Hundreds of thousands of Uyghur female religious leaders are estimated to have been arrested and imprisoned in Xinjiang since 2014, with some elderly women detained for practices that took place decades ago, according to an analysis of leaked Chinese police files.
There is growing evidence of the abusive treatment of the Uyghur Muslim population of the north-west Chinese region of Xinjiang, with their traditions and religion seen as evidence of extremism and separatism.
New analysis of leaked police files found more than 400 women – some more than 80 years old – were sentenced by Chinese police for wearing religious clothing and acquiring or spreading religious knowledge. Most were sentenced for studying the Qur’an, said researchers from the US-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, who used analysis of the files to extrapolate that hundreds of thousands of women were likely to have been detained, in total.
In 2017, Patihan Imin, 70, was sentenced to six years in prison. Her “crimes” included studying the Qur’an between April and May 1967, wearing conservative religious dress between 2005 and 2014, and keeping an electronic Qur’an reader at home.
Another woman, Ezizgul Memet, was charged with illegally studying scripture with her mother for three days “in or around” February 1976, when she was just five or six years old. She was detained on 6 July 2017 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The police files were initially published in 2022 by several media outlets, including the BBC, but this is the first time the treatment of Uyghur female religious leaders has been analysed by researchers. Previous testimony from women confined in camps in Xinjiang revealed they have allegedly been subjected to forced sterilisation, abortion, sexual assault and marriage by the Chinese government.
Other charges included wearing “illegal religious clothing”, purchasing or keeping religious books at home, attending “illegal religious gatherings”, and even organising a wedding without music – which is officially seen as a sign of religious extremism, the report said.
The longest recorded sentence was given to Aytila Rozi, 35, who received 20 years for learning to read the Qur’an while working in inner China in 2007, as well as teaching and studying the Qur’an with a small group of women between 2009 and 2011.
In China, state narratives have portrayed Uyghur women who acted as religious figures in the community as “dupes of religious extremism”, but researchers say religion is an important vehicle for female agency and expression in Uyghur communities.
Rachel Harris, professor of ethnomusicology at Soas University of London and co-author of the new report, said the ustaz (urban female leaders who embraced reformist styles of Islam coming from the Middle East in the 1980s) used religion to pursue education and participate in international trade.
Meanwhile, the büwi (female religious leaders primarily in rural Uyghur communities) held significant power in society, and were responsible for leading birth and death rituals, teaching children and overseeing women’s religious and cultural activities.
“The government narrative was that women needed to be liberated from religious oppression. They really took that [agency] away in the name of liberating women,” said Harris.
While the ustaz still play a prominent role among the Uyghur diaspora, few büwi traditions have survived, said Harris. “The culture of the büwi, including their poetry and songs and religious gatherings, that’s been repressed and suppressed,” she said.
The report comes as the UK, US and other countries condemned Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs in a rare scrutiny of the country’s human rights record at the UN last week. The UK called on Beijing to “cease the persecution and arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and Tibetans and allow genuine freedom of religion or belief and cultural expression.”
In response, China’s UN ambassador Chen Xu said the concerns were caused by “misunderstanding or misinformation”, and that “a few countries groundlessly accuse and smear China, based not on facts but on ideological bias and unfounded rumours and lies”.