Women and teens enjoy time at a local amusement park in Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Uyghurs live with heightened fear and anxiety but find moments when their despair can be momentarily forgotten, and they can share laughter among family and friends.

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Nuzugum Lives Among Us

Eleanor Moseman | Xinjiang, China

In Xinjiang, an autonomous region in Northwestern China, over one million ethnic Uyghurs have been apprehended by the government and now live behind the “Black Gate” (qara derwaza).

As Uyghurs disappear, the women outside these prison walls face systematic repression. Women are forced into marriage with Chinese men, not allowed to speak their native language, sent across China to work in factories. The worst-case scenario is their children being taken away and put into orphanages, human trafficking, and alleged organ harvesting.

The women of Xinjiang are true heroines. Even during these dangerous and precarious times, they live their life unobstructedly: as if their home's safety, love, and stability were guaranteed.

Uyghur heroines are nothing new, as an Uyghur allegory dates back to the 19th century about a woman from Kashgar, Nuzugum. In this story, Nuzugum “kills an enemy outsider she is forced to marry rather than yield her chastity and bear his children.” The women of Xinjiang don't have blood on their hands but instead fight against outsiders with resilience, bravery, and dedication to their families and country.

In Xinjiang, an autonomous region in Northwestern China, over one million ethnic Uyghurs have been apprehended by the government and now live behind the “Black Gate” (qara derwaza). Communities are seeing a drastic loss of young men between the ages of 15 and 40 that are being detained in re-education camps established by the Communist Party of China. Their crimes include praying or visiting a mosque.

In a recent article by the China News Network –a state-owned news outlet–a government official explained that the removal of the men will free Uyghur women from oppression at the hands of “religious extremism.” The question remains whether the Chinese government has an invested desire to free women from this stated form of oppression or whether its efforts are a movement to erase Uyghur culture as a part of an ongoing agenda to eradicate ethnic minorities.

Since my initial visit to Xinjiang in 2011, the area has seen a dramatic loss of men; rural communities suffer the most significant consequences. The absence of men poses challenges when it comes to fulfilling a family’s basic needs: food and education. As society begins to resemble a matriarchy, the responsibility and hopes of preserving Uyghur culture now largely rest on the strength of the women. Women and girls are extending themselves past their traditional roles. Often women give up their educational aspirations and career pursuits and take on tasks such as manual labor and field work.

The women of Xinjiang are true heroines. Even during these dangerous and precarious times, they live their life in an apparently unobstructed way: as if their home's safety, love, and stability were guaranteed. It is not uncommon for families to take weekend outings at a local amusement park or to spend days celebrating a wedding with hopes of a new generation to be born. These brief moments of happiness detract from the painful losses while strengthening the bond between family members that remain. Uyghur women have learned that it is essential to continue life as they’ve always known; believing that their husbands will remain by their sides and their children will remain within their reach. Despite their optimism, a painful reality looms and an unknown future remains. At any moment, a husband could be sent to a detention camp or children could be placed in a state-run orphanage.

As the future of the Uyghur people is in peril, many questions remain. But one thing remains clear: the women will be the ones who fight against cultural genocide and who will pass on centuries of religious traditions and practices. While communities continue to face daily challenges with bravery, they are also aware that such acts to retain their traditions and culture could lead to indefinite imprisonment. The question remains whether the Uyghur people can fight this battle alone or whether international intervention is necessary to stave off this silent cleansing.

This body of work and years of archives from this region has yet to be widely seen or published outside of academia or without using my pseudonym. This is to keep the people that opened their homes and lives safe. Not to mention my ability to continue to work and live in China with few difficulties. Since leaving China in 2020 with no chance of returning over the last few years, this work remains relevant. I plan to return to the region when foreigners can travel without causing danger to Uyghurs in their company. I also continue to work towards creating visual stories among the Uyghur diaspora in the United States while respecting their desire for anonymity. 

Reports from Gulchehra Hoja, Rukiye Turdush,and countless other Uyghur women that prefer to remain anonymous.

Articles, reports, and books written by Timothy Grose and Darren Byler.

Gender, Uyghur Identity, and the Story of Nuzugum, written by Kara Abramson. Published online by Cambridge University Press: September 7, 2012


Eleanor Moseman




Eleanor Moseman’s photography Nuzugum Lives Among Us sensitively, humanely, and candidly depicts the richness of Uyghur daily life prior to the region-wide crackdown that began in 2016-2017. Viewed as a collection, these images speak to the inclusiveness of Uyghur-defined conceptions of “community” and “relatives” - bonds forged from relationships of mutual exchange. Stills of sharing thrills on an amusement park attraction, penning wedding invitations to be sent to esteemed guests, and offering a reassuring smile to a friend while carrying water from the well capture the fleeting, mundane expressions of humanity on which community is created and maintained. Meanwhile, each photograph provides a glimpse into the hopes and anxieties of individuals who persevered in uncertain times and under an authoritarian government. State-schooling promises a stable economic future; weddings bring the hope of new life; and midday prayer reconnects the faithful with the Divine. Yet, the abundance of Chinese characters in medical clinics, cross-stitched portraits of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and Han Chinese vendors at an Awat bazaar remind Uyghurs of their political reality: they have been minoritized in the People’s Republic of China.

Viewing the images, I’m overcome with emotions. On one hand, their ability to mentally transport me to my time conducting research among Uyghur communities in their homeland fills my heart with joy. The collection’s focus on community and family reminds me of the hospitality and generosity my Uyghur friends offered me. Although a young, naïve, and in many ways ignorant chet’ellik (foreigner) who asked silly questions, I was always treated as kin. On the other hand, my heart aches. My mind wanders to friends who have been detained and who - fearing the consequences of having a foreign contact - cut off all forms of communication with me. I am saddened that countless lives have been shattered and ways of life have been violently altered.

Indeed, since 2016, the Chinese Communist Party has criminalized and diluted expressions of Uyghur culture. Women can no longer don austere headscarves. Men must shave their beards. Praying at home is considered a sign of “extremism.” And all weddings - as well as other important life cycle rituals- must have a government official in attendance. Disobedience usually results in disappearance. Therefore, to some extent, these photos testify to the past.

Yet, the collection offers hope: it will play a small but important role in preserving Uyghur cultural practices. Despite the Party-state lavishing resources and resorting to violence to assimilate Uyghurs into the Chinese mainstream, the goal will never be fully realized. Memories cannot be erased. Language cannot be fully forgotten. Faith cannot be stripped from the pious. These photos ensure Uyghur yerlik (indigenous) life cannot be destroyed. Indeed, Nuzugum does live among these communities, and they will prosper again.

Timothy Grose
Associate Professor of China Studies
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

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