The Silk Road trading centre of Kashgar has been Muslim for centuries, but despite hordes of people thronging the main bazaar, Gulnur’s headscarf shop had barely any customers.
As violence increased last year in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, home to mostly Muslim Uighurs, authorities banned veils and other Islamic coverings — wreaking havoc on her business.
“We’re all branded as terrorists because of a few bad people,” said Gulnur, who is Uighur. “The Chinese don’t understand that we’re not all the same.
“Regulations like this will only alienate people,” she added.
It is an example of the challenges Beijing faces pacifying the region, where Uighurs accuse the Chinese government of discrimination and restrictions on language, culture and religion.
Xinjiang shares a border with Afghanistan and Pakistan and is culturally closer to Central Asia than China’s Han heartland.
Authorities blame the violence — which has increased in intensity and spread beyond the region in recent years, with more than 200 people killed in 2014 — on Islamist separatists.
In the past year many forms of Islamic dress have been banned and beards ruled out for young and middle-aged men as Beijing works to root out what it calls “religious extremism”.
Posters throughout the region list the prohibited “five abnormal appearances”: face veils, burqas, young women in tight headscarves, the beard restrictions, and any clothing with a crescent moon and star logo akin to the Turkish flag.
One propaganda image shows a woman in her 30s with a simple head covering looking in a mirror and seeing a smiling face, while a veiled female is confronted with a skeleton on fire.
Taxis throughout the region are not allowed to pick up customers wearing banned items. The city of Karamay has barred them from public transport, and Turpan has stopped burqa sales.
At a bazaar in Hotan, Patigul showed off what was once her most popular item: a 15 yuan ($2.40) white lace veil covering the bottom half of a woman’s face and held in place by surgical mask-style straps.
“The government has been discouraging wearing veils for years, but we never expected a complete ban and it’s hurt business,” she said. “We weren’t prepared, and suddenly couldn’t sell about half our inventory.”
– Bearded beauty –
A man from Kashgar was jailed for six years in March for growing a beard and his burqa-wearing wife sentenced to two years, reports said.
Beijing — which says it has brought Xinjiang development and higher living standards — insists that more conservative forms of dress are foreign imports from the Middle East and not part of Uighur culture.
Face veils represent a “cultural reverse”, Zeng Cun, the Communist Party secretary of Kashgar reportedly said in March.
“We have to take strides forward as a secular, modern country,” he added.
France and Belgium have enacted similar bans on veils, provoking widespread debate unseen in China.
But a traditional Uighur saying declares: “The beauty of language is in its expressions, the beauty of a man is in his beard,” and analysts say the Xinjiang measures risk backfiring.
“There is clearly a stronger emphasis now among Uighurs on maintaining the religion and practising Islam as the state insists on ruling what is culturally acceptable,” said David Brophy, a professor at the University of Sydney and Uighur expert.
“Islam is a central part of people’s identity as Uighurs.”
In cities across Xinjiang, Uighurs and Han Chinese residents live almost entirely separately, with a heavy security presence in places frequented by Han and tourists.
In some places the very fabric of Uighur city life has fallen victim to government regulations.
At 40, Abdul Resli has been a traditional builder for more than half his life and has 20 men working for him in Kashgar’s old city.
But the area has been largely demolished and rebuilt in government-mandated redevelopment over the last decade, putting artisan brickmakers out of business and leaving him fewer homes to work on.
Authorities say the works are to improve safety standards, but Abdul says earthen brick walls have stood for 500 years.
“I can’t trust the quality” of newer bricks, he says. “But it’s what I’ve been told to use.”
– ‘A lot of hassle’ –
Officials across Xinjiang declined to discuss the ban on Islamic clothing or its effects on small businesses when contacted by AFP.
The increase in violence has also hurt businesses itself, with tourist numbers down nearly 5 percent last year and the Xinjiang government acknowledging that “influence from terrorist attacks” was a factor.
Eminjan, a seller of traditional knives with a thick moustache, said most of his business dried up after a group of Uighurs stabbed 31 people to death at a train station in Kunming in March last year.
Like many interviewed for this story, he preferred to identified by only one name for fear of government reprisals.
“These knives are not illegal, and they’re a part of Uighur history,” he said. “But if the police search you and find one, especially for young men, it will bring you a lot of hassle. So people don’t buy them because it’s not worth the trouble.”