Chinese Officials Ask Muslim Women to Unveil in the Name of Beauty

In the Chinese region of Xinjiang, home to a large population of the country's Muslim Uighur minority, government workers are encouraging women to cast off their headscarves in the name of good looks. Called "Project Beauty," the government-backed campaign has reportedly taken over the streets of Kashgar, one of the few cities in China where a significant number of women don the veil for religious reasons. De facto beauty police staff street-side stalls and single out veiled women, recording their images with a surveillance camera and even making them watch a re-education film "about the joys of exposing their faces."

The effort is an underhanded campaign to put beauty ideals to work in the name of national security. States have long tried to restrict the veil among Muslim women, often through formal decree. But China is taking something of a soft-power approach and telling China's Muslim women to unveil and show their pretty faces.

What isn't said is that the true aim of that campaign is to make it easier to track members of a restive minority group.

China's ruling party has tried to ban veiling at various points in its history, but its policies on the practice have come under scrutiny amid charges by human rights groups that the government is carrying out a campaign of religious repression and persecution against Uighurs. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have fingered Xinjiang's Uighur population as a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Uighurs counter that China's anti-terrorism laws disproportionately target Muslims. The ensuing tension has resulted in violent clashes in recent years and the poisonous relations between the Chinese government and Uighurs took a sharp turn for the worse in October when Uighurs were blamed for a deadly attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. 

The question of Uighur women's right to wear a veil is one among several points of contention. In 2011, notices prohibiting the practice began popping up in Muslim cities in Western China, according to the AP. The campaign's stated aim was to rid the country of the "abnormal phenomenon ... of minority ethnic women and youth wearing Arabian dress, growing beards, and covering their faces in veils." In 2013, Radio Free Asia reported that a Uighur woman in the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, was evicted from her rental apartment for wearing a veil. Chinese authorities haven't been particularly forthcoming about the state's anti-veiling policies, often claiming to be are unaware of such edicts, or declining to comment on the matter altogether. But officials in Xinjiang have been found to keep detailed records of Muslim Uighurs, which include notes about who wears a veil and who doesn't.

At least six countries have banned or limited veiling in public spheres -- France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Turkey, and Tunisia -- usually on grounds of state secularism. China, by contrast, aims to regulate Muslim dress in large part as a counter-terrorism measure. The obvious implication is that the mere practice of Islam represents a threat to national security, an argument China's Uighurs understandably haven't taken to kindly. The government's counterterror initiative is seen among Uighurs as an attempt to dilute and homogenize their culture. In trying to bring the province's separatist movement to heel, the Chinese government has demolished historic sites and restricted religious freedom in Xinjiang. What the Chinese government views as a campaign to subdue a restive region, Uighurs see as a war on their culture.

And "Project Beauty" can certainly be viewed though that lens. The campaign plays on the familiar notion that beauty is more valuable to women than other facets of their identities, including religious belief. A woman focused on her appearance, the logic goes, is hardly a threat to the state. What better way to politically neutralize women, after all, than to call upon an approach tried and tested by politicians, advertisers, and husbands for hundreds of years?


National Security

China Has a New Air Defense Zone and Washington Couldn't Care Less

The United States challenged China's recently announced Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Monday night, flying two unarmed B-52 bombers on a scheduled training sortie into airspace which China on Saturday declared subject to new defensive measures. Despite Beijing's blustery announcementthat any aircraft flying over a large swatch of the East China Sea would have to identify themselves and coordinate their flights with Chinese air traffic controllers, Chinese naval and air forces in the area did nothing to intercept the flight.

Washington said the flights had been scheduled weeks ago and that the timing was coincidental.  Of course, scheduled flights can always be delayed, and it's striking that  wasn't done here. 

To eliminate any confusion, this is what's known in technical terms as Washington deciding to flip the bird at Beijing.

The entire episode -- both Beijing's decision to erect the ADIZ and Washington's decision to immediately flout it -- raises an important question: Just what exactly is an ADIZ?

The policy, as it was laid out by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, is simple:

  • All aircraft entering the ADIZ must report their flight plans to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Civil Aviation Administration.
  • All aircraft in the ADIZ must maintain radio contact with Chinese authorities.
  • All aircraft in the ADIZ must comply with instructions from Chinese authorities.

"China's armed forces will adopt defensive emergency measures to respond to aircraft that do not cooperate in the identification or refuse to follow the instructions," the Defense Ministry warned. But the ADIZ is not a ban on flying through certain airspace -- in other words, it's definitely not a no-fly zone. Rather, it's a check-in-and-let-us-know-you're-coming zone.

China's new ADIZ isn't unique, either. The United States also has an ADIZ that extends 20 to 30 miles into the sea along its borders. Japan stoked its territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea earlier this year when in June it adjusted its own ADIZ around Yonaguni Island, pushing it into airspace that Taiwan claims as its own. In October, Japan floated new procedures to shoot down Chinese drones operating in what Tokyo claims is Japanese airspace.

The real controversy is the extent of China's ADIZ, not that it has one in the first place. The map China released on Nov. 23 asserts control over almost all of the East China Sea, including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and sweeping northeast toward the southern tip of Japan's Kyushu Island and the Korean peninsula. That's prompted concerns that China is using its ADIZ to try to edge out its rivals in the East China Sea -- closing the area to certain Japanese, Korean, and U.S. flights.

But to do that, China would have to enforce its approximately California-sized claim to airspace in the East China Sea -- which it declined to do when two American B-52s flew through yesterday.

Tech Sgt. Dennis Henry/DVIDS Map: Chinese Ministry of Defence via Xinhua