Uighur family
Uighur family Reuters

Muslims in China’s far western Xinjiang province have become annoyed and offended by the authorities’ attempts to discourage local Uighur women from wearing veils and men from sporting beards. The Times News Network, an Indian news agency, reported that the provincial government in Xinjiang has tried to exploit womens’ vanity by staging beauty contests designed to highlight the attractiveness of their uncovered faces. The program even has the fanciful title of “Project Beauty.”

Reports indicate that Chinese officials and police have even stopped veiled women on the streets and compelled them to enter brief "re-education" programs to get them to change their fashion styles. Others, including bearded men, are stopped, interrogated and sometimes registered in police files. But there lies a very serious issue underlying all these apparent cosmetic clashes – Beijing fears that activists from the fundamentalist East Turkestan Islamic Movement are seeking to form a separatist state in Xinjiang, independent of China. By stifling Islamic forms of dress and behavior, Chinese officials hope to squelch any separatist fervor among the people.

Various reports from around Xinjiang indicate that Uighur women have been forced to remove their veils to enter certain government buildings, while a hospital in the Uighur-dominated city of Hotan has been asked to report the identity of veiled patients to the state. "Long beards are preferred by terrorists," Meng Xuhui, the chief of the Dunmaili district in Xinjiang province, said, according to TNN. "When we notice some young people suddenly change their [hair and fashion] style, we see that as a signal that they might go [to extremes].”

The local Communist-controlled paper, The Xinjiang Daily, warned against Islamic garb in an op-ed in July. "Some people with ulterior motives are distorting religious teachings [and] inciting young people to do jihad," the piece charged. World Bulletin reported that the official website that promotes "Project Beauty" did not specifically mention banning veils and hijabs, but rather encouraged Uighur women to serve as "practitioners of modern culture." Muslim Uighurs, the largest ethnic group in Xinjiang province, have expressed their resentment over efforts by the state to alter their physical appearance.

In Kashgar, a city of 3.3 million people (more than 2,100 miles west of Beijing), some 90 percent of residents are Uighurs. "We need to hold onto our traditions, and they should understand that," a 25-year-old Uighur woman told Agence France-Presse. AFP noted that veiled women who are picked up by security forces are sometimes made to watch a propaganda film that encourages them to get rid of their Islamic facial coverings. "The movie doesn't change a lot of people's minds," the unnamed female added.

Bordering Pakistan and Central Asia, Xinjiang is dramatically different – culturally, ethnically and religiously – from the overwhelmingly dominant Han Chinese society. Since the Qing dynasty seized control of the vast area in the late 1800s, Uighurs have periodically staged rebellions against military oppression from Beijing, usually leading to even tighter security measures in the province. The Uighurs are Turkic Muslims who have long accused China of religious and political repression; they also fear that large-scale immigration of Han Chinese into their homeland will erode and dilute their unique culture.

Gardner Bovingdon, an expert on Xinjiang affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, explained to AFP that the Communist Party has tried to stamp out Islam and Muslim clothes in the province since the 1949 revolution. Beijing eased such offensives by the 1980s, but recently fears of terrorism and other strategic issues have prompted a crackdown again. Some Uighurs are fighting back. A deadly attack that occurred in Tiananmen Square in Beijing just last month was blamed on Uighur separatists, AFP noted, adding to officials’ concerns about the security in the province. Another attack by Uighurs on police near Kashgar in April killed 21 people.

Indeed, Xinjiang has a bloody and troubled history. In 2009, deadly riots erupted in the capital city of Urumqi between the native Uighurs and the Han Chinese. Western human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have condemned China’s brutal policies in Xinjiang. “The general trend toward repression that we see all over China is particularly pronounced in Xinjiang,” said Catherine Baber, Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific director, in a statement. Amnesty estimates that more than a 1,000 people were detained in the wake of the July 2009 riots, with hundreds more having “disappeared.” Chinese officials have countered that the separatists in Xinjiang are “terrorists” and have possible links with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.