Earlier this month on June 6, Xinjiang Agricultural University's College of Computer and Information Engineering celebrated its tenth anniversary at its Urumqi campus. Several hundred students, teachers, and administrators attended this ceremony, which also debuted the new president of that college. During his speech, the president called out the names of three female undergraduates, all of whom were Uyghur. Caught off guard, these women stepped up to the stage. They also happened to be the only students who wore headscarves to class regularly. The president, without any warning, then removed their headscarves in front of the audience. Uyghur students among the audience were rather shocked but silent; one of the upperclassmen later sympathized with these women, saying that they must have felt nothing but "shame" to have their heads exposed. After the event, the president summoned some male undergraduates into his office privately and ordered them to shave their beards. These students were to check in the next day, with neatly trimmed mustaches at the most. This administrator is also Uyghur-- his ethnic identity being the unusual piece to this story.
I want to stress that this post does not dwell on the particular politics of religious dress, merely on the irregularities in the university rules that became apparent through this incident. Secular states deal with religious dress in two possible ways, both of which I respect as equally legitimate. In the first model, practiced in places like the United States, students can wear whatever symbols they want to secondary school-- crucifixes, skullcaps, headscarves, turbans, pentagrams, et cetera, provided that they do not offend their classmates. In the second model, followed by countries like France, students cannot display any sign of religion on their bodies. The Muslim community in France raised an outcry five years ago when the government banned headscarves, among other religious insignia, from public institutions-- schools, offices, and agencies. Only last week, Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, condemned the burqa as "a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement," declaring that "we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen ... deprived of all identity." In this regard, China agrees with France, banning headscarves and beards among other religious restrictions on prayer, pilgrimage, and proselytizing. They do so in secondary schools and governmental institutions, but for different reasons. While France invokes Enlightenment thought and the rhetoric of La Révolution, China adheres to the atheistic tenets of Marxism. Other Central Asian republics are following suit on the headscarf ban as well.
In Chinese universities, rules against practicing any religion remain very strict; according to a U.S. government fact sheet that I read, however, universities only "discourage" wearing headscarves, unlike secondary schools, which completely prohibit the attire. At Xinjiang Agricultural, it seems that students do not know if a dress code even exists. I see girls on campus often wearing colorful headscarves tied under their chins, or more commonly, pinned at the nape of their neck, the most informal style. Nevertheless, the incident at Xinjiang Agricultural brings up a few incongruous points. Students in other departments at the university continue to wear headscarves; this ban only pertains to computer science and information technology majors, and why that is so remains unclear. Perhaps the new regulation resulted from the president's own personal agenda, as he is not following a school-wide policy. This personal agenda, moreover, defies the usual stereotype that it is the Han Chinese who implement policies against minority groups. Rather the case suggests that many different types of people collaborate as agents of the state. Finally, what has lingered as the most poignant part of the matter is the inconsistent treatment across gender lines. Here, the administrator forced young women to endure public humiliation in front of their classmates, all for the sake of dramatic effects, while dealing with the men behind closed doors. If this president aimed for progressiveness by denouncing religion, then he backslid on his message by perpetuating sexism.