Gender and urban aspirations: the case of highly educated Uyghur women in Shanghai

by Sajide Tursun

Working Papers WP 17-06
June 2017
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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In spite of the growing attention given to minority Uyghurs in China, there has been little focus on gender issues in relation to the Uyghur migration to inland cities since the 1980s. Based on fifteen months of ethnographic research from 2012 to 2013, this article focuses on the lifeworlds of highly educated Uyghur women and their aspirations in the megacity of Shanghai. A combination of local gender norms, patriarchal Islamic ideologies, and state policies that aim to promote the emancipation of women have influenced the current status, conditions, and gendered identities of Uyghur women. Added to these are the shifting demands of an environment marked by rapid socioeconomic change in urban China that sees Uyghur women on the move. Tracing the migration story of Uyghur women through a case study of Xumar, a woman who pursued university education and then worked in Shanghai, I demonstrate the dilemma of staying or returning with which they constantly wrestle as they attempt to balance the normative Uyghur cultural values and their experiences of urbanism and cosmopolitanism in Shanghai. These factors all inform their understandings of what it means to be a Uyghur woman. Looking at the shifting ideas of gender among highly educated Uyghur women, this research contributes to understanding changes of Uyghur identity in relation to migration on the one hand, and reflects the ambivalence and complexity of Uyghur migration experiences on the other. Personal narratives of migrant Uyghur women shed light on the subtleties of the gender roles, arguments for and against returning home, and their later resignation to (arranged) marriages. The migration experiences gained by the women offer them a better understanding of themselves and of the demands and expectations of their cultural heritage. The urban aspirations of highly educated Uyghur women, this article argues, are produced by structural, cultural, and social factors that rely on dominant discourses of migration, minority, gender, age, class, and place.

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