International Women’s Day 2016

March 7, 2016
Rebiya Kadeer, right, at the ISLC conference (photo courtesy Radio Free Asia)

Rebiya Kadeer, right, at the ISFLC conference (photo courtesy Radio Free Asia)

On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2016, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) posts a speech on the condition of Uyghur women’s human rights made by Uyghur democracy leader Rebiya Kadeer on February 27, 2016.

At the recent International Students For Liberty Conference held in Washington, D.C. from February 26-28, 2016, Ms. Rebiya Kadeer led a session titled Defending Liberty With Rebiya Kadeer and Women Activists from Around the World. Women for Liberty activists from South Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States joined Ms. Kadeer to discuss women’s rights across the globe.

Ms. Kadeer’s speech focused on the long history of women’s leadership in the Uyghur community, her own experiences in the struggle for women’s rights and the most important issues facing Uyghur women today. Ms. Kadeer’s presentation ended with a reminder that despite China’s obligations to meet rights standards for women through international and domestic legal instruments, the government has a record of violating the human rights of Uyghur women.

Remarks by Rebiya Kadeer

I would like to thank the International Students For Liberty for inviting me to speak today. This conference is wonderful opportunity to discuss the progress women have made on the global stage, as well as the great deal of work still ahead of us. It is reassuring to know that a new generation of activists is ready to take up the cause of guaranteeing the rights of women across the world.

Women have customarily assumed a leading role in Uyghur society. The strong position of women in Uyghur life is exemplified throughout history in individuals such as Amannisa Khan, who in the 16th century collected the music and songs of the 12 Muqam that serve as the cornerstone of Uyghur artistry. In women such as Iparhan, the so-called Fragrant Concubine, and Nozugum, a participant in the Kashgar uprising of 1825-26, who both resisted the Qing Dynasty occupation of East Turkestan in the 18th century. And in women such as Rizwangul, a nurse during the defense of the Second East Turkestan Republic from Chinese forces, who died in 1945 protecting Uyghur soldiers.

This tradition of Uyghur women’s leadership and resistance against injustice continues into today. In 2008 over 600 women protested in Khotan over discriminatory Chinese government policies and in 2014 up to 25 women were arrested in Kucha for resisting new curbs on their religious expression. Journalists Mehbube Ablesh and Gulmire Imin were imprisoned in 2008 and 2010 respectively for their writing on Chinese repression. In 2013, Atikem Rozi, a young Uyghur student, was detained after speaking out about the authorities’ denial of her passport application on the basis of her ethnicity.

In the wake of the unrest in Urumchi in July 2009 when thousands of Uyghur men were indiscriminately detained in security sweeps of Uyghur neighborhoods, it was Uyghur women who confronted armed Chinese police to demand information on the whereabouts of their loved ones. In an iconic image from the period, a lone Uyghur woman stands before a looming Chinese armed personnel carrier halting its progress in an attempt to put a stop to the crackdown on Uyghurs in Urumchi.

Patigul Gulam is still looking for her son, who disappeared during the unrest. In response to requests for information, the police have repeatedly “arrested, bullied, insulted, and humiliated her.” To her tormenters she merely says: “I don’t have a gun, I have only my mouth and my tears, and you cannot control them.”

From my own experience, I understand the challenges facing these Uyghur women. In the face of official barriers and corruption, I managed to build a successful trading company and a department store in Urumchi, and while traveling all over my homeland as a businesswoman I witnessed the eradication of my people’s religion, language and identity.

I served as a delegate to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, as well as a delegate to the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 in the hope of pushing the Chinese government toward a more tolerant approach on Uyghur human rights.

However, Beijing’s attitude toward me changed when I criticized China’s treatment of the Uyghurs during a National People’s Congress session in March 1997. I had demanded the Chinese government honor the autonomy conferred on the Uyghur people and respect their human rights. I also criticized China’s harsh crackdown of a Uyghur demonstration that had taken place a month earlier in Ghulja.

Following this speech, I refocused my efforts to help my people out of poverty, give opportunities to marginalized Uyghurs and speak out against the injustices. Through the “Thousand Mothers Movement“, which was established in December 1997, I attempted to empower Uyghur women to start their own businesses.

I was arrested in 1999 while on my way to meet with a U.S. Congressional delegation that was visiting East Turkestan to investigate the human rights situation and, following a secret trial, was handed an eight-year prison sentence in March 2000. I spent over five years in inhumane conditions, two of them in solitary confinement. In prison I saw for myself the torture and cruelty enacted on my people by the Chinese authorities, and it is known that Uyghur women are not protected from sexual violence and torture while in detention.

The Chinese government’s efforts to silence my voice backfired as my case received widespread international attention particularly with Amnesty International’s tireless advocacy. In 2000 I was honored by Human Rights Watch and in 2004, awarded the Thorolf Rafto Foundation for Human Rights Memorial Prize. On March 17, 2005, I was released from prison, traveled to the United States and granted refugee status. Without the help of complete strangers, I cannot even imagine where I would be now.

In exile, the struggle to realize Uyghur women’s human rights is represented in the Washington, DC based International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation, which I founded in September 2005. In addition to raising awareness on women and children’s issues, the foundation organizes an annual Uyghur Women’s Workshop. Its objectives are to introduce the principles of human rights and democracy to Uyghur women and to encourage them to be more actively involved in the human rights and democracy movement. Prestigious experts, government officials, and human rights activists give presentations and conduct interactive training on democracy and human rights.  The annual workshop is a good opportunity for Uyghur women to participate in civic life and to promote human rights and democracy for the Uyghur people.

In November 2006, I was elected as president of the World Uyghur Congress, which represents the collective interests of the Uyghur diaspora, both in East Turkestan and in countries throughout the world. This work has enabled me to explain the plight of the Uyghur people in meetings with world leaders, such as President Bush in 2007 and 2008 and Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan in 2006. While nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize and the honor of receiving the 2015 Lantos Human Rights Prize have been sources of personal recognition, I think of them as advocacy opportunities to shine a light on the repressive policies targeting millions of voiceless Uyghurs.

In whatever environment I find myself, whether it is with presidents or grassroots human rights advocates, my only concern is improving the condition of the Uyghur people, in particular Uyghur women. As with women in other areas of the world, Uyghur women are subjected to the indignities of human trafficking and to the deprivations of poverty; however, Uyghur women are also subjected to rights abuses that are specific to their situation.

While the Chinese government recruits Han Chinese from other parts of China to take jobs in East Turkestan, the authorities use intimidation, threats, and deception to recruit Uyghurs to participate in a labor transfer program to urban factories in eastern China. The government focuses its aggressive recruitment efforts primarily on young, marriage-age Uyghur women and girls from predominantly Uyghur areas such as southern East Turkestan, which is a bastion of Uyghur culture and tradition. Thousands of Uyghur women and young girls have been removed from their communities and families in East Turkestan and placed into abusive and poor working conditions in eastern China under this program.

Against the backdrop of the government’s intense repression of all Uyghurs’ practice of religion and independent expressions of ethnicity, the authorities have singled out Uyghur women. Local governments have reported efforts to prevent women from wearing head coverings, investigate or reduce the wearing of headscarves, and change women’s clothing habits. In 2013, Kashgar authorities developed an initiative called “Project Beauty,” in which state officials encouraged local women not to wear headscarves or veils. Government workers occupied street stalls in order to detect women wearing the offending clothing in public. Once they had been identified, women wearing headscarves or veils were filmed using surveillance cameras and forced to watch a film on the benefits of unveiling. Officials have also implemented measures to politically train or regulate the activities of Uyghur female religious figures (known as buwi in Uyghur) and impose limits on women’s access to mosques.

The coercive and abusive family planning practices to which Uyghur women have been subjected mean some Uyghur women are not in control of their fertility. Individuals, acting in the capacity of the state, such as family planning officials, have forcibly taken Uyghur women from their homes and have subjected them to forced abortions and forced sterilizations. Uyghur women have suffered permanent health damage or even died as a result of negligent surgery during these forced operations. Population planning officials’ career advancement is routinely linked to their enforcement of set birth quotas and this has created an incentive structure for officials to use strong-arm measures.

Uyghurs, including college graduates who are fluent in Mandarin Chinese, are systematically subjected to blatant and overwhelming employment discrimination for both government jobs and private sector jobs (including private sector jobs publicized by local governments) in East Turkestan. Uyghur women are subjected to discrimination both because they are Uyghur and because they’re female. Online notices for state-sector set forth explicit ethnic and gender requirements that demonstrate a clear bias in favor of Han Chinese applicants and against Uyghurs and other non-Han groups, as well as against women of any ethnicity.

The rights of women are protected in the normative human rights standards outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Under international law, China is obliged to ensure the rights of women through the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. China’s domestic laws, such as the Constitution and the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law, have strong provisions on women’s rights. Despite this international and domestic legal framework, violations are rife. I encourage you to add your voice to realize Uyghur women’s human rights and let Chinese officials know the challenges facing Uyghur women are recognized the world over.


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