The rights of Uyghur women in China – Interview with Dilnur Reyhan and François Reinhardt

7 March 2022

"Women are the first victims of these repressive and genocidal policies"

Following the documentary "China : The Uyghur drama", the Foundation interviewed Dilnur Reyhan, Doctor of Sociology, teacher at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (Inalco), and President of the Uyghur Institute of Europe, as well as documentary director and cinematographer, François Reinhardt who co-wrote the documentary broadcasted on Arte.

Dilnur Reyhan and François Reinhardt discuss the mass internment, concentration camps and forced labor of Uyghurs in China and explain, in particular, the living conditions of Uyghur women.



Dilnur Reyhan, François Reinhardt, we are delighted to have this talk with you. Dilnur Reyhan, you were born and raised in the Uyghur region before moving to France at the age of 21 to study. You are a sociology teacher and director of the bilingual French-Uyghur magazine Regard sur les Ouïghour.e.s. You have been working for several years to defend the Uyghur language and culture and denounce Chinese colonialism in the Uyghur country. François Reinhardt, you are a director and chief of photography. You started in 1995 as a journalist before directing documentaries for French television, widely praised by the press. In 2021, you directed the documentary China: the Uyghur drama, available in replay on Arte.


My first question is for you Dilnur Reyhan, can you give us more information about the Uyghur people and the Chinese presence in the Uyghur country?  How are the Chinese people perceived by the local population?

The Uyghurs are a people, a nation of Central Asia that was split by the Tsar and Manchu empires during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Uyghurs, like many the rest of the populations of Central Asia (except the Tajiks) are Turkic and Sunni Muslims, sharing a similar language, culture, and religion with the rest of Central Asia and very little in common with the Chinese area. They are estimated by Chinese statistics to be about 12 million in the Uyghur region and about one million in the diaspora, most of whom live in the Russian-speaking countries of Central Asia. The Uyghurs are the first sedentary populations among the Turkic populations and have set the cornerstone for the civilization of the Turkic world with a history of a thousand years.

The Qing Empire (of Manchu and not Chinese ethnicity) first colonized East Turkestan (current Uyghur territory) in 1759 and left it for more than a century to reconquer it a second time by integrating it into its territory in 1884 by naming it “Xinjiang” which means not only “the new territory” or “the new frontier”, but also “colonization, colonized territory”. The country had two short periods of independence in 1933 and 1944 under the name of Republic of East Turkestan but was finally reconquered at the end of 1949 by the Communists who took power in Beijing with the help of the USSR. Since then, China has multiplied the different strategies of colonization of the country and assimilation of the Turkic culture to the Chinese culture, by a policy of massive immigration of Chinese settlers in the country which has not only modified the demography but also increased the economic and social inequalities. This Chinese colonial presence has never been digested or accepted by the Uyghur population.


Since the beginning of the 2010s, China has been guilty of crimes against humanity in the Uyghur country against its people. François Reinhardt, can you present the military and surveillance arsenal put in place by Xi Jinping to carry out this genocidal policy?

This is the largest mass internment of a population for ethnic or religious reasons since the Second World War. The Chinese Communist Party has chosen to use, it is clearly written in the documents we have obtained, “all the tools of dictatorship” and to act “with no mercy” to bring the Uyghurs and all the ethnic minorities of Xinjiang “into line”. This means implementing an ultranationalist vision. Officially, China claims to be fighting what it calls the “three scourges”: separatism, religious extremism, and terrorism. But it is indeed a policy of eradication, of erasing a population that is put in place. Re-education camps have been built. 1 to 3 million Uyghurs (out of a total population of 11 to 12 million) have been interned there in recent years. The rare testimonies of survivors mention acts of torture, brainwashing, rape, forced sterilization, birth control. Families are separated, the Uyghur (Turkic) language is banned, school textbooks of Kazhak or Uyghuer children are revised, and the religion of most of the population, Islam, is widely proscribed. All this, in violation of the Chinese constitution and outside any judicial framework.


As a director, what difficulties have you encountered in dealing with this subject?

Our main difficulty was, and remains to this day, access to this region of the world. Xinjiang, located at the very west of China, is an open-air prison, totally closed to foreigners. It is a black hole of information. It is a taboo and dangerous subject for Chinese journalists. And all Western journalists accredited to work in China who had the courage to publish or broadcast reports on Xinjiang were not allowed to stay in China. Either they were expelled, or their visas were not renewed. So, we had to make this documentary from footage we got either from colleagues, from archive footage or from Chinese television. The most important thing for us, however, was to be able to answer a single question: why is China exercising such repression in Xinjiang? And this documentary, co-written with Romain Franklin, is the very first to scrupulously reconstruct, in a factual way, the plan put in place by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in this region of China. And to do this, we managed to get our hands on internal CCP documents, which leave no room for doubt. And we are very happy and grateful to our producers, Découpages and Yuzu, as well as to Arte and the other partners (RTBF and RTS also broadcasted this documentary) who had the courage to accompany this project and to shed light on this tragedy that is still going on in China.


Dilnur Reyhan, it is currently estimated that more than one million women and men are being held illegally and without trial in various internment camps. From the testimonies we have, do we know what happens in these camps? What kind of violence are the women subjected to?

The UN estimated in 2018 that no less than one million Turkic, the vast majority of whom were Uyghurs, are being held in concentration camps, since then we estimate that about 3 million people are locked up in about 1400 camps and in prisons. The words are important, when many people who belong to the same group are detained, it is then concentration camps and not internment camps as there are not the same concept.

We have more than 2000 survivors of camps in Kazakhstan, all of them are Kazakhs who were able to get out thanks to the help of Kazakhstan. In the West, we have 10 survivors, seven of whom are Uyghurs. The Uyghurs do not even constitute 5% of the survivors who were able to leave the country and the seven survivors are all lucky enough to have either foreign nationality, or their spouse or children have a foreign nationality.

Thanks to the testimonies of all these survivors, we know the psychological and physical tortures systematically inflicted on the detainees: brainwashing, systematic physical punishment, torture, beatings with different sticks, leaving in hunger, in the cold in winter and in the heat in summer, torture with permanent lights, humiliation, sessions of thanks and glorification to the CCP and to Xi Jinping, sessions of self-denunciation of one’s ethnicity, one’s culture and one’s religion, solitary confinement in tiny black rooms for days or even weeks, leaving them to die without any medical treatment …. especially women: systematic sterilization, rapes, collective rapes and organized by the administration of the camps.


François Reinhardt, in your documentary, you show that the objective of the government is to sinicize the Uyghur people. Can you tell us more? Besides the internment policy, how does this translate?

The objective of the Chinese government is to unify the entire Chinese population. Because China is in fact a mosaic composed of 56 ethnic groups. One of them, the Hans, represents 92% of the population. The other ethnic groups must therefore learn to behave, to think, to eat, to speak, like the Hans. This is an ultranationalist vision which contrasts with the previous policy towards ethnic minorities. When Mao took power in 1949, he took the example of the Soviet Union, by allowing each minority an apparent autonomy. But when the USSR fell in 1991, China’s leaders became afraid. In 2011, two scholars developed a new minority policy. A policy that Xi Jinping decided to apply when he came to power in 2012. The idea now is to melt all ethnicities into one. The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, the Mongols (from Inner Mongolia) and others have been paying the price ever since. Everything that is happening today is the result. To take a concrete example, in the school textbooks of Kazhaks or Uyghurs children, whole sections of history have been replaced by patriotic propaganda images in the glory of national unity.


Dilnur Reyhan, can you explain how this sinicization affects women? Do we have any idea how many women are victims of sterilization, abortion, forced displacement or forced marriage?

We were talking about sinicization but since the end of 2016, it is about eradicating the Uyghur nation.  So I’m not talking about sinicization, which is a policy that has been in place since the beginning of the annexation of the Republic of East Turkestan in October 1949, but the genocidal policy that began in late 2016. As everywhere and since always, in armed conflicts or not, women are the first victims of these repressive and genocidal policies. Women are seen by the aggressors on the one hand as a mean to humiliate an entire nation and on the other hand, the source of continuity of the enemy. This is why, apart from all the measures of surveillance of the Uyghur society which target all the Uyghur men, women and children, different campaigns to humiliate women (cutting their hair and their dresses to “modernize” them), to force them to take a distance with their origin or their culture (forced labor from a young age by threatening to send the family in camps, by monitoring them from home, by forcing them to share even the bed with Chinese officials or “cousins”), to assimilate them to the services of the Chinese nation (forced marriages with Chinese men for the reproduction of a new Sino-Uyghur generation in the patriotic service of the great China). Not only are Uyghur women forced to abandon their culture and their very origin, but they are also forced to put themselves at the service of the Chinese nation and thus sacrifice themselves to save their families from the threat of the concentration camps. They are also subjected to mass sterilization not only inside the camps but also outside.

There is no official and exact figure from China regarding the number of women held in the camps, nor in the slave labor factories. Regarding sterilization, in 2020, the German sinologist Adrian Zenz revealed that Uyghur women account for more than 80% of sterilizations performed in China (while they represent less than 2% of the national population), leading to a sharp drop in the birth rate (-50% in two years) among Uyghurs. This revelation has led researchers and jurists to speak of genocide, according to the 1948 UN definition.


Dilnur Reyhan, you talk about the need, as a woman and feminist, to mobilize for Uyghur women. How can we help?     

Every citizen has the power to act. Although eight democratic parliaments have already recognized the genocidal character of the Chinese crimes against the Uyghur nation, negationist voices still deny these crimes and carry out the Chinese propaganda. It is thus necessary to spread the voice of the victims, to give them the opportunity to testify, to inform. Uyghur women are more numerous than men in the slave labor factories which are installed everywhere in the Uyghur Region or in the Chinese cities. Each citizen has the power to be responsible for his or her own purchase. It is not only about textile products (84% of Chinese cottons come from the Uyghur Region where Uyghur women are widely used, sometimes with their young children), but also in various sectors. It is therefore important to boycott products made in China and Chinese brands (Huawei, Xiaomi, Shein, Alibaba …). In addition, 83 international brands are accused of being tainted with slave labor of Uyghurs, among which some are particularly criminalized: Uniqlo, Zara, Hugo Boss, Nike, Volkswagen, Sketchers, Huawei…

The Uyghur diaspora and in particular the survivors of concentration camps are particularly affected by the situation, but no psychological structure has been set up anywhere to help them. Yet, this is an emergency. Psychologists and lawyers can offer support to the diaspora. Videographers, photographers, artists, writers can join Uyghur associations of the diaspora (in France, the Uyghur Institute of Europe) to offer their competences.

In the end, citizens can also help financially Uyghur associations. The Uyghur Institute of Europe has launched a funding pot since December 2019 to be able to rent a room that will be a cultural place and where the institute can continue its language and culture classes for Uyghur children and its conferences.


François Reinhardt, we recently learned that between 2017 and 2019, more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred to factories belonging to the supply chains of 83 world-famous brands (Apple, Uniqlo, BMW…). What leverage do we have to help, on our scale, Uyghur liberation?

It is a difficult question because it is very difficult to trace and describe all the stages of manufacture, subcontracting, to find the suppliers, in a country that cultivates secrecy and in one of the most closed regions of the world. This being said, 20% of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang. And experts have proven that Uyghur prisoners were forced to work in cotton mills for the benefit of subcontractors of well-known brands. The likelihood of global brands using this cotton is high. However, German researcher Adrian Zenz, one of the most informed and critical experts on China, is reluctant to name brands. However, to speak only of the textile industry, we can point out that in France, a complaint was filed in June 2021 against four textile giants, and the national anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office decided to open an investigation for “concealment of a crime against humanity”.

It is therefore necessary to put pressure, to boycott, if necessary, these textile brands (in particular) so that they ensure that their suppliers do not use forced labor of Uyghurs.

We must act, as for the climate, as a “hummingbird”. We must do our share of the work, but it is above all up to international justice and the States to put pressure on China. To know, to recognize, the drama that the Uyghurs and the other ethnic groups of Xinjiang are living, it is already to be on the side of the oppressed. And to no longer be silent accomplices.


Dilnur Reyhan, you have been campaigning for several years for France to officially recognize this genocide, which the deputies did on January 20 by adopting a resolution “officially recognizing the violence perpetrated by the authorities of the People’s Republic of China against the Uighurs as constituting crimes against humanity and genocide. What more do you expect from the French government?

With the Uyghur Institute of Europe and the member of Parliament Raphaël Glucksmann, we have been mobilizing French youth since late 2019 for the Uyghur cause. Throughout 2021, the Uyghur Institute of Europe led a very long and painful campaign for the French National Assembly to become the 8th democracy to recognize China’s genocidal crimes. Finally, this great battle was won on January 20th. However, it is a resolution and in France, any resolution has only a symbolic and non-binding effect on the government. From now on, we want the French government to also recognize the genocide and specially to adopt sanctions against the Chinese responsibles for the genocide and to help the Uyghur diaspora.





Dilnur Reyhan is a doctor of sociology, a professor at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (Inalco), and president of the Institut Ouïghour d’Europe. She directs the bilingual journal “Regard sur les Ouïghour-e-s”. Her research field is mainly identity and nationalism in the Uyghur diaspora, but also gender studies among Uyghurs.


© Edith Roux



François Reinhardt is a documentary filmmaker and director of photography. He lived several years in China and claims a curiosity and eclecticism that goes beyond his Chinese tropism. Nevertheless, before “China, the Uyghur drama”, co-written with Romain Franklin, he signed a dozen films on this country, among which “The 1000-headed dragon” (co-written with Franck Renaud), “The yellow poison”, “Europe in the Chinese nets”… In 2008, “Colères de Chine” won him the Reporter Sans Frontières prize at the Festival International du Grand Reportage (FIGRA).


© Ron Vargas


© cover picture : SIPA

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