Courtesy of Scholars at Risk
Akeda Pulati holds a photograph of her mother, Rahile Dawut, who disappeared in December 2017.
Akeda Pulati’s mother, Rahile Dawut, left Pulati a voice message on Dec. 12, 2017, that she had to go to Beijing. The Uyghur ethnographer from Xinjiang University then vanished, and Pulati has not heard from her since.
Pulati joined Jewher Ilham, whose father Ilham Tohti
has been imprisoned since 2017, at “Daughters of Dissidents,” a March 9 event hosted by Roger Williams University. Pulati also joined Pitt professor Dr. Hatice Simten Coşar’s Scholars at Risk team of undergraduates for a March 14 Q&A.
Uyghurs (also spelled Uighurs) are a predominantly Muslim minority ethnic group in China. They are recognized as native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, also known as East Turkistan. Since 2017, scholars estimate more than 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in what the Chinese government calls “re-education” camps.
Ilham’s father, Ilham Tohti, was an economist at Minzu University in Beijing, and he was an advocate for Uyghur rights and coexistence with Han Chinese people. Ilham has not seen her father since Feb. 2, 2013, when she and her father were separated at an airport. They stayed in contact via Skype, calling multiple times a day, until his arrest.
“I have to be honest, I don’t think anything positive will happen if I go back [to China],” Ilham, who now lives in the U.S., said during the “Daughters of Dissidence” event. “A couple months prior to his detention, my father, during one of our Skype calls, said something might happen to Daddy.”
He then advised her to set up social media accounts and seek help from his friends from around the world. On Jan. 14, 2014, her father was arrested from their apartment in Beijing in front of Ilham’s two younger brothers. Her father was charged with separatism and sentenced to life, and since mass detention camps began to open in 2017, she has lost all information on her father.
Pulati, whose Uyghur name is Akida Pulat, does not know the exact cause for her mother’s disappearance, but she suspects it is because her mother was an influential scholar through her ethnographic work on Uyghur history and culture. Dawut was one of the first Uyghur women to receive a PhD
, and she not only helped preserve Uyghur traditions and culture but also established the Ethnic Minorities Folklore Research Center at Xinjiang University in 2007 to support other young researchers.
“You can see the connections that they wanted to destroy the culture, destroy the Uyghurs' nationality, so my mother is the target,” Pulati said during the March 14 Q&A. “Since 2017, millions of people are put into the re-education camps, and the government said they wanted to educate them to give them job training. But among them, there are many influential intellectuals. … There are many like rich Uyghur businessmen or people who have certain influence in their areas.”
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in January
that China has committed genocide against the Uyghurs, and current Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he agrees with the finding. Genocide involves more than the physical destruction of a group of people, as Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin determined when he coined the phrase in response to the Holocaust.
According to Lemkin, genocide also involves the systemic destruction of a cultural identity, from its language to its cultural leaders and sites. In addition to detaining Uyghurs in at least 268 detention camps
that have been built since 2017, China has also destroyed mosques and other religious sites
in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Scholars at Risk
at Pitt, a chapter of an international network of institutions and individuals that protects scholars and promotes academic freedom, is focusing on the suppression of Uyghur scholars. Dr. Coşar, a scholar at risk from Turkey hosted at Pitt, decided to teach a course titled Human Rights Advocacy Seminar: Scholars at Risk, which has created a campaign for Dawut.
Dr. Coşar’s class attended the “Daughters of Dissidence," and the event invited both Pulati and Ilham to share information about their parents and their experiences with activism for Uyghur rights.
Courtesy of Scholars at Risk
They also answered questions about what people and governments can do to help Uyghurs. Ilham emphasized that she believes it’s important to “hit them where it hurts” — specifically, hitting China financially.
“Sanctions would be a useful and efficient way to help to improve the forced labor issue for the Uyghurs,” Ilham said during the “Daughters of Dissidence” event. “What matters the most is not the sanction but the enforcement.”
The U.S. banned all cotton and tomato imports
from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in January. The region produces more than 20% of the world’s cotton, which also accounts for 84% of China’s cotton production, and there is significant evidence that forced labor of Uyghurs was used in that production. While Ilham understands the difficulty of enforcing sanctions, she hopes other countries also enact sanctions and suggests “people should value humanity over monetary gain.” She also emphasizes the importance of consistency in one’s activism.
Pulati spoke about the ways individuals can help by sharing information about what is happening to Uyghurs and pushing back against misinformation campaigns by the Chinese government. The Chinese government has control over the information people can find about Uyghurs and the “re-education” camps, particularly for those using the internet in China and researching on Chinese search engines like Baidu.
That misinformation, however, still makes its way onto other search engines, making it important for people to research broadly. Pulati spoke about the importance of fighting misinformation during the March 14 Q&A organized by Dr. Coşar’s class, and she notes that, particularly for Chinese people studying in other countries, not knowing to use other search engines than Baidu is not their fault.
Instead, she focuses on creative solutions to inform people against previous misinformation, including using newer platforms such as Clubhouse, where people can hear firsthand accounts from Uyghurs and Uyghur activists. Following Uyghur activists and organizations, such as Campaign for Uyghurs
, on Twitter can be another source of information. Fake Uyghur accounts have been made on Twitter, however, with alleged Uyghurs telling followers that the genocide is fake, so Pulati also cautions people to stay critical when researching.
“What we can do is keep pushing up, keep spreading awareness, keep telling the truth,” Pulati said during the March 14 Q&A. “And when I encourage people when they don't know what to believe, I hope they can do more research. And I hope they can also realize the power of the Chinese government to control their media.”
Despite the potential danger to themselves and fears of retaliation against their parents, both Ilham and Pulati are determined to keep fighting for their parents and the freedom of Uyghurs.
“If I don’t speak up, if I just stay silent, and my mother died or has any serious problems in the concentration camps or prisons … I won’t forgive myself forever,” Pulati says. “Since I am the only family member who is currently living in a foreign country, I had this responsibility to speak up for my mother.”