After my adventures going to the girls camp (Camp GLOW) in another part of Kazakhstan, I went to China. Here in Turkestan I helped with an English club at the university and I met a great girl who quickly became my best friend here. Unfortunately (for me, not for her!) she graduated and moved back to her home in China. She is Uighur, an ethnicity stemming from Turkish tribes, much like present day Kazakhs and Uzbeks. The Kazakh and Uzbek territory were under control of the USSR, so when it crumbled in 1991 they became the countries we know today as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Uighur territory was not under the control of the USSR but of the People's Republic of China, so today their land is in western China, known as the Uighur Autonomous Region. They are an ethnic minority in China and I learned quickly what that really meant. Someday I hope to go back to China so forgive me if anything in this blog is vague. Really, I learned a lot about the Uighurs, Islam, and the balance between modern globalization and traditional religion. I got more out of the trip than I expected and made (hopefully) life-long friendships.
I was in China for two weeks and stayed with my friend and her family. We only visited two cities in the Uighur Autonomous Region or Xinjiang Province- Urumchi and Karamay. Urumchi is the capital of the province and Karamay is where my friend lives. Someday I hope I can return to see what they call the "Chinese part" (any other province except the Xinjiang Province), but I am more than satisfied with my choice to see how people are living instead of getting just a tourist experience. I spent a lot of time hanging out with my friend and her boyfriend and family. I had the chance to ask a million questions and everyone patiently and thoroughly answered all of them. My friend speaks English well and the Uighur language is very similar to Kazakh so I could understand at least part of what they were saying to me and my friend translated a lot.
Before I came to Kazakhstan I had briefly read about the Uighur people. I knew they are a Muslim minority in China, but have since learned that they are minorities not only for their religion, but their ethnicity. I am learning that like many people in this region, it is almost impossible to separate people's ethnic identity from their religious identity. In Kazakhstan, the line between Islam and long-practiced cultural traditions is blurred. Religious practices such as clothing restrictions, praying, and ceremonies are muted because of the strict secular laws in the USSR. In contrast, there were many, many covered women in Urumchi and Karamay and many people stopped in restaurants and even on public transportation to pray five times a day.
One thing that surprised me about Islam among the Uighurs was how differently it is interpreted. Some "covered" women wore skinny jeans and a t-shirt, but there hair was wrapped in a handkerchief. Some women had full black burkas on with only a slit of their eyes showing. I asked what the Koran (which is now on my reading list) said about the regulations of being covered. This community uses a combination of the Koran and readings from later prophets as guidance to the practices of Islam. My friend said that women should be covered to their wrists, to their toes, and that their head should be covered to the edge of their face (allowing the face to be open, but the ears and neck should be covered). Women should be covered to show their modesty and presumably to protect them from the depravity of men. My Muslim friend, however, is not covered. She dresses modestly, but would fit in on any street in America without question. I asked why she isn't covered and what that meant for her practice of Islam. She said she is a bad Muslim, but is sure that some day she will find her way closer to God.
My friend excuses herself from three important practices of Islam. First, she only prays when it is convenient for her (I am relating only what she told me, these aren't my opinions). Muslims should pray five times a day. Her mother, father, sister, and boyfriend pray five times a day. We were eating at a café one day during the one o'clock prayer time and her 56 year old father hiked his feet up into an outdoor sink to wash them, took a prayer mat provided by the restaurant, and went to their special praying room. He returned five minutes later to the meal. My friend prayed twice during the two weeks I was with her. Secondly, my friend is not covered. She says that she isn't covered now because it would have created difficulty in Kazakhstan and it certainly creates difficulty in China. She admitted, though, that this was more of an excuse. Thirdly, she goes on dates with her boyfriend without a chaperone (and they occasionally kiss!). Technically, if they go on a date to a restaurant or walk through a park, someone should be there to ensure that there is no funny business. When her sister was dating her boyfriend (now husband) his little nephew came every time they met until they were married.
My friend seemed relatively unconcerned about her unholy ways. She explained to me that one had to accept Islam for him or herself. Sure, her mother, father, and even boyfriend gently pushed her to say her prayers and cover her body, but she insisted (and they all agreed 100%) that nobody could force her to be a better Muslim. If they forced her, it would still only be superficial; she would be no closer to God. She would have to find her own way closer to Allah and when she did, she would faithfully pray five times a day and cover herself. She truly wants to be covered and be a good Muslim, but says that she can't fake her way through it. It will come when it comes. She was honestly shocked when I told her that in some places in the world, men and women don't have the luxury of taking their time on their path towards God. I told her that in some countries women are beaten, killed, and raped if their skin is showing or if they leave the house without a male chaperone. These women have no rights to choose their religion or their expression of it. Their governments choose for them what they will wear, where they can go, and who they associate with. She insisted that this was not Islam, that no true Muslim could support this. She is an intelligent, educated woman and had no idea what Islamic fundamentalism means for people, particularly women, in parts of the world. I explained to her that this fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is what scares many people in the West; when people hear Islam, they associate it with terrorists, human rights violations, and violence. She was so hurt by the fact that some westerners might be afraid of the people in her family just because they were Muslims, because they were covered and read prayers five times a day.
My friend realized how lucky she is to be able to participate in her community and make her own decisions. Her family (and many people I met in the Muslim community in China) supported education and travelling. Her family wants her to study in Turkey and learn about the world, even if that means leaving a potential marriage suitor and living by herself thousands of miles away. They struggle between their traditions and progressing as the world advances faster and faster. And yet, they choose to progress, to learn, to grow; her parents have put everything on the line for their three children and desperately want to see a future where their children and grandchildren can live peacefully and easily in a land controlled by their own people, where their history is safely preserved, their lifestyles accepted and respected.
My friend's mother stood at the top of the stairs when I came to their apartment for the first time, her eyes wide and almost teary from excitement. Her arms were literally outstretched as she waited for us and then gave me such a warm hug. They welcomed me into their family and encouraged me to learn about them, their religion, and their lives in China. They were extremely open to talking with me and taught me so much. I hope to spread their message. Please take a few minutes to learn about their story, I owe it to them and you can help me from across the world!
**Again, any opinions expressed or implied in this blog are strictly my own and absolutely aren't a reflection of Peace Corps opinions or policies in any way.**