BEIJING—China’s campaign of repression against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang is brutal even by the standards of the worst authoritarian regimes. Since at least 2017, Beijing’s policies have included the mass internment of an estimated 1 million members of ethnic minorities, widespread surveillance, alleged forced labor, alleged forced abortions and sterilizations, the destruction of prayer sites and ethnic neighborhoods, and the desecration of burial sites. In January before leaving office, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled China’s treatment of the Uyghurs a genocide. China says its campaign is a legitimate push against terrorism and separatism, after sporadic bouts of violence rocked the region in recent decades.
ABOUT THE PHOTOS: Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, photographer Roxi Pop directed remote photo sessions via WhatsApp, guiding the women’s family members—often their children—to take portraits of the women inside their homes around the world. Many didn’t want to reveal their exact locations or their children’s names.
Women have found themselves the targets of some of Beijing’s cruelest tactics. Last year, researcher Adrian Zenz found the region poured $37 million into programs—featuring forced sterilizations and IUD implantations—meant to slash birth rates, which dropped 24 percent in 2019 in Xinjiang compared with 4.2 percent nationwide.
But women have also been the fiercest fighters for Uyghur freedom and self-empowerment. More and more Uyghur and Kazakh women who managed to escape China have come out in the past year and spoken about their experiences, despite threats from Chinese state security against them and their families back in Xinjiang. In 2019, a Uyghur woman, Asiye Abdulahed, leaked the first trove of secret files that documented the camps’ existence—a move that unleashed a flood of threats against her and her family.
But besides sharing publicly harrowing accounts, Xinjiang women have used their professions—whether journalism, law, literature, or art—to create momentum for their resistance. “I think, indeed, Uyghur women are the most vulnerable in this genocide,” said Rayhan Asat, a Washington-based Uyghur lawyer who is campaigning for the release of her brother, Ekpar Asat, from detainment in Xinjiang. “Their bodily autonomy has been violated through sexual, medical means and forced labor.”
Women have testified in front of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations as well as spoke to the media, including sharing horrific details of physical and sexual abuse. Their testimonies have garnered support for the Uyghur cause and prompted some pushback against Beijing. Last year, the United States enacted a law sanctioning Chinese officials responsible for Xinjiang policies and has since moved to ban imports of goods, including cotton and tomatoes, believed to involve forced labor. A group of 39 nations led by Germany in October 2020 condemned Beijing over its Xinjiang policies, though concrete measures are yet to be taken. Rights groups are calling for the boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics over China’s treatment of the Uyghurs among other issues.
“But then there’s another story,” Asat continued. “We see the survivors and all these advocates so loudly fighting for their loved ones. It’s heart-wrenching stories, but it’s also powerful stories of women reclaiming their power, agency, and voice back from the very government that imposed this state-sanctioned terror on them and on their body autonomy.”
Beijing’s victimization of women from Xinjiang has spurred many of them to transcend their suffering. Women are the primary victims of China’s crackdowns and Xinjiang’s crisis; they are also the leaders of the movement helping to define the world’s understanding of both.
Gulruy Asqar was working as a second-grade teacher in Memphis, Tennessee in the fall of 2016 when she received news that members of her family had been detained in Xinjiang. In November that year, she wire-transferred the equivalent of $10,000 she had borrowed from her nephew Ekram Yarmuhemmed, who lives in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to help pay for her family’s mortgage in the United States. Shortly after Yarmuhemmed confirmed he had received the money, he was taken away, allegedly for an investigation. A few months later, his brother, Behram, was detained as well.
Asqar’s instinct was to publicize her nephews’ disappearances in the United States. Her brother-in-law had also been detained around the same time. But her mother, whom she kept in touch with over Skype and the Chinese app WeChat, insisted she remain quiet to not make matters worse.
“We have a mentality of ‘learn helplessness,’” Asqar said of the Uyghurs. Repeated crackdowns on peaceful protests over the decades have led parents to teach their children inaction, she said. But her silence came at the cost of her well-being. She started having insomnia and persistent stomachaches that doctors couldn’t pin on anything other than stress. During a post-evaluation conference at school, she broke down in tears.
Back in Xinjiang, things only got worse. In April 2018, Asqar lost contact with her mother. Thousands of Skype calls went unanswered. Her older brother, a renowned linguist, was detained in January 2019. After months of not being able to contact her family, a close relative of Asqar’s added her on WeChat to convey one brief message: “Every man in the family is gone.”
“The agony became big,” Asqar said. At her moment of deepest despair, women protesters of 2009—when Urumqi was rocked by deadly ethnic clashes—provided an alternative model, one based on action. “Those women took a stand in that chaotic, oppressive environment,” she said. “They taught me a lesson: If only there’s oppression, there’s resistance.”
Asqar told her husband it felt wrong to continue living like a coward. “We were quiet for two years,” she said. “I said, ‘no, it’s time to wake up. We need to find journalists.’”
The first person Asqar reached out to was Gulchehra Hoja, a reporter for Radio Free Asia in Washington. Hoja, herself a Uyghur, had been reporting on the crackdown in Xinjiang since its early phases. The Chinese government ratcheted up its repression after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the region in 2014 in the wake of a terror attack by Uyghur separatists. In 2017, Xi ordered erecting a “wall of steel” around Xinjiang. His vision was further implemented by Chinese Communist Party boss Chen Quanguo, who took charge of Xinjiang in August 2016 after a stint in Tibet. Chen is believed to be the main architect of the current clampdown, including the network of internment camps.
In January 2018, Hoja published the first known interview with a camp survivor, Omurbek Eli. It was a watershed moment for the Xinjiang narrative, substantiating what until then had been mainly suspicions about Beijing’s policies. But it came at a cost.
The day the interview came out, Hoja lost contact with all her family members in Xinjiang. She called and called, but no one answered. A few days later, she received a phone call from a Uyghur student in the United States whose parents were neighbors of Hoja’s parents.
“Sister,” the student, who remains anonymous for safety reasons, said, “did you know your parents and 20-some other relatives were taken away, were arrested because of you?”
Hoja described the ensuing period as the most difficult of her life. She felt pressured to choose between her work and the lives and safety of her family members. Later, she discovered some of her colleagues at Radio Free Asia also had loved ones in the camps but had kept quiet, hoping the situation would improve. It became clear to Hoja that silence wasn’t an option anymore.
“When you lose everything, you don’t have fear anymore,” she said. “I thought, ‘OK, then. I have my own story to tell.’”
She began an all-out effort to rally support for her family. In July 2018, she testified before U.S. Congress, setting an example for other Uyghurs, whose stories started trickling out in ensuing months. One by one, Hoja started hearing that her relatives were being released from the camps. Now, she is allowed to speak to her mother occasionally, but the older woman must notify police in Xinjiang every time she receives a call from her daughter. Hoja was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in May 2020.
Asqar’s decision to speak to journalists was similarly successful. After stories about her missing family members appeared in several international publications, a relative reached out to her on WeChat.
“Do you have any good news about your children who are in the hospital?” Asqar asked—a code name for her imprisoned nephews. That’s when she learned one nephew had been released from the camps. Her older brother was freed a few months later. Ekram and her brother-in-law remain in detention.
What happens inside the camps can be hard to describe. Sophia, a Xinjiang woman who escaped China in late 2018, asked that her real name not be revealed because her residence status is currently being processed in the country where she now lives. Sophia was detained for 6 1/2 months in 2018 in a camp in Urumqi, the official reason being that she had traveled abroad. International travel is among several seemingly arbitrary reasons that minorities in Xinjiang have reported being detained for. Others include having relatives abroad; having banned apps, such as WhatsApp, on their phones; or praying.
For weeks after her release, Sophia had a hard time speaking, looking people in the eye, or even holding her head up high. All she could think about was getting out of Xinjiang. Still, she wanted to express herself, so she turned to drawing. Her harrowing pencil drawings show scenes from inside the camps: long lines of shackled detainees being brought out in the camp’s yard to see the sun and women showering in bathrooms with surveillance cameras, undergoing weekly body checks, or receiving unidentified injections that, Sophia said, makes their menstrual periods stop.
Life inside the camps flowed according to a strict routine. Mornings would start with a cell inspection during which 20-something women had to salute the guards by shouting, “Long live Xi Jinping!” Afterward, the women would sit on their dirty mattresses with their backs straight and hands on their knees for two hours until classes started. Some detainees studied Mandarin Chinese while others underwent political indoctrination. Meals consisted of steamed buns and vegetable soup served out of dirty plastic bowls. Sophia showed me a receipt for 1,800 yuan (around $276)—the amount she was required to pay upon her release for the food she consumed while inside the camp.
Beatings were regular, said Zumret Dawut, a Uyghur businesswoman who spent two months inside a camp in Urumqi in 2018. They occurred if detainees were thought to be religious, if they talked back, or even if they performed small acts of kindness. One evening, Dawut shared her bread with an older woman who said she was suffering from diabetes and was not getting enough food. The next day, she did the same thing. Suddenly, two guards came out of nowhere and beat Dawut heavily. She called for God. “If your Allah is so great, call him,” one guard said, “and let him save you.” After her beating, Dawut said the guards gave her medicine that had a tranquilizing effect. She was told she had “level-one disease”—being infected with the “religious virus.”
Dawut was released in May 2018 after her husband, a Pakistani citizen, pleaded with his embassy in Beijing, with state security officials in Xinjiang, and finally threatened to speak to a foreign journalist. In January 2019, the couple and their three children were allowed to leave China for Pakistan, from where they eventually relocated to the United States.
Before her departure, Dawut said she was forced to undergo sterilization. Xinjiang authorities reportedly said that because she already had three children, she was not allowed to have more. Local police and state security in Urumqi did not answer Foreign Policy’s faxed questions about her claims.
Dawut’s and other camp survivors’ testimonies cannot be independently verified as China prohibits foreign journalists and diplomats from freely accessing the camps. However, the women’s stories align with other survivor testimonies and with Xinjiang policies aimed at slashing birth rates and ridding minorities of what China calls “ideological viruses.”
Beijing vehemently denies the accusations. Reports of forced IUD implantations, sterilizations, and abortions “are scandalous remarks with malicious purpose,” said Xu Guixiang, deputy spokesperson for the Xinjiang regional government, during a Jan. 11 press conference in Beijing.
Read More Why Erdogan Has Abandoned the Uyghurs As Ankara grows more economically dependent on Beijing, the Turkish government is no longer offering a safe haven or defending Uyghur rights. Argument | Kuzzat Altay
“People of all ethnic groups independently choose safe, effective, and appropriate birth control measures. There has been no such a problem of ‘mandatory sterilization’ in the region,” Xu said.
According to women’s testimonies, however, intrusion of their bodies may be done by local authorities who, from vaguely defined policies, use coercion to get them to comply. Such was the case of Gulziya Mogdin, a Kazakh woman from northern Xinjiang who had moved to and married in Kazakhstan. In September 2017, she visited her hometown. Local police demanded she return with her children to register, at which point they confiscated her documents. On Dec. 25 that year police showed up at her house at midnight and took her to the hospital for medical tests—commonly the first step before women are taken to the camps. There, they found out Mogdin was pregnant.
Authorities spent weeks pressuring her to get an abortion, Mogdin said. She refused, so in January 2018, she was called into a local government office along with her brother. Officials told her if she didn’t get an abortion, her brother would be held accountable. She acquiesced. Months later, after her husband asked the Kazakh government to intervene, she was allowed to return to Kazakhstan. Later, she learned her brother had been taken to the camps anyway, where he was held for about a year.
Xinjiang women have long been pressured by Beijing to participate in its assimilation campaign. Hoja, the Radio Free Asia journalist, remembers that when she worked as a reporter for Xinjiang TV in Urumqi, the government required that she produce programs encouraging Uyghur parents to send their children to boarding schools where they would be taught exclusively in Mandarin Chinese.
The policies tightened gradually. In 2011, Xinjiang launched the “Project Beauty” campaign asking women to stop wearing veils and traditional long dresses, among other things.
“The Chinese government tried to brainwash the Uyghur woman by saying that if you braid your hair or if you have long hair, you are backward; if you wear a veil or a hijab, that means you’re an extremist,” said Zubayra Shamseden, a Chinese-outreach coordinator for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington-based nonprofit.
The government aims to “completely reengineer the Uyghur woman” to unlock a higher level of Uyghur assimilation, she said. “They want to get rid of the Uyghur cultural identity, the Uyghurness of the Uyghur woman.”
Reports also abound of forced marriages between minority women and Han men. Women may be offered a deal by local officials: Marry a Han man in exchange for having a brother or a father released from detention. Another policy that interferes deeply with women’s lives is the “Pair Up and Become Family” program, which has seen more than 1 million Han officials move in with minority families. A common scenario is a Uyghur family’s father figure is detained while a Han man lives with the Uyghur woman and children. Beijing describes the program as successful.
A kaleidoscopic view of Xinjiang policies shows that every facet of minority women’s lives has been disrupted, Hoja said, starting from childhood—when girls are separated from their families and sent to boarding schools—into married life and through old age. Even in death, women cannot rest. The remains of Uyghurs and other minorities have been removed during the digging up of some cemeteries.
So amid all this oppression, where do Xinjiang women draw their power from to stand up and fight back?
Asat, the lawyer, sees it as a mix of factors. First, compared to other predominantly Muslim cultures, religion doesn’t feature as prominently for urban Uyghur families, which helps put women on a more equal footing with men, Asat said.
“Uyghur women have historically had an equal position with men,” she said. “They have taken leadership roles in their professions, even at home. In households, women have always had a voice—if not a stronger voice (than men). And Uyghur moms made sure that that was the culture they passed on to the next generation.”
With many of the men absent—in prisons, factories, or other forms of detainment—Xinjiang women have been pushed to step forward and fight for their families. “Love gives them the very courage they need to go against the world’s most powerful authoritarian state,” Asat said.
The energy women have expended in their fight comes back to them in the form of encouragement from family members and strangers. Asqar, the teacher who was inspired by women protesters, received consolation from her own twin daughters in the dark days of 2019 when she learned her mother had died. The poems she wrote during her insomnia-ridden nights have struck a chord with the Uyghur community; positive feedback gives Asqar a feeling of self-actualization.
For many women interviewed for this story, the most alarming aspect of the Xinjiang crackdown is that it seems to be aimed at accelerating government-led assimilation. From that perspective, simply passing on the Uyghur language, culture, and traditions has become an act of resistance.
Every time she walks her 7-year-old daughter, Uyghuriye Weli, to school, Mihrigul Mosa tells her a story about Uyghur culture. The girl has taken to calling doves “the Uyghur bird” and shrub roses, used traditionally for jam in Uyghur households, “the Uyghur flower.” Mosa, her husband, and their two daughters live in Bergen, Norway. They haven’t been able to contact their families in Xinjiang for more than three years. Severed family ties weigh heavily on the children; once, Mosa received a call from Weli’s classroom teacher because the girl had started crying from anxiety that her grandmother would die before she could ever see her again.
The girls’ heritage contains both the pain of separation and the power drawn from expressing their culture. Weli is at her happiest, her mother said, when she sings and dances during Sunday Uyghur school. The family is multilingual, but at home, everyone speaks Uyghur.
“I hope she likes it and she learns it and she keeps it,” Mosa said of her daughter using her mother tongue. “And one day, if I don’t but she has a chance to go back to my hometown, she’ll have a common language to speak and communicate with her roots.”
Simina Mistreanu is a Beijing-based journalist (@SiminaMistreanu).
Roxi Pop is a freelance photographer based in Antwerp, Belgium.
Dinara Saliyeva contributed reporting.