Xinjiang Authorities Train, Seek to Regulate Muslim Women Religious Figures

The Chinese government strictly regulates religious practice in China, and controls over religion in the Muslim-majority western region of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs and other ethnic groups live, are especially tight. As this analysis shows, in recent months, some local governments in Xinjiang have described steps to include Muslim women religious figures in state-led political training programs for religious personnel. Information on training sessions for the women, along with a proposal to strengthen official oversight of the women, stress the women’s role in disseminating Party policy on religion and in fighting “infiltration” of the region by “hostile enemy forces.” Some reports also stress the importance of women refraining from wearing veils and call for steps to rein in their religious activities. The reports on training the women and on curbs over their religious practices come during a period of heightened controls over religion in Xinjiang.

In recent months, two local governments in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) published reports on the government and Communist Party-led political training of Muslim women religious figures known as büwi. (Büwi is a Uyghur word transliterated in the Chinese-language reports cited here as buwei. See the next paragraph for more information on the term.) According to an April 24 report on the Peyziwat (Jiashi) county (Kashgar district) government Web site, government and Communist Party officials in Yéngi Mehelle (Yingmaili) township gathered the büwi of 10 local villages for training in government and Party policy toward religion and to sign a pledge to “uphold stability.” Based on the pledge, the women will refrain from “wearing veils or long dresses, teaching religious texts to students, and forcing other individuals to participate in religious activities.” As part of efforts to train all religious figures in rotation over a four-year period, the Bayangol Mongol Autonomous Prefecture in the XUAR already has provided training to 100 büwi, according to a June 4 report on the prefectural government Web site.

Some of the Chinese reports (including the Bayangol report discussed above as well as reports in the following paragraphs) define büwi as women who wash corpses and perform religious rites at the homes of the deceased. The term also broadly encompasses Muslim women with a level of religious knowledge who are able to read the Quran and provide religious instruction. (Information based on CECC staff interview. See also basic definitions in the Yulghun dictionary.) For a description of büwi specifically as “Women Sufi ritualists,” see an article on the “Music of the Uyghurs” by scholars Rachel Harris and Yasin Muhpul, posted on the Web site of the London Uyghur Ensemble.

The recent information on training büwi follows a proposal from the 2nd meeting of the 10th XUAR People’s Political Consultative Conference (XUAR PPCC), initiated by the Vice-Chairwoman of the XUAR Women’s Federation and dated December 23, 2008, on bringing büwi under government and Party management, according to a copy of the proposal posted April 2, 2009, on the XUAR PPCC Web site. The proposal states that büwi have existed in a “no-man’s land” without state oversight and calls for taking advantage of the women’s social status to spread the Party’s religious and ethnic policies among Muslim women. The proposal also states that failing to capitalize on büwi’s status to disseminate Party policy could permit “hostile elements within and outside of [China’s] borders” to use religious and ethnic customs to “carry out infiltration activities among women.” The proposal adds that in some ethnic minority areas, where “a religious atmosphere is comparatively strong,” women believers are devout and their thinking is “ignorant, lacking common sense and reason,” thus making them vulnerable to infiltration by the “three forces” of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. It also cites cases of such forces “using” büwi to carry out “illegal sermonizing activities.” In addition, the proposal expresses concern that in some areas, some ethnic minority women “still” wear face coverings and clothing with a “pronounced religious hue.” Moreover, many rural women believers have “limited social interaction,” “relatively weak capacity for distinguishing right from wrong,” and are susceptible to being “incited” or “misled” by “bad people.”

The proposal lists four measures to address the “problem” of lack of oversight of büwi and risks of “infiltration” by hostile forces. First, it calls for drawing büwi under official supervision so that büwi can aid in activities such as “educating women to differentiate lawful religious activities” from illegal ones and to differentiate “the bounds of ethnic social customs and religious activities.” In addition, büwi working in this capacity can report on religious activities and the state of women’s thinking to Party authorities and help curb cases of women’s participation in “illegal religious activities” and “underground sermonizing activities.” Second, the proposal recommends a system whereby büwi voluntarily apply for training and under which applications are vetted by the state-controlled Islamic associations at local levels. Under this system, preferred applicants are to be “politically reliable” and possess a “definite level of culture and knowledge of religious texts.” Third, the proposal calls for organizing an administrative body under the lead of the United Front Work Department–the Communist Party organization that among other things oversees religious communities in China–and including offices such as the public security bureau, women’s federations, Islamic associations, and ethnic and religious affairs offices. Finally, the proposal outlines the content of training, which includes studying such texts as “Definitions of 23 Types of Illegal Religious Activities” and conveying information on appropriate procedures for Muslim funerals. (See a copy of the “Definitions of 23 Types of Illegal Religious Activities” posted February 2, 2008, on the Chinggil (Qinghe) county, Altay district, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture government Web site.) (See also a condensed text similar to the proposal on büwi submitted as a suggestion at the 2nd meeting of the 10th XUAR PPCC, posted January 12, 2009, on the Web site of the XUAR PPCC.)

Although political consultative conferences have an advisory function and their proposals do not carry binding legislative force, the XUAR PPCC proposal may reflect a trend in increasing efforts to regulate the activities of büwi in the XUAR. (See a description of the national Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), posted March 4 on the China Daily Web site, and an undated introduction on the Web site of the National Committee of the CPPCC for background information on CPPCC proposals.) The proposal also underscores the role that women’s federations have played in serving as a bridge for government and Party policy in areas such as religious oversight and anti-separatism campaigns. See, for example, an April 7 report from Toqsu (Xinhe) county, Aqsu district (via Xinjiang Peace Net), describing “outstanding problems” in “bizarre” women’s apparel and noting that an expert invited by the XUAR Women’s Federation provided a “correct interpretation” of the Quran’s views toward women’s clothes. See also information in a previous CECC analysis on the role of a prefectural women’s federation in carrying out anti-separatism activities among women.

The Commission also has found reports of steps to train or supervise büwi and other people described as corpse washers prior to the late 2008 and 2009 proposal and reports. See, for example, 2007 reports from Chira, Lop, and Niye (Minfeng) counties, all within Hoten district (reports all via the Hoten district government Web site), describing steps by women’s federations through which female party cadres engage in “talks” with female corpse washers. Also in 2007, Yopurgha (Yuepuhu) county in Kashgar district trained 38 büwi and other personnel who wash corpses to inform villages about “legal” religious behavior and the Party’s religious policy, according to a report that year from the Yopurgha government Web site. In June 2007, the Maytagh (Dushanzi) district government in Qaramay city included corpse washers in classes about the “reactionary nature” of the “Islamic Liberation Party,” according to a report that month from the district government Web site.

The late 2008 and 2009 reports on the training of büwi come during a period of heightened controls over religion in the region implemented as part of broader security and anti-separatism campaigns. See previous Commission analysis (1, 2) for details. For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see section IV–Xinjiang, in the CECC 2008 Annual Report.

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