I have commented, in another context, on ‘L’Affair Foulard’ in France – the dust-up over the government’s attempt to symbolically enforce secularism by singling out Muslims and criminalizing the wearing of veils in public. Now China has apparently decided to follow suit, with an anti-veil project of its own, in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar. As with France, China’s campaign – called ‘Project Beauty’ – has been dressed up to appear all about gender equality, secularism, and fairness. In fact, it’s probably more about fear (of Islam, of terrorism), and enforcing social order among non-Han minorities.
While it does not appear that China bans outright the wearing of veils, it discourages the practice and subjects veiled women (and, apparently, bearded men!) to pressure and surveillance. ‘Project Beauty’ involves on-street check-points in Kashgar, where government workers stop veiled women, record their details, and make them watch a film ‘about the joys of uncovering their faces.’ In a recent AFP report, Carol Huang reported,
Women in Kashgar sport a range of coverings, from bright scarves draped stylishly over hairdos that leave their necks exposed, to sombre Saudi-style black fabric cloaking all but their eyes. Policies to stop them covering their faces, and to a lesser extent their hair, are not publicised. City authorities declined to comment and Xinjiang officials could not be reached. But “Project Beauty” stands could be seen around the city, and a tailor said campaign staff had instructed him not to make the full-length robes often worn with face coverings. Other residents said that to enter government offices, banks or courts, women had to remove their veils and men shave their beards, another Muslim practice. In Hotan, another predominantly Uighur city 500 kilometres (310 miles) to the east, at least one hospital received government forms to report back on veiled patients.
The Xinjiang Daily, run by the ruling Communist Party, warned of the potential dangers of Islamic dress in a July opinion piece. “Some people with ulterior motives are distorting religious teachings” and “inciting young people to do jihad”, it said, adding that black robes induced depression and scared babies.
Some women took a pragmatic view. A 35-year-old bakery owner with a gauzy orange scarf wrapped around a bun said the need to unveil in government buildings did not overly bother her. Women were becoming less strict about veiling in any case, she said. But others remove their face covers before approaching Project Beauty checkpoints to avoid trouble, said a 19-year-old woman from a jade-selling family. The “Beauty” people were everywhere, she said.
As I’ve noted previously, the geography of the veil is a fascinating and complicated topic. In France, many Muslim women choose to veil their faces as a deliberate statement of religious identity. And this may increasingly become the case in China if the government deliberately targets Muslim women for ‘re-education’.