What Uyghur Women face and what you can do to help stop it

21 Mar, 2021 | Blogs, Human Rights Ambassador Programme

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By Evie Cawte, René Cassin Ambassador

Since the beginning of time, the female experience has always been different; this does not exclude the female experience in acts of Genocide. However, when analysing the treatment of female survivors and the recognition of the female experience, there is a clear lack of time, energy and funding being directed towards tackling the female experience of Genocide. When the world said, “Never Again” after the Holocaust, it did not exclude women and their experiences.

In the case of Uyghur Muslims, there are limited numbers of female specific projects or task forces being set up by Human Rights Organisations or Non-Governmental Organisations to address the female experience in Xinjiang, China. This overall negatively impacts on female survivors, and the lack of accountability on the subject allows this gendered discrimination in trauma and genocide aid to continue. The experience of the Uyghur women cannot be ignored and should be addressed immediately.

In order to get a fully comprehensive analysis of the Female Uyghur experience, there needs to be an establishment of what the daily context is for Uyghur women. In Xinjiang, China, there is evidence of the erosion of Uyghur women’s religious, sexual, and reproductive rights. Although there have been some active efforts from civil society to hold China to account for its treatment of Uyghur women, e.g. the recent campaigns challenging the Chinese Embassy in the USA for alleging that Uyghur women actually support the sterilisation measures they are subjected to. However, on a larger scale there is a clear disparity in groups willing to directly target, for campaigning or humanitarian aid, specifically female victims of the Uyghur Genocide. Failure to fully acknowledge this experience and the extent to which it is happening, results in the further isolation of Uyghur women from the narrative of the Uyghur genocide.

Since 2011, Uyghur women have been stigmatised and forced to remove their veils, either hijabs, niqabs or burkas, in the name of China’s ‘Project Beauty’ campaign[1].  China has stigmatised the veil through propaganda, making this particular female religious expression taboo and undesirable. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religious Belief identified the forced unveiling of Muslim Women is a clear violation of their right to religious expression, and thus poses the potential precedent for further human rights violations.

The BBC reported on 2nd February 2021, that the ‘re-education’ camps subjected Uyghur women to systematic rape. Uyghur Women in the camps were allegedly removed from their cells every night to be sexually assaulted and electrocuted by Chinese officers, during this time they were also subject to severe forms of sexual abuse and torture. Not only were they subjected to this horrendous sexual abuse, but they were also forced to strip and handcuff their fellow Uyghur women in preparation for a Chinese officer to visit. This systematic rape has been reported by numerous Uyghur women that survived the ‘re-education’ camps, ex-camp guards have also verified the use of electrocution as torture. At the core of the harrowing account from the BBC, is the fact that female survivors are terrified of reporting their experiences. China has created a system of fear among Uyghur survivors of ‘re-education’ camps, whereby they feel that disclosing their horrific experience in the camps may put them at greater risk if they are placed in them again.

Further to China’s One Child Policy, local governments in the Xinjiang region have been pressured to perform more intrusive birth control methods on women[2]. In 2019 the authorities set a goal of having 80% of child-bearing aged women to be using birth control, in particular IUDs that require an invasive inserting procedure, which in turn threatens the continuance of the Uyghur’s population. To take matters further, China has also imposed sterilisation procedures on Uyghur women – with the threat that if they refused, they would face internment camps where they will likely face further human rights violations and be forcefully sterilised. Uyghur women are forced to choose between their bodily autonomy and their limited freedom in the Xinjiang province.

Not only are women forced to relinquish their bodily autonomy, but they are also pressured to transfer away from their cultural stronghold in Xinjiang. China’s Transfer policy targets women aged 16-25, marriage aged, to transfer them to Eastern Chinese workplaces[3]. Not only are these women vulnerable to abuse, but they are placed into inhumane work conditions where their contracts are not upheld. These are also experienced by male Uyghurs, further evidence of the second-class citizenship status that Uyghur Muslims are subjected to. The local government leaders in Xinjiang are again pressured into ensuring the success of the policy, and the alternative for Uyghur women is internment and/or sterilisation. This policy aims to reduce the Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang, thereby allowing China’s control of the region to prevail.

What can you do?

It is easy to feel completely helpless facing the enormity of this reality. But there are things you can do from the UK to help!

  1. Ignorance is not bliss – There is enough information available for you to make ethical and moral decisions. The Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour  has developed a comprehensive list and call to action of 83 Global and Chinese brands that have ties to Uyghur forced labour, direct purchases from these brands produces a profit that funds the Uyghur Oppression Regime in Xinjiang. However, this doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on ethically sourced materials and piece together your own clothes, there are ways for you to still enjoy these brands without any profit going to intolerable sources. What is important here is that you are actively recognising the impact you can have on this issue, and that passivity on it is only going to further hurt the Uyghur people.
  • Engage with groups – With the growing awareness of the horrendous situation in Xinjiang, there are more and more groups recognising and fighting for Uyghur rights. By engaging with these groups, from Burst the Bubble UK and Free Uyghur Now, you can mobilise and be part of a greater campaign to stop the Uyghur Genocide. Often when people discover the truth of what is happening in the Xinjiang, they are unsure of what they can do to help – these groups will tell you how! Furthermore, with the current situation of the COVID-19 Pandemic, there are tonnes of ways to be an activist online. Human Rights Groups, such as René Cassin will be able to give you templates on how to raise your concerns for Uyghurs to your MP, as this is the greatest way to get the government to act on the issue.
  • Ask questions – What I have drawn attention to in this article is the disparity in institutions willing to focus on issues specific to Uyghur women, but you can help change this. Engaging with Uyghur Rights Organisations will help you identify and amplify female Uyghurs bravely speaking out. Their stories are out there.

Overall, although these things require effort – it is worth it! as the ethical and humane things to do. We were gifted with the power of free will, so we need to use it for good. Every purchase that does not profit the ‘re-education’ regimes in Xinjiang is a huge victory, for both the campaign for Uyghur rights and humanity. Every post on the Uyghur crisis is a rejection of China’s idea that Uyghurs are not worthy of their place in the world, lobbying the government with human rights groups shows the Uyghur community they are not alone and not forgotten. Demanding gender equality in the campaign for Uyghurs puts women back in the narrative of their abuse, as survivors of their own atrocious abuse. We must all aspire to stand up for others, regardless of race, gender, or religion as a way of exercising our free will for good. China may have turned its backs on the Uyghur people, but the rest of the world cannot.

This Passover you can #MakeThisSederDifferent and place a piece of ethically-sourced cotton and yellow raisins on your Seder Plate in recognition of the genocide being committed against Uyghur Muslims.

[1] Holder, R., 2020. On the interrelatedness of human rights, culture and religion: considering the significance of cultural rights in protecting the religious identity of China’s Uyghur minority. The International Journal of Human Rights, pp.1-22.

[2] Amnesty International, 1999. China: gross violations of human rights in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

[3] Uyghur Human Rights Project, 2007. Deception, Pressure, and Threats: The Transfer of Young Uyghur Women to Eastern China.

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