BROWSE COUNTRIES/ TERRITORIES
Xinjiang’s new female fighters
A new group of dissenters has emerged from China’s recent ethnic riots – Uighur Muslim women.
It didn't dawn on me initially what was so strange about the scene before me. Then the realisation hit – there was not a single man in sight. Only women, children and the elderly were left in Saimachang, a normally bustling Uighur community in Urumqi. Days after the Xinjiang riots, the neighbourhood still had a nervous tick to it. Women sat huddled in groups outside their homes, looking around suspiciously while clinging tightly to their children.
It was here that I met Pati Guli, a petite Uighur woman in her 20s. She wore a dark veil and a conservative brown blouse, and spoke in hushed tones. She told me that two days after the riots, police had raided their neighbourhood and taken their men away.
“Where is your husband?” I asked her. Guli took a few glances around her and replied, “I don’t know where he is. Many men are now missing… We don’t know where they are.”
A small group of women soon gathered around Guli and began to shout angry words against the Chinese government. Some began to cry. Guli told me about 200 of them had taken to the streets two days ago, raising their fists in the air and demanding the release of their men.
Their protest was swiftly silenced by paramilitary police, but these women had already made their point. Theirs was a spectacle seldom seen in Urumqi. Far from being feminist role models, Guli and her friends were soft-spoken women, piously covered from head to toe. They were not used to big public displays, much less leading mass protests and facing down armed troops in the middle of the street.
“Weren’t you afraid to protest after what happened to your men?” I asked one middle-aged woman in the group. She threw the question back at me, “When you have so little and they take away your husband and your son, what more do you fear?”
It all then began to make sense. I looked around and saw that the Uighurs were living in a neighbourhood where their children still played on dirt streets and their homes little more than concrete shacks. Just a few blocks away in a Han Chinese neighbourhood, new apartments with walkways and manicured gardens had been erected. Clearly the wealth creation in Xinjiang that the Chinese government boasts about has benefited more Chinese than Uighurs.
A Uighur man tapped me on the shoulder and, identifying himself as a government official, politely asked me to leave. By then the women, united in their grief and perhaps emboldened by the presence of a journalist, had become highly emotional and angry. I wanted to hear more of their stories, but the official was right, my continued presence could endanger the women.
I walked away from them, realising the government’s crackdown had literally brought the conflict to their very doorstep. As desperation and longing made them zealous warriors for a cause that once belonged mainly to men, these women have become new recruits in Xinjiang’s bloody ethnic strife.
Kevin Lee is a freelance journalist based in China. He covered the Xinjiang unrest as well as other major events in the region like the Tibet riots, the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics.
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