The Media’s Love Affair with Rebiya Kadeer and the Uighurs

The Media’s Love Affair with Rebiya Kadeer and the Uighurs July 14, 2009

Uighur Women in the Spotlight

The media loves Uighur women.

They give them lots of margins, and inches on front pages. They plaster their photos and quote them favorably. In prominent photo spreads, they marvel at their exotic traditional attire. They sympathize with their struggle against the brutal, ruthless Communist China.

Looking at the photos and pairing them with the numerous mainstream accounts of the Uighurs’ struggle suggests (to even the casual follower of news) that Islam is not about the ideology of Al Qaeda and suicide bombers, but simply the religion of people around the world. The Uighurs are symbolic of the diversity represented in the world’s Muslim communities and the complexity of national and Islamic identity.  Their struggle for autonomy—though long and ardugous—is nothing like the rocks, rockets, and suicide vests attributed to the Palestinians, but with sympathy western media recently showed the Iranians: it’s a struggle about the young and modern fighting the modern tyrant. And Muslim women are center stage.

“Muslim women lead protests in restive west China” yells the Associated Press.

“The petite Muslim woman with the sky blue head scarf began by complaining that the public washrooms were closed at a crowded mosque on Friday — the most important day of the week for Islamic worship.”

Aw, the Muslimah is all petite and innocent, her headscarf blue like the sky, soft like the heavens. And here she is, a Muslim woman complaining about a mosque being closed because she can’t perform her Islamic duty. Any account of a Muslim woman must always be accompanied by a description of what she’s wearing, of course!

“The 26-year-old businesswoman eventually led the crowd of mostly men in a fist-pumping street march that was quickly blocked by riot police, some with automatic rifles pointed at the protesters.”

A Muslim woman who is a businesswoman–you don’t say! This can’t possibly happen anywhere else! And here she is, leading a crowd of men? And there’s “fist-pumping?!”

Why, oh roving reporters, do you reserve your admiration for the Uighurs? Why isn’t the Islam of women in El Sham or Pakistan represented with the same poetic equality and dignity?

Is it because they pose absolutely no threat to America’s foreign interests, and are not Arab or brown? Or could it be that they are actually “liberated”? Rebiya Kader, a leading Uighur rights activist, claims that China has painted the Uighurs as “extremely pro-west Muslims – that they are modern Muslims, not genuine Muslims.” Ouch! She believes that this is the reason Muslim governments have not aided Uighurs.

But the Chinese construction of Uighurs as modern (as if genuine Muslims cannot be so) is perhaps part of the reason that Uighur men and women are getting such positive attention from the press. That’s not to say that all the press attention is positive.

In the Foreign Policy photo essay, we are told that, “Uighur Islam is traditionally extremely moderate on social issues, though in recent decades, more fundamentalist traditions were introduced by students who studied abroad in Central Asian and Pakistani madrasas.” This caption accompanies a photo of Uighur women leaving a mosque wearing black burqas. Since the burqa is not the uniform of the majority of Uighur women, this photo is misleading.

And, in the AP story, it isn’t until the end, after Muslim women are praised for their gallantry, are we told that the reason behind their public opposition:

“Women have been on the front line in Urumqi partly because more than 1,400 men in the Muslim Uighur minority have been rounded up by police since ethnic rioting broke out July 5.”

So are we to believe that the Uighurs are not as bold as they sound? That, by contrast, the women only stole the limelight because they had to? Well, that’s no fun.

Rebiya Kadeer’s Solo Act

In a BBC article, Kadeer smiles charismatically.  “I am involved in peaceful struggle for the people of the Uighur nation,” she says.

The New York Times describes Kadeer as “The public face of an ethnic group that is little known in much of the world. Although her fame hardly approaches that of the Dalai Lama…”, while The Christian Science Monitor describes her as a “spiritual leader” and a “mother figure.”

Rebiya Kadeer. Image via the Sunday Morning Herald.
Rebiya Kadeer. Image via the Sunday Morning Herald.

In the Times photo, Kadeer is poised with her hands in her lap, her long braids trickling down her two-piece suit. It is hard to believe that she would have been the media’s poster child for Uighurs if she were clad in a burqa, a headscarf, an abaya, or chador.  This leads me to believe that the U.S. and its media are invested in the melodramatic representation of a “modern” unveiled woman opposing a giant government.  It’s as if the media is saying: “Muslim women in (insert country here), listen up: America supports you in your struggle for independence, and will help you break free from that which hinders your movement.”

The U.S. media has portrayed Kadeer as a savior, a noble freedom fighter who was imprisoned by Communists that don’t value human rights, even as the Chinese media preaches the opposite. As an anchor on state-controlled China Central Television said: “Initial investigations show the violence was masterminded by the separatist World Uighur Congress, led by Rebiya Kadeer.”

The fact that The New York Times calls an unveiled Muslim woman the public face of an entire ethnicity is, whether intentionally or not, politically motivated; it is not about autonomy of a people, but the direction of Chinese-U.S. relations. I haven’t read a single U.S. news report that proved Kadeer is responsible for Uighur uprisings, or even hinted at the idea. This can only mean that the media isn’t really uncovering facts, but assuming China is wrong because it is China–a rapidly emerging threat in the race for the Number 1 Superpower slot.

Still, let us leave foreign politics aside and rejoice in the fact that western media coverage of the Uighurs and Kadeer does not harm Muslim women in America.  It is positive because it shows an active, rich, articulate and brave Muslim woman. Kadeer spent time behind bars and came out stronger for it. She is a fighter and she is not afraid.

Here, we have a Muslim woman being portrayed as the actual leader she is, literally. Regardless of the intention behind the depiction, or the contradicting accounts of it, I think you’d agree with me when I say that it is great to see the media glorify a Muslim woman for speaking out, instead of criticizing her traditions or otherwise deeming her an accessory of the dominant Muslim male, ¿que no?

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