Uighur Muslim teacher tells of forced sterilisation in Xinjiang

A teacher coerced into giving classes in Xinjiang internment camps has described her forced sterilisation at the age of 50, under a government campaign to suppress birth rates of women from Muslim minorities.

Qelbinur Sidik said the crackdown swept up not just women likely to fall pregnant, but those well beyond normal childbearing ages. Messages she got from local authorities said women aged 19 to 59 were expected to have intrauterine devices (IUDs) fitted or undergo sterilisation.

In 2017, Sidik was 47 and her only daughter was at university when local officials insisted she must have an IUD inserted to prevent the unlikely prospect of another pregnancy. Just over two years later, at 50, she was forced to undergo sterilisation.

When the first order came, the Chinese language teacher was already giving classes at one of the now notorious internment camps appearing across China’s western Xinjiang region.

She knew what happened to people from Muslim minorities who resisted the government, and a Uighur-language text message that she shared with the Guardian, which she said came from local authorities, made the threat explicit.

“If anything happens, who will take responsibility for you? Do not gamble with your life, don’t even try. These things are not just about you. You have to think about your family members and your relatives around you,” the message said.

“If you fight with us at your door and refuse to collaborate with us, you will go to the police station and sit on the metal chair!”

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Who are the Uighurs?

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The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group, primarily from China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. They have been subject to religious and ethnic persecution by Chinese authorities, with rights groups claiming that in recent years more than 1 million people have been held in detention camps. 

Having initially denied the existence of the camps, China has described them as “vocational education centres” in the face of mounting evidence in the form of government documents, satellite imagery and testimonies from escaped detainees. Satellite images have also suggested that more than two dozen Islamic religious sites have been partly or completely demolished since 2016.

In July 2019 China claimed that most of the people sent to the mass detention centres have “returned to society”, but this has been disputed by relatives of those detained. Around 1-1.5m Uighur are estimated to live overseas as a diaspora, many of whom have campaigned against the treatment of their families. China repeated these claims in December 2019, but offering no evidence of their release.  

In July 2020, China’s UK ambassador denied abuse of Uighurs, despite the emergence of drone footage of hundreds of blindfolded and shackled men.

Martin Belam

On the day of her appointment there were no Han Chinese among crowds of women waiting for their compulsory birth control at the government compound, she said.

Details of China’s sweeping campaign of repression against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have leaked out slowly from the tightly controlled region, but there is increasing evidence of efforts to slash birth rates, which some experts have called “demographic genocide”.

This has included forced birth control and sterilisation, fines and even prison sentences for those considered to have too many children, a recent Associated Press investigation found.

In the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar, births collapsed by more than 60% between 2015 and 2018, the last year for which government data was available, the AP found. Nationwide over the same period, births fell only 4.2%.

This is the period when Sidik was forced to have the IUD fitted, despite her age and insistence that she did not want any more children.

The IUD caused heavy bleeding, and she paid to have it removed illegally. But later in 2018 a routine check found it was missing and she was forced to have a second device installed, and then a year later forced to undergo sterilisation.

“In 2017, just because I was an official worker in a school, they gave me a wider choice to have this IUD or sterilisation operation. But in 2019 they said there is an order from the government that every woman from 18 years to 59 years old has to be sterilised. So they said you have to do this now.”

She tried to plead both age and the damaging impact of the IUDs on her health. “I saidmy body cannot take it, but they told me ‘you don’t want children, so you have no excuse not to have the sterilisation operation.’”

Her story, first told to the Dutch Uyghur Human Rights Foundation, is difficult to verify. It is hard to take photos inside detention facilities and there is little documentation. But details match accounts by other camp detainees and research into coercive birth control practices.

She previously gave anonymous accounts of her experience in the camps and with IUDs, but had not spoken about her sterilisation.

She was frightened that being identified might affect family still in China, particularly her husband. But he has since divorced her, and with that link severed Sidik decided to come forward under her name.

“What happened in the concentration camps and in the whole region was really, really terrible. I couldn’t stay silent,” she said. “I wonder why western countries still cannot believe what’s happening inside those camps. I wonder why they keep silent.”

During the years when Sidik was targeted for forced sterilisation, she was also sexually harassed at home by a Han Chinese man sent to live as a “relative” in her apartment, under a programme of surveillance rolled out across Xinjiang.

Initially he spent a week every three months in their home, but later this increased to a week every month. There have been reports of Han “relatives” in Uighur homes forcing female hosts to share beds, and sexually assaulting them, particularly when men were in camps.

Sidik was also a witness to another aspect of repression. As one of the few camp instructors to have gone public, she had a clearer overview of the system of mass incarceration than survivors who were caught up in it.

She worked as a teacher in two camps, where she claims she saw starvation rations and unsanitary and humiliating conditions, including limited access to bathrooms and water. She also heard the screams of tortured prisoners and witnessed at least one inmate being carried out dead.

In the second centre where she worked, which held mostly young women, a trusted colleague told her that rape of inmates by Han Chinese administrators was routine.

“Every time I saw them it just reminded me of my daughter, and I thought: please, not my daughter,” she said, weeping at the memory. Most of the prisoners were in their 20s and 30s, she said.

Sidik came from a family that would once have been considered a model of assimilation by local authorities, speaking fluent Chinese, working at a government school and following government exhortations to have only one child.

She initially dismissed reports of forced sterilisations and mass detentions from other parts of Xinjiang as something that happened to troubled communities. “We felt compassion, but it was some faraway story, not something that will happen to us.”

But the long shadow of ethnic oppression may have saved her life. She was born into the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, and her mother listed her as an Uzbek, even though she has always considered herself a Uighur and that was the official ethnic identity of others in her family.

Permission to leave China is given only rarely to Muslim minorities from Xinjiang these days, and almost never to Uighurs. She left China in late 2019 and expects to never return. Her husband, a Uighur, applied for a permit to travel with her. Authorities told him: “Don’t even dream about it.”

This article was originally published on The Guardian

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