KASHGAR — The Matang nut cake and skewered kawap (mutton), an ancient Kingdom reduced to ruins in a desert, and the simple imagery of folk singing and dancing: These are the stereotypes most Han Chinese have of the Uyghur people.
It made sense for me to travel to find out more in their native land, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China's farthest province from the ocean.
So I went there, to its southern reaches, where I walked in the labyrinth of the old town of Kashgar and witnessed the beauty and the desolation of the ancient Buddhist Kucha kingdom in Kuqa city.
But in those same old-town alleys glowing in gold, there are also Kashgar women who pull their headscarves over their faces when they unexpectedly come across strangers. This helped me understand that behind this region of confusing multiple ethnicity, labeled by the Han Chinese with simple images of festive dancing, there lies an old culture and a different recognition of the world with its own belief.
Bilingualism and alienation
Yusufu Kadir, an ethnic Uyghur, grew up at the mid-western border city of Aksu where he went to a Han Chinese school. Today, he speaks a mixture of Uyghur and Mandarin with his family.
The proportion of Uyghur children in Han Chinese schools is gradually rising from a past when only the well-to-do Uyghur could afford going to those schools. Moreover, today even these Chinese schools are adopting bilingual teaching curriculum.
"For me to go to a Han Chinese school feels less strange than sending a Chinese child to study abroad today," he notes. "As long as people communicate and exchange their ideas, people of different races mingle easily."
Still, Yusufu says the split communities weighed on him in his youth. "I gradually became an alien to my Uyghur friends, relatives and neighbors' children. Today most of my friends and colleagues are Han Chinese."
He believes the Xinjiang schools' implementation of bilingual teaching these days will avoid repeating his personal experience of feeling estranged from his own people.
Whereas in Xinjiang’s southern border towns women wear veils, it is rare to see such clothing in a big city like Urumqi. "Since ancient times, Uyghur people have embraced many kinds of religions. Each brought different dress codes of which wearing a headscarf is a leftover," Yusufu explains. "The veil came from Arabian, Iranian and Persian culture. It's a religious item rather than ethnic clothing. Traditionally, Uyghur men wear long gowns whereas women wear long skirts and a headscarf covering half of their face. It's totally different from the hijab or niqab that the Iranian or Saudi Arabian women wear."
It used to be relatively common to see a mixed marriage between the Uyghur and the Han in the 1970s and 1980s. Things have changed.
A non-Muslim who accepts to marry a Muslim will not only have to convert to the religion, but will also undergo a "purification ritual." And in any case, objections from both families usually lead to an increasingly volatile relationship for the couple in the long term, and eventually to separation.
Could such social discord reverse itself again? "No rules dictate that a mixed marriage shouldn't exist," laments Yusufu. "However, the heaviest burden that weighs on these couples comes from their own families."
Rumors and taboos
Ayiguli is a Uyghur girl who went to study in a Beijing college before returning to Xinjiang to work. It was then that she consciously started sharpening her rusty mother tongue again — and eventually married in a traditional Uyghur wedding.
Talking about the night market in Urumqi that she loves so much, Ayiguli suddenly speaks in a serious tone. "People like to exaggerate the Uyghur taboos. But in a night market here, a halal and a non-halal store can co-exist face to face without any problem. They have always been a harmonious part of the street scene here."
I was indeed a bit surprised hearing this. After all, people told me that a non-Muslim is not to touch the meat on a halal counter, otherwise one is obliged to buy it because the meat is "polluted."
"This is true. You are to avoid mentioning pigs and or eating non-halal food in front of a Uyghur," she said. "After washing hands, one should dry them so that water is not splashed around. It is absolutely forbidden to blow one’s nose or pick it in front of other people. These things should be done in the toilet. These are the basic rules. A lot of people aren’t really so strict. However Xinjiang has always been supposed to be a peaceful place as long as other people respect their customs."
In Yusufu’s opinion, a Han Chinese is more sophisticated whereas the Uyghur does not “look around the corner.” It is a point where careful handling is required when the two ethnicities interact.
After traveling around the southern border and arriving in Urumqi, a lot of tourists would consider that this city looks not much different from other major Chinese cities. However, if you cross those bustling streets and go into the little lanes behind them, you can still see that the city retains a lot of customs of Xinjiang’s various ethnic groups.
Like other Xinjiang minorities, Yusufu lives around Erdaoqiao district, just a few hundred meters away from the Islamic-style and always very lively Grand Bazaar. This is where there were a series of deadly riots pitting the Uyghurs against the Han and the Chinese police in July 2009. But Yusufu is convinced that “no matter what ethnic groups they belong to, people here have a strong desire to live peacefully.”
As a teacher these days, Yusufu is responsible for the Xinjiang students’ scholarship program for studying abroad. But he's just as focused on exchanges in her home city. “I sincerely hope that one day my Han Chinese friends will feel they no longer need my company to feel safe shopping in the Grand Bazaar.”
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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