Earlier this month, women around the world celebrated International Women’s Day. They spoke about the struggles they have faced, and about how we can break the biases that disadvantage women in daily life. But this year those of us campaigning for Uyghur rights had a desperate plea – break the silence on the experiences of Uyghur women throughout this genocide.
Genocide is defined as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Whilst genocide is often understood as organised mass-killings, measures to prevent births and the forcible transfer of children also fall within its definition. These crimes are much more likely to be targeted towards women and girls. From the historical weaponisation of mass-rape during the Tutsi and Bosnian genocides to the Junta’s on-going campaign of sexual violence in Myanmar, genocidal regimes have long assaulted women’s bodies to break the spirit and lineage of a persecuted group.
As an Uyghur woman in exile, I have spent more than five years raising awareness about the genocide being committed in my homeland. Like all other genocides throughout history, the Chinese government is intent on a wholesale destruction of Uyghur life – community, culture, and bodies. Our persecution is unique in its technological advancement and its key mechanism: a systemic policy of birth prevention. To give an understanding of the scale of these measures, 80 percent of all IUD placements were performed in the Uyghur region, despite the Uyghurs only making up 1.8 percent of China’s population. According to research from Dr Adrian Zenz, this could result in a loss of between 3.1 and 4.1 million future Uyghur lives.
I have translated the testimonies of the brave women that have escaped the Uyghur homeland and found the strength to tell their stories. Amongst the horrors they relayed of sexual violence and torture, it became clear that the genocide reached far beyond the concentration camps. Instead, it is built into their daily lives. Mass sterilisations are enforced through regular state machinery: doctors notes, routine check-ups and insidious monitoring. The system of in-person surveillance has left women with no place to hide. When male cadres move into their homes and share their beds while their husbands are detained, there really is no refuge. The reality is that the genocide in my homeland is now sewn into the fabric of Uyghur life. The Chinese government has twisted and corrupted our beautiful homeland and vibrant society. It is almost unbearable for me to imagine my home and people in this way.
The Chinese government argues that these policies are designed to liberate women from patriarchal, religious orthodoxies. Just as the so-called “re-education centres” are presented as remedies for terrorism, mass sterilisations are framed as ‘liberating’ women from regressive and sexist ideologies. The dishonesty in this is obvious to those of us that grew up in our Uyghur homeland, where women are in fact central to society. Uyghur women are well-educated and respected, as mothers, but also as teachers and culture-carriers. Far from liberating them, the Chinese authorities break Uyghur women’s spirit to break the spirit of an entire people.
But in recent years I have seen the world wake up to the cruelty faced by Uyghur women, and I have witnessed the tide changing on what society understands genocide to be. This rising wave broke in December of last year, when an Independent People’s Tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, found that this ‘systematic and deliberate policy of population reduction’ constitutes genocide. The Tribunal’s judgement serves as a necessary reminder that no two genocides look the same. As the world has adapted to the huge technological advances of the past 30 years, so have authoritarian regimes, along with the ways in which they carry out atrocity.
A broader understanding of genocide honours the parameters of the Genocide Convention, and the bravery of women that have spoken out about the violence and brutality they have faced. By recognising that women’s bodies can be a primary site of genocide, we will prevent future communities facing the horrors that mine has been for over 5 years.
This International Women’s Day, whilst social media was flooded with messages of gratitude for mothers, daughters and inspiring colleagues, I was thinking about those that could not thank the important women in their lives. Those with detained mothers, missing children and disappeared friends. But I was also thinking about the women that have used their voices on behalf of those rendered voiceless. Women like Tursunary Ziawudun, Qelbinur Sidik, Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Zumret Dawut. Women that have spoken out in full knowledge of the consequences. These women publicly shared details of some of the most intimate aspects of their trauma to achieve justice for our entire community. So these were the women that I wanted to thank on March 10th, who, in sharing their stories, have brought our entire movement closer to accountability and change.