Since traditional media in China are all state-owned and there is no private audio-visual media, the web has given Uyghurs an important space for self-expression. Although this space is very strictly monitored and Uyghur sites are regularly suppressed as soon as they have gained some popularity among Internet users, many Uyghur personalities have become famous through the web by publishing articles on social issues. Thus, in recent years, we have seen the appearance online of some academics who advocate for the improvement of the status of Uyghur women, especially regarding their place in the family.
From 2010 until mid-2016, the popular social media platform WeChat provided a relatively free space for Uyghurs, who developed a large number of discussion groups on various subjects. Uyghur diaspora members also used WeChat massively, not only to stay in touch with their families and friends, but also to actively participate in the daily life of the Uyghur region. Indeed, Ündidar (the Uyghur name of WeChat) has become a platform for sharing and disseminating knowledge of all kinds. In 2014, on the initiative of an Uyghur professor in the Netherlands who wanted to share her experiences of being a mother in the West, a group on the education of Uyghur mothers was born on WeChat.
The aim of the young professor and mother was to gather Uyghur women in China and abroad into WeChat groups to discuss their different experiences in order to transform the “mothers who raise” into “mothers who educate”. This led to a concrete project in the form of children's libraries, where mothers and children could come together, share books in different languages they have read, and discuss their experiences of putting advice from these books into practice. The aim was to build a physical library in every big and small town where intelligence games and children's books share space with the shelves of books for parents.
Within a few months, groups of mothers emerged in about twenty cities across the Uyghur region, all gathering in a discussion circle on WeChat. Each group had an administrator who decided the group's rules and speaking time for each member. It also provided at least one conference per week by inviting a female personality (from Uyghur society or Uyghur cyberspace) to share her experiences and tips on modern child education. Sometimes they also invited students who have themselves become famous through national or international competitions.
This system of “Mothers on Ündidar” spread extremely fast and was a great success with female, and even male net surfers. To avoid the possibility of any politically-infused interpretations by the authorities, these women refused the participation of male personalities. In this way they could prove that these groups were strictly for mothers who only wanted to educate their children well. Of course, among the rules of the groups, the most important was to respect the Chinese law and avoid any discussion of political subjects. The active participation of women in the home in these groups, whether from abroad or from within the Uyghur region itself, was truly impressive.
Being myself involved in some groups as a speaker, the enthusiasm of Uyghur women from all walks of life who came to listen to the conferences was so strong, as if they had found just what they needed. Within a year, almost 4,000 women participated in these discussions to become “mothers who educate”. In some cities, these Internet users actually created children's libraries, as was the wish of its initiator.
Almost at the same time as these groups of mothers were establishing themselves, a completely different kind of women's group emerged. Uyghur intellectuals gathered in a group of 40 people to discuss various subjects and discuss them with respect for each other’s opinion. I discovered all these other groups thanks to “Wisdom”, a group that was created in early 2014. Participants included writers, poets, businesswomen, professors, women working in publishing, in radio and television, doctors, psychologists, presenters etc. They were for the most part famous personalities in Uyghur society and had very high profiles in the media. Others were abroad, working as professors in universities or doctors. In fact, this group was the source of inspiration for the groups of mothers. In other words, it was an "ethnic and feminine think-tank" that was, as Mattelart et al. (2015) describe, the source of this "empowerment" of Uyghur women.
Each subject discussed in "Wisdom" (the name was later changed to “Solidarity and Future”) was discussed among its members, with active participants then disseminating it to other groups of mothers they were part of. The debates in this group could vary from secularism and religion to homosexuality and homoparentality. Issues such as equal opportunities and minority politics in other countries and the future of Uyghur identity were topics widely debated in this group. There were also groups from each profession, groups of friends from kindergartens, colleges, high schools and universities, training groups, groups of parents of such class, groups of colleagues, groups of people who are from the same place etc. In 2015, a young web star, Umun, created the “Liberal Youths” group, which was made up of secular Uyghur youths who want to liberalise morals in Uyghur society, such as defending homosexuality and/or feminism.
Although there are a few Uyghur intellectuals who defend women's rights by publishing articles on popular forums in the pages of the state’s only women’s magazine Women of Xinjiang or by giving lectures in different places throughout the region, discourse remains within the framework of heteronormativity: they argue like the feminists at the beginning of the century, for the moralisation and responsibility of men towards the family, the children and the sharing of the daily tasks. They insist on the need to feel proud of being a woman in order to maintain their independence and their rights vis-à-vis men, while constantly reminding them of their role as mothers. Stereotypical views of womanhood were highly praised, which in their discourse would necessarily refer to those who were gentle, faithful, virtuous and aspiring to be future mothers. The discourse always came back to the role of housewives as a mother. Family, school, and media were all factors that contributed in the generation and transmission of these social and cultural expectations around gender roles.
All these groups and activities ended one after the other from mid-2016, especially after the arrival of the new party secretary of the region Chen Quanguo, who immediately took a series of security measures, the main target of which was Uyghur cyberspace. Although the discourses of Uyghur feminists still remain within the family, it had begun to have a positive effect on the attitude of the whole Uyghur society since these discourses had not yet attacked the dominant position of men in the public sphere. The closure of online groups and the disconnection of communication between the intellectuals of the region and the diaspora gave a fatal blow first and foremost to the activities of these women.
Dilnur Reyhan recently completed her PhD and teaches at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations, France. She is director of publications for the French-Uyghur magazine "Regard sur les Ouïghour-e-s". She tweets @DilReyhan. Image credit UPI.