The Silk Road trading centre of Kashgar has been Muslim for centuries,
but despite hordes of people thronging the main bazaar, Gulnur’s headscarf
shop had barely any customers.

As violence increased last year in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, home
to mostly Muslim Uighurs, authorities banned veils and other Islamic coverings
— wreaking havoc on her business. “We’re all branded as terrorists because
of a few bad people,” said Gulnur, who is Uighur. “The Chinese don’t
understand that we’re not all the same. Regulations like this will only
alienate people,” she added.

It is an example of the challenges Beijing faces pacifying the region, where
Uighurs accuse the Chinese government of discrimination and restrictions on
language, culture and religion. Xinjiang shares a border with Afghanistan
and Pakistan and is culturally closer to Central Asia than China’s Han
heartland. Authorities blame the violence — which has increased in
intensity and
spread beyond the region in recent years, with more than 200 people killed
in 2014 — on Islamist separatists.

In the past year many forms of Islamic dress have been banned and beards ruled
out for young and middle-aged men as Beijing works to root out what it calls
“religious extremism”. Posters throughout the region list the prohibited
“five abnormal appearances”: face veils, burqas, young women in tight
headscarves, the beard restrictions, and any clothing with a crescent moon
and star logo akin to the Turkish flag.

One propaganda image shows a woman in her 30s with a simple head
covering looking
in a mirror and seeing a smiling face, while a veiled female is confronted
with a skeleton on fire. Taxis throughout the region are not allowed to
pick up customers wearing banned items. The city of Karamay has barred them
from public transport, and Turpan has stopped burqa sales.

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At a bazaar in Hotan, Patigul showed off what was once her most popular item:
a 15 yuan (2.40 dollar) white lace veil covering the bottom half of a
woman’s face and held in place by surgical mask-style straps. “The
government has been discouraging wearing veils for years, but we never
expected a complete ban and it’s hurt business,” she said. “We weren’t
and suddenly couldn’t sell about half our inventory.”

Bearded beauty

A man from Kashgar was jailed for six years in March for growing a
beard and his burqa-wearing wife sentenced to two years, reports said. Beijing
— which says it has brought Xinjiang development and higher living standards
— insists that more conservative forms of dress are foreign imports from
the Middle East and not part of Uighur culture.

Face veils represent a “cultural reverse”, Zeng Cun, the Communist
Party secretary
of Kashgar reportedly said in March. “We have to take strides forward as a
secular, modern country,” he added. France and Belgium have enacted similar
bans on veils, provoking widespread debate unseen in China.

But a traditional Uighur saying declares: “The beauty of language is
in its,expressions,
the beauty of a man is in his beard,” and analysts say the Xinjiang
measures risk backfiring. “There is clearly a stronger emphasis now among
Uighurs on maintaining the religion and practising Islam as the state
insists on ruling what is culturally acceptable,” said David Brophy, a
professor at the University of Sydney and Uighur expert.

“Islam is a central part of people’s identity as Uighurs.” In cities across
Xinjiang, Uighurs and Han Chinese residents live almost entirely
separately, with a heavy security presence in places frequented by Han and
tourists. In some places the very fabric of Uighur city life has fallen
victim to government regulations.

‘A lot of hassle’

Officials across Xinjiang declined to discuss the ban on Islamic clothing or
its effects on small businesses when contacted by AFP. The increase in
violence has also hurt businesses itself, with tourist numbers down nearly
5 percent last year and the Xinjiang government acknowledging that
“influence from terrorist attacks” was a factor.

Eminjan, a seller of traditional knives with a thick moustache, said most of
his business dried up after a group of Uighurs stabbed 31 people to death at
a train station in Kunming in March last year. Like many interviewed for
this story, he preferred to identified by only one name for fear of
government reprisals.

“These knives are not illegal, and they’re a part of Uighur history,” he said.
“But if the police search you and find one, especially for young men, it will
bring you a lot of hassle. So people don’t buy them because it’s not worth
the trouble.” (Benjamin Haas, AFP)

Images: AFP