- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
In the Chinese region of Xinjiang, home to a large population of the country’s Muslim Uighur minority, government workers are encouraging women to cast off their headscarves in the name of good looks. Called "Project Beauty," the government-backed campaign has reportedly taken over the streets of Kashgar, one of the few cities in China where a significant number of women don the veil for religious reasons. De facto beauty police staff street-side stalls and single out veiled women, recording their images with a surveillance camera and even making them watch a re-education film "about the joys of exposing their faces."
The effort is an underhanded campaign to put beauty ideals to work in the name of national security. States have long tried to restrict the veil among Muslim women, often through formal decree. But China is taking something of a soft-power approach and telling China’s Muslim women to unveil and show their pretty faces.
What isn’t said is that the true aim of that campaign is to make it easier to track members of a restive minority group.
China’s ruling party has tried to ban veiling at various points in its history, but its policies on the practice have come under scrutiny amid charges by human rights groups that the government is carrying out a campaign of religious repression and persecution against Uighurs. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have fingered Xinjiang’s Uighur population as a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Uighurs counter that China’s anti-terrorism laws disproportionately target Muslims. The ensuing tension has resulted in violent clashes in recent years and the poisonous relations between the Chinese government and Uighurs took a sharp turn for the worse in October when Uighurs were blamed for a deadly attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
The question of Uighur women’s right to wear a veil is one among several points of contention. In 2011, notices prohibiting the practice began popping up in Muslim cities in Western China, according to the AP. The campaign’s stated aim was to rid the country of the "abnormal phenomenon … of minority ethnic women and youth wearing Arabian dress, growing beards, and covering their faces in veils." In 2013, Radio Free Asia reported that a Uighur woman in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, was evicted from her rental apartment for wearing a veil. Chinese authorities haven’t been particularly forthcoming about the state’s anti-veiling policies, often claiming to be are unaware of such edicts, or declining to comment on the matter altogether. But officials in Xinjiang have been found to keep detailed records of Muslim Uighurs, which include notes about who wears a veil and who doesn’t.
At least six countries have banned or limited veiling in public spheres — France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Tunisia — usually on grounds of state secularism. China, by contrast, aims to regulate Muslim dress in large part as a counter-terrorism measure. The obvious implication is that the mere practice of Islam represents a threat to national security, an argument China’s Uighurs understandably haven’t taken to kindly. The government’s counterterror initiative is seen among Uighurs as an attempt to dilute and homogenize their culture. In trying to bring the province’s separatist movement to heel, the Chinese government has demolished historic sites and restricted religious freedom in Xinjiang. What the Chinese government views as a campaign to subdue a restive region, Uighurs see as a war on their culture.
And "Project Beauty" can certainly be viewed though that lens. The campaign plays on the familiar notion that beauty is more valuable to women than other facets of their identities, including religious belief. A woman focused on her appearance, the logic goes, is hardly a threat to the state. What better way to politically neutralize women, after all, than to call upon an approach tried and tested by politicians, advertisers, and husbands for hundreds of years?