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KASHGAR, China — The sun won’t set on Kashgar for another three hours, but inside the Padiqi disco night is well underway.
In the dark, it’s difficult to see faces among the steady stream of young Uighur men and women, mostly teenagers, pouring in past the waiters done up in leather cowboy hats, offering bottled iced teas and cold sodas to the patrons.
Night falls long before dark in Kashgar, well before worried parents fret about what their children might do in mixed company. In their own simple act of rebellion, the kids have created darkness at 3 p.m., flocking to the city’s daytime disco clubs and returning home in plenty of time for dinner.
The crowd at the disco — entirely Uighur — is about two-thirds young men, many smoking cigarettes furtively as they talk with friends, look at the girls and wait for the music to begin. The girls arrive in groups, most dressed modestly in long skirts and sweaters, their hair hidden by brightly patterned silk scarves. Except for one young couple at the back of the club, the crowd is segregated — men and women do not mix at the tables.
Then, the music begins: techno versions of the best-known Uighur folk songs thump loudly from a huge sound system on stage. A handsome young man who could be a Middle Eastern pop star belts out the lyrics. Given the chaste appearance of the patrons, one might expect the dance floor to be empty. In a typical small Chinese city disco, self-consciousness keeps crowds from dancing. But this is Xinjiang and these are Uighurs. They are here to dance. With every song, the floor is packed, the crowd dancing in a steady circle, still divided by gender.
To outside eyes, it’s an innocent scene. But the local friend who brought us here speaks of his own teenage disco days with a conspiratorial whisper. Just then, a large group of Uighur girls enters the club. They sport funky clothes, short skirts and tights, fashionable shoes and uncovered hair. Our Uighur friend scoffs: “They’re trying to be Chinese.”
Later, teens Ramilla and Abi are horrified to learn people believed they were dressing like the Chinese. It’s Europeans and Americans they want to emulate, especially the French. The Chinese girls at their high school have no fashion sense and often dress garishly, they say. These girls are not copying Chinese classmates, they are not shrinking Muslim violets hidden behind veils. They are animated, confident and bright, speaking at length about young life in Kashgar and switching easily between Uighur, fluent Chinese and English.
“We don’t want to be Chinese. We don’t want to marry Chinese boys,” says Ramilla, a striking 17-year-old who wears her thick, uncovered hair in a dramatic bob. “We are proud to be Uighur.”
The girls are open to cultural influences, but it soon becomes clear that their disdain for Chinese is about more than fashion. They attend Chinese high school rather than Uighur school, hoping for an advantage in future studies and jobs. In making that choice, they lost the right to wear their head coverings and celebrate their religious holidays at school. Though they could ask for these things, their teachers don’t stop the clock on studies when the five-day Eid holiday rolls around. Chinese classmates, who make up nearly 90 percent of the student body, tease them for fasting during Ramadan and have little understanding about anything Uighur. This despite the fact that the majority of the people in Kashgar are still Uighur rather than Han Chinese.
“It’s difficult sometimes because we have to do things differently than we would like,” says Ramilla.
With the creeping demands of assimilation growing stronger in Kashgar, some Uighurs have turned the other direction, decrying both Chinese and Western culture.
A local dentist is just one example. When his first wife died, he found a new bride, arranged through family connections. He is nearly 40 years old; she is 18 and must cover herself from head to foot in long, black robes. She wears a full veil, not the modified and fashionable head scarves that most young Uighur women prefer, but something even more dramatic than the brown head and face covering favored by her grandmother’s generation.
The dentist is a devout Muslim, and considers himself Wahhabi — the Sunni Islamic movement embraced by the religious establishment in the House of Saud and which spread a puritanical message by sponsoring clerics and building mosques.
“Women don’t behave properly anymore,” the dentist complains. “Society is changing and it’s no long traditional Uighur behavior.”
What the dentist is seeking is not Uighur Utopia. He wants something stricter, where men pray five times a day and women stay covered and at home. He considers Saudi Arabia a cultural model.
Muslim extremism isn't widely regarded as a serious threat in Xinjiang, but there is evidence that growing Chinese cultural pressure on Uighurs is creating a backlash and more Uighurs are turning toward stricter practices of Islam. Separatism and battles for autonomy over religion and culture continue to be the main apparent conflicts in Xinjiang. Chinese authorities have clamped down hard on unrest, which almost routinely begets violence. Just two months ago, seven people were killed in a bombing in northern Aksu city.
In the struggle for Uighur culture, modern girls like Ramilla and Abi are likely the wave of the future.
China’s border regions are home to its highest concentrations of religious people and activities. Near North Korea, Christian churches are a staple. On the boundary with Myanmar, Buddhism is the norm. In Kashgar, where Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs trade with people from nearby Pakistan, Afghanistan and other central Asian nations, religion can be a volatile issue. The Chinese government has long pointed to violent Uighur separatists as a reason it needs to tightly control the area. That control has led to unrest and unhappiness in Xinjiang that manifested most notably last year in violent riots in the capital Urumqi that left hundreds of mostly Han Chinese dead. More than half the people on the Chinese government’s wanted list for crimes related to the riots came from Kashgar — the heart of Uighur culture and religion.
It’s no secret that attempts at cultural assimilation of Uighurs into Chinese culture has created some resentment and backlash.
“The pressures on Uighurs to abandon their faith and assimilate with Chinese society are relentless,” said Henryk Szadziewski, manager of the Washington, D.C.-based Uyghur Human Rights Project. “The Uighur form of Islam has always been devout, but never extreme; however, the potential exists that the further Uighurs are alienated from their faith, some may seek a stricter interpretation of Islam far from their traditional approach — a phenomenon common among all oppressed peoples.”
What remains unclear is the way forward, whether Uighurs will become more globalized like Ramilla and Abi, or more fundamentalist, like the dentist.
The only certainty is that things are changing.