The irony of recent efforts by authorities in Xinjiang to ban visible symbols of Muslim piousness – under the pretense of combating terrorism, preserving social order, and “modernizing” the Uighurs – is that it will most likely result in the further spread of exactly that which it is trying to squash: overt, public expressions of Islamic faith. This shouldn’t be surprising. As France and other Western European countries have discovered, criminalizing certain kinds of pious dress only transforms one’s bodily comportment from an unselfconscious act of religious practice to a self-conscious political act of defiance. As states attempt to enforce dress-codes in the name of secularism and religious equality, religious minorities feel embattled and discriminated against, and they tend to respond by asserting their identity in ways they might not have done previously. Thus, as noted by Michael Clarke, of Griffith University’s Asia Institute, the veil has now become “a passive form of resistance, signifying your opposition to government restrictions on religion.”
A recent New York Times article by Dan Levin also comments on the growing visibility of Islamic dress among Uighur women in Xinjiang. Uighurs increasingly feel, Levin argues, that China is criminalizing their way of life and pressuring them to adopt to Han Chinese ways of being, all in the name of “modernization.” Last year I posted about “Project Beauty”, which discourages the wearing of veils among Uighur women in the name of modern ideas like gender equality and women’s empowerment. As summarized by Wang Jianling, head of the Xinjiang Women’s Association, “It would be impossible to empower women and realize their full potential if you don’t say goodbye to outdated practices [like veiling] designed to hold women down,”
But to many, state-led efforts to ‘modernize’ Muslims feels more like an attack on an entire culture and way of life:
Though some Uighur women cover their hair and faces for religious reasons, a growing number appear to be embracing the practice as a gesture of quiet defiance. “Whenever I go home to Xinjiang, I wear a head scarf to show that I cherish my culture,” said Luna, the business translator.
In Levin’s article, Luna goes on to comment that, “The more the Chinese government forces us to live a Han lifestyle, the more we will find ways to express our Uighur identity,”
Expressions of Uighur identity, however, are becoming increasingly difficult, as more and more Uighur cultural practices are criminalized. These include (for government workers) fasting during Ramadan, wearing head scarves and other coverings in banks, schools, hospitals and (as displayed above) public transport, and (for men) wearing ‘long’ beards in these same places. While many Uighur women, as Levin points out, indeed find in the veil a symbol of female repression, the broader politics of Uighur identity has, for some, eclipsed the politics of gender. More women are turning toward a more conservative brand of Islamic practice, veils are more commonly seen on the streets of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi, and the Chinese state seems to be doing its best to create the monster it’s trying to defeat.