China is cracking down on burqas; will the niqab be next? (Reuters/Reinhard Krause)
Chinese authorities have banned women in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang—an autonomous western region where Muslims account for almost half of the population—from wearing burqas in public, according to a brief article on a government-run website, Tianshan News. Local legislators for Urumqi proposed the ban in December, and now the regional legislature has approved it.
It’s not clear when the ban will go into effect. State media said only that it will be implemented after being modified to meet comments proposed in a meeting over the weekend.
What is clear, though, is that moves like these are likely to further alienate an already disenchanted minority group—the Uighurs, who feel their culture and economy is being overrun by Han Chinese. Ever since a group of Uighur Muslims went on a killing spree in a train station in Kunming last March, Chinese officials have ratcheted up restrictions on a group they see as potential extremists. Xinjiang officials later banned students and civil servants from fasting for Ramadan, and authorities in the Xinjiang city of Karamy barred anyone wearing burqas, niqabs, hijabs or simply “large beards” from taking public buses.
Despite—or as a result of—these measures, attacks and clashes involving Uighurs have only increased. Today, police in Shule county, near Kashgar, shot dead six attackers who were allegedly trying to detonate a series of explosives. Militants attacked police, residents, and officials in Shache county in August, leaving almost 100 dead.
The state-run news agency Xinhua justified the burqa ban by pointing out that burqas are also banned in France (perhaps not the best example to use, given the recent extremist attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo). The Xinhua report in English said, “Burqas are not traditional dress for Uighur women… The regulation is seen as an effort to curb growing extremism that forced Uighur women to abandon their colorful traditional dress and wear black burqas.”
But as long as Chinese officials tell residents they will be safer if religious expressions are kept to a minimum, these measures are likely to continue. Zhang Haitao, an activist based in Urumqi, told Radio Free Asia, “You can’t deprive the freedom of a small portion of people to maintain the stability of the society. But here, for a long time, the authorities have been kidnapping public opinion in the name of stability.”