Xinjiang Authorities Tighten Controls Over Muslim Women

April 27, 2010

The Communist Party-controlled women's federation in the far western region of Xinjiang has strengthened efforts in the past year to control the religious practices of Muslim women. The Federation has carried out activities to regulate Muslim women religious specialists and to urge women to remove veils and face coverings. The Federation reported carrying out one local campaign in coordination with government offices, while a separate Communist Party office in another locality reported it would increase monitoring of Muslim women religious specialists. The restrictions on the women's religious freedom come as authorities have instituted broader campaigns targeting "religious extremism" and other perceived threats to the region's stability.

The Communist Party-controlled Women's Federation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has strengthened measures in the past year to regulate the religious activities of Muslim women, according to recent reports from the region. It carried out at least one prefectural campaign in coordination with government offices, while a separate Communist Party office in another locality reported it would increase monitoring of Muslim women religious specialists. The efforts build on previous official steps in recent years to interfere in the religious activities of Muslim women. See previous Congressional-Executive Commission on China analyses (1, 2, 3) for more information. Recent developments include:

Regulating Women Religious Figures

The XUAR Women's Federation reported in recent months on steps taken in the past year to strengthen control over women religious specialists known in Uyghur as büwi (Mandarin: buwei, translation into English following Ildikó Bellér-Hann, Community Matters in Xinjiang 1880-1949, Leiden: Brill, 2008, 469). As described in a previous CECC analysis, the XUAR Women's Federation proposed in late 2008 that büwi be brought under government and Party management. The Federation's proposal stated that büwi existed in a "no-man's land" without state oversight and called for taking advantage of the women's social status to spread the Party's religious and ethnic policies among Muslim women. As of that time, some local governments already had reported incorporating büwi into training classes for religious leaders. Since then, the XUAR Women's Federation has described increasing education and training of büwi and maintaining a semimonthly contact system between büwi and women Party members, to ensure büwi do not engage in "illegal religious activities," spread "heresies," or apply "spiritual pressure" to other women, according to a January 12, 2010, report by a XUAR Women's Federation Party official (via the All-China Women's Federation News site from People's Daily). In Hoten district, 2,010 Party members reportedly were involved in a contact system with 1,833 büwi, which "effectively restrained women from participating in illegal religious activities and ethnic separatist activities," according to the report.

In addition, in April 2010, the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture Women's Federation reported that in 2009, the Federation, in coordination with local government offices, established "Measures on the Management of Büwi," which "standardized and purified" the ranks of these religious figures, according to an April 2 report on the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture government Web site. The XUAR Women's Federation and Ili branch also reported carrying out a campaign to "weaken religious consciousness and uphold a civilized and healthy life," according to both reports. (See also a previous CECC analysis that discusses this campaign.)

In addition to the Women's Federation-led campaigns, the Kashgar district leading group office for the "study and practice of the scientific development concept" reported in October 2009 that Kashgar municipality would increase oversight of büwi as part of work to "safeguard stability," according to an October 13 report from the Kashgar district government Web site (also available at a cached page). According to the report, büwi are among seven categories of people under scrutiny. Authorities will register the people, "closely follow their actual demeanor," and increase "supervision and education" of the groups. According to the report, other people targeted for oversight include people released from "reform through labor" and "reeducation through labor," people dismissed from their posts as religious personnel, people who have gone on unauthorized pilgrimages, and people who have been out of the locality for long periods, among other groups.

Campaigns Targeting Women Who Wear Veils and Face Coverings

XUAR Women's Federation reports from recent months also indicate the organization has continued steps to influence the way Muslim women dress. (See a previous CECC analysis for information on past XUAR Women's Federation efforts and other CECC analyses 1, 2 for information on broader official efforts addressing women who wear veils or face coverings.) At pilot sites in Urumqi, the Federation launched activities that included investigating and registering women who veiled their faces, interviewing them, and sending in cadres for face-to-face talks, according to a November 20, 2009, report from the XUAR Women's Federation (via the All-China Women's Federation News site from People's Daily). The Federation's "persuasion" and "reformatory education" made the women "realize that wearing a veil is not a form of expression of ethnic dress but rather of extreme religion, an expression of a type of ignorant and backward way of thinking, and an expression not suited for the developments of the times," according to the report. After more than two months of effort by the Women's Federation, a number of women in the pilot areas, who had covered their faces, removed their veils and took part in various types of training and "healthy cultural activities," according to the article. In the January 2010 report, the XUAR Women's Federation official said that the organization also launched a campaign called "Let Beautiful Hair Flutter, Let Beautiful Faces Be Revealed," to enable ethnic minority women to "discern what is traditional ethnic dress" and to address why women should "take the initiative to not wear a veil." According to the report, over 90 percent of women in areas such as the southern part of the XUAR voluntarily removed their veils. At pilot sites in Urumqi, the number of women covering their faces dropped from a figure of 35 percent before the July 2009 demonstrations and rioting in the city to 6.8 percent, according to the report. The measures targeting Muslim women come as authorities in the XUAR have tightened security campaigns in the region, targeting "religious extremism" among continuing perceived threats to the region's stability.

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV―Xinjiang in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.