China’s Ban on Islamic Veils Is Destined to Fail

A symbol of Uighur identity is likely to become a touchstone of resistance to the Party-state.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Regional authorities have now outlawed Islamic veils from all public spaces in Urumqi, the regional capital of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The Urumqi ban, which went into effect on Feb. 1 (coincidentally the third annual “World Hijab Day”), empowers Chinese police to punish violators and dole out fines of up to $800 for those who fail to abide by the prohibition.

In recent years, the veil has emerged as a key battleground in the struggle to regain stability in Xinjiang. Stripping women of their head and body coverings provides the Chinese Communist Party with a rare measure of what it sees as progress in the struggle against what it calls “Islamic extremism” in this far western region. However, as officials seek to eliminate veiling, they risk further straining an already fragile relationship between the Uighur ethnic minority, a predominantly Muslim group for whom Xinjiang is their homeland, and a party machine dominated by the Han ethnic majority and its cultural values.

With hundreds killed in violent attacks in Xinjiang since 2012, the party has ramped up its efforts to eradicate a range of veiling practices among Uighur women. The new rules (translated here) emerged in January when the Xinjiang legislature ratified a local regulation banning women from donning full-face veils and body coverings in public spaces in Urumqi. According to officials, this attire “prevents security personnel from knowing the identity of veiled individuals,” and therefore poses a threat to public security.

Yet there is a lack of clarity over the precise styles of head and body covering the rules prohibit. The term used in the regulation to describe prohibited conduct, mengmian zhaopao — literally, “to mask the face and/or cover the body with a robe” — is vague and imprecise given the wide variety of veiling practices popular in Xinjiang. The regulation also prohibits other symbols of “religious extremism.”

The ban comes amid a marked increase in veiling among Uighur women since the early 2000s. Party officials have become especially concerned by the popularization of the niqab, jilbab, and heavy-netted veils that cover the entire head (known as tor romal in Uighur), but have also deemed the now highly fashionable hijab — which covers the entire head and shoulders but not the face — as “abnormal” attire. These styles of Islamic veiling, Chinese authorities (and some Uighurs) insist, are alien to Uighur culture.

The Urumqi ban is the latest in a series of local legislative efforts aimed at compelling Uighur women to de-veil. Last year, officials in Qaramay and Ghulja prohibited the “five types” (individuals wearing face veils, jilbab, hijab, long beards, and star-and-crescent clothing) from entering public spaces and boarding public buses. In March 2014, authorities in Turpan, a county-level city in Xinjiang, drafted legislation that would ban the concealment of the face in public. The regulation, which was closely modeled on previous French and Belgian prohibitions, was submitted to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, for consideration.

In place of Islamic veils, the party has promoted colorful ätläs fabric, embroidered doppa hats, and braided hair as “normal” symbols of Uighur femininity. To help set these fashion standards firmly in place, XUAR officials launched “Project Beauty” in 2011: a five-year, $8 million dollar campaign aimed at developing Xinjiang’s fashion and cosmetics industries while encouraging Muslim women to “look towards ‘modern’ culture” by removing their veils. Fashion shows, pageants, and lectures on ethnic policy, ethnic attire, and social etiquette seek to persuade Uighur women to “let their beautiful hair flow and show their pretty faces.”

Meanwhile some local officials have decided to approach veiling with a heavier hand, and sometimes with deadly results. A May 2014 report by Washington, DC-based non-profit Radio Free Asia claims that police in Aksu prefecture fired into a crowd protesting the detention of several women and middle school-aged girls who defied a local school ban on head coverings. During an August 2014 sweep on illegal religious activities in Urumqi, authorities confiscated 259 jilbab, 1265 headscarves, 293 hats, and 50 meters of fabric that could have potentially been used to make illegal “religious” garments. And throughout the region, authorities have heightened surveillance with some local police stations registering veiled women.

Why is the party willing to pour resources into anti-veiling efforts when this clearly provokes the ire of many Uighur? The short answer is that the party has drawn a direct link between veiling and radical Islam and even terrorism. However, the party assault on the veil is based on a superficial and flawed premise: that dress is a reliable indicator of extremism, or even political loyalty.

Conversations the first author has had with dozens of young Uighur men and women make clear that only a tiny minority is turning to radical interpretations of Islam. On the contrary, women (as well as men) attach a range of different meanings to head and body coverings. For some young women, the veil is a sign of membership in a modern, transnational Muslim community, while others see it as primarily a fashion statement or symbol of Uighur identity. For many, the decision to veil is a personal matter that often follows marriage and conforms to Islamic injunctions for female modesty. Other Uighur refuse to cover their heads and consider “imported” styles perversions of Uighur culture and tradition. In short, although a significant number of Uighur have embraced more formulaic Islamic practices, the community continues to debate the boundaries of its identity just like other Muslim communities across the globe.

Yet the party-state is unwilling to allow this debate to play out. From its inception, the party has sought not only to classify and regulate ethnic diversity but define its very content: with museums, textbooks, and even play cards prescribing “standard” and “normal” customs, habits, and costumes. As an inherently fragile regime, the party-state must reassure a wary public, especially Xinjiang’s nearly 10 million-strong Han community, that it remains firmly in control. In the face of ethnic and religious violence, de-veiling has emerged as a convenient marker of “victory” in the battle for social stability.

Similar to tallies of seized explosives and weapons and its lists of detained suspected terrorists, piles of confiscated veils divert public attention away from the social and economic problems that continue to grip Xinjiang. When officials in the Xinjiang city of Kashgar announced that more than 70 percent of veiled women removed their coverings in 2012, it implied officials had also reduced Islamic extremism and shored up stability in the region. Yet the end result is a more intrusive party-state — one intent on hollowing out the few remaining spaces for a self-defined Uighur identity and autonomy.

The party will continue to target head-coverings in Xinjiang, but de-veiling women will likely come at a high cost: a deepening rift of mistrust between the Uighur and the Han-dominated Communist Party. If Uighur voices are left out of the discussion on Islamic dress, as they have been in other social debates, the veil, in its many styles, will continue to evolve as a symbol of Uighur defiance to Chinese rule.

Getty Images

Timothy Grose is an assistant professor of China Studies at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana.
James Leibold is a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Politics and Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

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