What Does the Current Situation of Gender Equality Look Like for Uyghurs in the Kashgar Region of Xinjiang?

by YupinWang, Xin Tong, Youxin Gao (in no particular order)

“The machismo here used to be bad. A man drank tea at home with the teapot in front of himself. He would rather ask his wife, who works in the fields, to come back and pour himself a cup of tea than take the initiative to do so.” So said a village secretary in a township near Kashgar.

In the Kashgar region of Xinjiang before 2015, there were many problems of son preference, gender inequality and domestic violence among the Uyghur population.

This is mainly reflected in the serious solidification of the traditional Uyghur family division of labor model. For a long time, under the influence of the ideology of “men are in charge of the outside and women are in charge of the inside”, men have absolute say in matters inside and outside the family, but do not have to take care of the family affairs. Women instinctively believe that it is natural for them to take care of the family, serve their husbands, honor their parents-in-law and raise their children. At the same time, many of the preparations for traditional festivals and ceremonies are done almost exclusively by Uyghur women.

The main reason for this phenomenon is that the economic income of traditional Uyghur families comes mainly from men. This perception and family division of labor pattern is likely to have an impact on the next generation – some girls start helping their mothers with household chores from the age of eight or nine. In addition, according to a village secretary in a township near Kashgar, domestic violence by women by their husbands was also common before 2015, and somewhat more likely than in the interior.

However, after 2015, with the collaboration of the local government and various aid organizations, gender inequality in Kashgar has greatly improved.

Education: From dropping out of school to get married to going to school for further education

In terms of education, it is now common for Uyghur families to be very supportive and encourage girls to go to school and higher education.

“Now my tuition is more than 7,000 a year, and a large part of it is paid for by my brother and sister with their own income. The family is very supportive of my studies. I don’t want to work right after I graduate from college, I want to continue my studies.” This is what a girl studying in a college in Burxiang said.

Among the Uyghur families we visited, there were many such cases – even though the families were not rich, they still fully supported the girls’ studies.

It is true that in the past, there were many gender inequalities in education in Kashgar. Twenty or thirty years ago in rural Kashgar, some Uyghur girls went to school until they were nine or ten years old and then gave up their studies to their younger brothers and dropped out of school to go home to work or get married. In the last decade, more and more Uyghur girls are going to university and even graduate school to further their studies, and those who go home early to work as farmers and raise their children are almost impossible to find in the region.

Conversation with a local Uyghur girl

The main reason for the improvement of gender equality in education is the government’s education policy, which indirectly encourages “gender equality”.

“Now you can’t keep your children out of school even if you want to, the government won’t agree.” A local university student said.

In 2017, Xinjiang has fully universalized 15-year compulsory education, which has greatly reduced the financial pressure on local families in terms of education. As a result, some girls who miss school due to family financial problems can also get equal opportunities to attend school with boys.

At the same time, more and more Uyghur parents realize that when their children receive a good education, they will be more likely to find good jobs and have a significantly better quality of life compared to the previous generation.

Conversations with local traditional Uyghur families

“I regret now when I think about it, I should not have let my daughter come home to work. If she could have gone to college, she would have gotten a good job now and life would have been much easier.” A Uyghur mother said this.

         Employment: from family farming to independent career choice

In terms of employment, currently Uyghur women are not only not discriminated against, but are given special care so that they are given job opportunities.

In the past, under the tradition of male superiority and religious origin, Uyghur women’s lives were focused on the family and rarely participated in social activities, thus their social status was very low; however, in recent years, the situation has improved very significantly – women have started to join social activities with the help of the government, public welfare organizations and social enterprises, which has greatly improved their social status.

At present, only a few of the Uyghur women in the towns around Kashgar will work at home in agriculture. Most of them will go to work in cooperatives organized by village committees, engaging in handicraft making or livestock breeding. In addition, many women will travel to urban Kashgar to work – because there are many employment opportunities. For example, with the strong support of the government, enterprises in Xinjiang and some hotels and restaurants in the city will target to recruit female minority employees.

Rural Cooperative

The reasons for the improvement of gender equality in employment are both governmental, as well as business and public interest organizations.

At the government level, the government of Bershekranmu commune has established a local women’s handicraft cooperative. There are seven regular employees here, all of whom are local women in Bershek. In the past, taking care of their families and tending to their farmland were their daily routines, and these were unpaid labor. Now, they can have an income of two yuan for each piece of clothing they process, and if there are orders for private custom-made clothing, they can earn five to seven yuan for each custom-made garment they make. According to the person in charge, skilled women workers can make 40-50 complete pieces of clothing a day, with an income of about 80-100 yuan.

Women’s Handicraft Cooperative

From the enterprise level, since the new round of aid work in Xinjiang, Shenzhen has supported the construction of Kashgar Shenzhen Industrial Park in Kashgar City. At present, more than 80 enterprises have been stationed in the standard factory. It is understood that the enterprises in the industrial park will be directed to provide jobs for the surplus Uyghur labor force in many surrounding towns and villages. At the peak, 90% of them are women. During the interview, several female employees expressed their satisfaction with their work in the industrial park. “As long as you work well step by step, then there will always be a promotion and a pay rise.” The director of a garment company said so.

From the level of public welfare organizations, in response to the problem of greater mobility of female employees in the industrial park, the Shenzhen Counterpart Support Station in Kashgar, Xinjiang (Shenzhen-Kazakh Social Work Station) also vigorously assists enterprises to make corresponding adjustments and initiatives. According to the person in charge of a garment enterprise, the more common reasons for female employees to leave include inconvenient transportation, taking care of the elderly and children, and not adapting to the work pace. In response, the company sends punctual buses to take them to and from work every day. At the same time, Shenkar social work station also did a lot of ideological construction work for female employees. For example, employees who do not want to participate in the industrial park themselves or their families are guided and persuaded. The psychological counseling room in the industrial park is also open at any time for these employees to confide their worries. Frequent home visits and spiritual communication are intended to make the employees come to work in the industrial park voluntarily from the ideological point of view and put themselves into employment without relying on others’ reluctance. In addition, Shenkar Social Work Station also provides childcare service for female employees’ children. These children can learn basic Mandarin, develop good hygiene habits and receive education such as music and art. This makes it possible for female employees to stop worrying about balancing family and work. With the help of the government, companies and social work stations, Uyghur women can put down the burden of taking care of their families and go to the city and society to be busy for a better and happier life in the future. They are allowed to improve the quality of life of their families through their salaries and become self-reliant.

Conversation with female employees of the industrial park

Family: From housewife to “head of the family”

In terms of the family, the situation is improving for Uyghur men who are macho, with men taking the lead and women taking the lead.

“When income rises and the quality of family life improves significantly, naturally the family agrees that they [women] go out to work and respect them.” A Uyghur employee of a garment company in the Shenzhen Industrial Park in Kashgar spoke. It is understood that the employee’s husband is a doctor and has a busy schedule. But he will take the initiative to help the employee do housework and take care of the children on weekends, and will seek her out for discussion when he encounters major decision-making issues. This is also a side reflection of the improved status of women in the family – you know that in the past, most women had almost no say in the family.

The main reason for gender equality in the family is that government departments and social organizations educate family members and provide a lot of jobs for women to promote their employment. They are also involved in resolving internal family conflicts and enhancing communication among family members.

It is understood that in the rural areas around Kashgar, even if the government has provided women with jobs, they often slacken off and cannot keep working because they cannot take care of their families and instinctively believe that they should not “show their faces”. This is why it is especially important to create an atmosphere of guidance and employment for women. In this regard, local charity organizations will tour the countryside, using theater performances to attract young and old children, while incorporating the ideas of gender equality, support for female employment and family work, so that many families have a new outlook and awareness of women working outside the home.

“Although we can’t guarantee that all of our ideological education will be effective, if one out of ten people is inspired and enlightened, then we have a role model to influence more people.” So says a village secretary near Kashgar.

It’s not just family status and division of labor that have improved, either; on the issue of domestic violence, too, there is now a reversal. According to the staff of a local social organization, domestic violence is generally not a problem anymore, and even when it happens, women have the sense to seek help.

The social work station had encountered a case of a husband beating his own wife due to alcoholism in 2019, when the wife reached out to the social work station. The social work station staff immediately set up a working group, made multiple visits to educate and enlighten their husband/in-laws/mother’s family, and the situation improved so that when a return visit was made at the end of 2020, the woman was no longer bruised by her husband’s alcoholism.

To this day, the status of local women in Kashgar families has been greatly improved, and after the ideological education of the government, they will actively seek help for any problems. The government will send social workers and village committees to conduct multiple visits to in-laws, mothers’ families, husbands, neighbors, etc., to culturally understand the actual situation and participate in helping to solve problems and strengthen ideological education.

In short, the status of Uyghur women in the family has been significantly improved, and they have more “voice” and “initiative”, breaking the previous tradition of “men dominating the outside and women dominating the inside”. This is a break from the previous tradition of “male domination and female domination”. This historical and traditional change is worthy of our consideration and reference.




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