

In many ways, the government seems to be working toward that direction.

Aside from the standardization of traditional costumes, in southern Xinjiang, grass-roots authorities are trying to revive Uyghur culture by encouraging villagers to return to their traditions.

Zhao Jiangtao, one of the 70,000 officials sent to work in villages across Xinjiang this year, described to the Global Times how his work team recently persuaded the families of a soon-to-be-married couple to hold a Meshrep, a traditional Uyghur dance, at the new couple's wedding.

"We invited performers from the township to perform at the wedding. The Local imam was present to show his support too. We hope it will change the atmosphere in the village. Villagers told us that they like how weddings were organized in the old ways but with the influence of religious conservatism, no one dares to dance unless someone takes the lead," said Zhao.

All these policies mark a gradual change in government strategy from solving ethnic and religious problems with economic means to ideological measures.

"For many years, the government has built houses for Uyghur villagers and gave them free or discounted seeds. But the influence is limited. Ideological problems must be solved via ideological means," said the anonymous expert.

Rise of extremism

To some scholars, the influence of extremism in Xinjiang is part of a global regression toward conservative Islam. 

Not only in China, but in Europe as well, local authorities at times have described fundamentalist Islam as a potential threat to their nations' secular values.

In 2010, France passed a controversial bill that bans women from wearing face-covering headgear, such as the Niqab and Burqa, in public places. The move prompted hundreds of Muslims in Pakistan to protest. Some even demanded the UN take immediate action against France.

Yin Zhiguang, a political science professor from the Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, told the Global Times that the ethnic and religious dilemma China faces in Xinjiang is both a domestic and international problem, and a consequence of a fragmented Arab world.

"Solving Xinjiang's problems requires not only domestic policies but diplomatic strategies. China should actively participate in international politics, differentiate friends from enemies in the fragmented Arab world, further suppress the development of ultra-conservatism and control the tendency of fractionalization in the area," Yin said.

To other scholars, the line between conservatism and extremism remains disputed.

"The government can only claim certain organizations are illegal but can never say a religious sect is illegal," Yang Shu, director of the Institute of Central Asia Studies at the Lanzhou University, told the Global Times.

Yang sees the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a byproduct of the "Islamic Revival" movement as it goes into a low ebb. He believes that the "Islamic Revival" is not a revival in true sense but a social movement with definite political purpose carried out by certain organizations or cliques with Islamism as an instrument.

"At least 10 ethnic minorities in China are Muslims but the terror attacks only occur among the Uyghurs. Why? I think it proves that the problem is not with Islam but how the religion is used by secessionists as a political instrument. We cannot let our fear put us at the opposite side of an entire religious group," Yang said.

Newspaper headline: Xinjiang drifts toward Talibanization as dances suppressed, conservative dress imposed

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