2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 190

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Gender and Identity Among Uyghur Youth

Organizer and Chair: Elena Caprioni, University of Toronto, Canada

Discussants: James A. Millward, Georgetown University, USA; Linda Benson, Oakland University, USA

Before the “peaceful liberation” of Xinjiang in the summer of 1949, Uyghur society remained largely defined by Islamic values and local cultural traditions, which often distinguished specific gender roles for men and women. The man’s responsibility was to earn money, and the woman’s was to manage the household. After Xinjiang was incorporated into the PRC, the concept of equality between men and women was promoted in this peripheral area. This panel explores the dilemma that Uyghurs were henceforth faced with: preserving local cultural traditions, which were often intimately tied to Islamic culture, or accepting the social modernization promoted by China to “liberate women”. Even after decades of government policies promoting gender equality, a few scholars show that misogyny survives in Uyghur society, in part due to ideological conservatism and patriarchal Islamic ideologies. However, further research is needed to analyze the response of the Uyghur young society to the Chinese government’s attempt to export its modernization model of parity between the sexes. Panellists will examine the heterogeneous Uyghur youth to recompose different gender identities and the articulation of the roles of both sexes through different case studies. Through an analysis of sexist proverbs (Caprioni), self-help books directed at men and women (Freeman), and the status of highly educated women (Grose), we aim to identify and assess the theories and practices regarding the division of gender roles and responsibilities in light of the socio-political turn.

Elena Caprioni, University of Toronto, Canada

In the Uyghur culture, proverbs have long been popular. The current young society still uses proverbs that point out a male’s dominance and a female’s inferiority, such as (Women have long hair, but short wit) or (The men relies on the land, the woman relies on the men). These sayings are not just fun retorts, but they are also important means of teaching and learning about a culture. Indeed, by 1933, the sociologist Joyce Hertzler had already stated that “proverbs being drawn from the experiences and study of a people's lives are among the most accurate index of that people's life and thought.” Accordingly, Uyghur sexist proverbs used by young men and women in Xinjiang today can shed light on the division of gender roles and responsibilities in the young generation therein. A semantic analysis of these Uyghur sexist proverbs is an important contribution to the academic literature, insofar as we can better understand feelings and beliefs related to the extent of sex bias and sex-role stereotyping in the attitudes and consciousness of the Uyghur society. Based on a linguistic and ethnographic study, I argue that the use of sexist proverbs demonstrates the necessity to maintain the traditional role of women in the name of the Uyghur identity, and the resistance to cultural change after 1949.

Heads of the Class: Uyghur Women’s Pursuits of Higher Education, Identity and their Redefinition of Gender Roles
Timothy A. Grose, , USA

In her study that traces the changes in the division of labor among Uyghur men and women from the early twentieth century up through the Reform Era, Ildikó Bellér-Hann (1998) concluded that the work of Uyghur women, especially in rural areas, largely remains confined to performing domestic tasks. Although Uyghur women’s contributions to both performing essential household tasks and to the economic stability of their family are indeed significant, their work is largely “undervalued”. Nearly fifteen years since the publication of this trailblazing piece, Uyghur society, and Chinese society as a whole, have been swept by political, economic, and educational reforms. This paper explores how developments in Xinjiang’s education system are redefining the social roles of Uyghur women. Enrollment numbers of Uyghur women, at all levels of schooling, are higher than ever before. Recent PRC statistics (Xinhua 2007) indicate that the number of university-educated Uyghur women has, for the first time, exceeded men, and many young Uyghur women are enrolling in universities in China proper (Ch. neidi). This paper illustrates how young Uyghur women who are studying in Beijing navigate through the competing spheres of influence that arise from being Muslim minority women who have been educated in cities and a school system that valorize Han-Chinese cultural norms. Bearing in mind that Uyghur women should not be treated as a homogenous group (Caprioni 2008), responses from informants suggest that highly educated Uyghur women, while maintaining a strengthened sense of Uyghur identity, actively seek to elevate their social and economic statuses.

Look Out Young Man, the Girls are Watching You: Uyghur Self-Help Books and the Maintenance of Gender Roles
Joshua L. Freeman, Independent Scholar, USA

Gender issues in Uyghur society have been the subject of substantial and fruitful attention from researchers over the past decade. Comparatively little has been written, however, about the ways in which gender roles are defined and reinforced within the semi-independent Uyghur-language media sphere; that is, in the media created and consumed within the Uyghur community, distinct from any state-directed campaign. This paper will explore the crucial role self-help books have played in reifying Uyghur gender norms over the last twenty years. In China's reform era, self-help books have become one of the best-selling genres in Uyghur-language publishing, and many dispense gender-specific advice. Volumes like Open Your Eyes and Find Yourselves, Men and Morality for Girls and Women perform a dual role, defining gender norms even as they instruct readers on the best ways to achieve these norms. The disruptions of capitalism often encourage the growth of a self-help industry, and the popularity of Uyghur-language publications like Bill Gates's Principles and The Money-Making Secrets of the Jews evinces an increasing concern with success and competition. Rapid social and economic change in Xinjiang has also placed gender roles and relations on uncertain ground, and gender-targeted self-help books promise to guide the reader through this new territory. Drawing on comparison with other areas of cultural production—fiction, poetry, and more—this paper will outline some of the ways in which Uyghur self-help books frame and maintain concepts of gender, and consider the role played by these books in the broader Uyghur discourse of gender and sex.