Dress Code

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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.

5 Comments

Thanks for telling us about this forced "unveiling." It goes without saying that this would never, ever be reported in a Chinese newspaper.

It is simply incredible how concerned so many societies are about the headdress of Muslim women. The fact that French president Sarkozy chose his recent "State of the Union Address" -- apparently the first in over 200+ years, since the French President is normally not allowed in the parliament building -- to slam the burqua just blows one mind. Orhan Pamuk's "Snow," a fictional work about a town in Northeast Turkey, also revolves around whether a young woman will or will not cast off her headscarf in a play.

One can think of so many other more civilized ways to limit the wearing of the headscarf than defrocking someone in front of their classmates. In China, he can get away with this for now; in today's Afghanistan or Pakistan, the man in question might pay for this action with his life.

Neat entry. Many thanks, and look forward to more entries giving us insight into how life is actually lived in today's Xinjiang.

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews
www.bruce-humes.com

I tried to post on another entry but I'm getting an error so I'm testing here... haha...

Porfiriy, sorry about the error message, that happens to me too. Since the blog is running on Princeton's server and their program, I'm not too sure how to fix it.

Bruce, thanks for your insight. I have been reading your translations for the past few months now. I guess it's the state's prerogative to decide about dress in public institutions, but I thought Sarkozy was way out of line to make such a brazen announcement.

I am speechless at what i have just read, Muslim women are once more treated as non entities, who cares about their opinion, if they cover themselves they must be deprived of intelligence, subjugated by domineering males (I do not deny this does not happen). Their opinion does not matter for anyone anymore, freedom of expression for whom?
I'm sorry everytime i read of such incidences whether in Xinjiang or the West, i feel i am reading about the 'moral rape' of a Muslim women!

I agree with your concluding remark about sexism exacerbating the sting of inconsistent discrimination. Perhaps what countries in the Model 2 category fail to realize is that the dress codes dictated by religion vary by faith and therefore cannot be categorically discouraged. Some faiths do not prescribe particular forms of dress as expressions of piety and others do. This is not to say that Model 1 countries are "correct," but until there is sufficient education and awareness about different faiths, an open policy may be easier for a government to enforce successfully.