What thoughts cross your mind when you see your favorite brand have a mid-season sale? I think about what outfits I’ll wear my new clothes with or how great I just got them. I’ll tell you what I haven’t thought of until now: Was this garment made with voluntary or forced labor? How old was the person who built this? What is the humanity in this garment? The student activists behind the growing Free Uyghur Now movement hope to lead us to ask these questions.
I had the pleasure of connecting with one of the activists behind the student coalition, Tasnim Benalla (see picture below). “I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to work for the world I want to create,” she said. And she works. What started as a paper on an unfamiliar subject turned into a passion for raising awareness among the Chinese government about the Uyghur genocide.
Image source: Tasnim Benalla
What is happening to the Uighurs?
A brief history lesson shows that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control of Turkmenistan in 1949. Soon after, a large influx of Han Chinese immigrants made the Uighur people a minority in their own country. They were forced to integrate into Chinese culture through abusive “re-education” camps. However, Tasnim told me, “After the world became more aware of the totally unjustified” re-education camps “, the Chinese government transferred a significant portion of the detained Uyghurs to forced labor camps instead.” With estimates of one million to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turks imprisoned in camps, this is the largest internment of an ethnic and religious minority since World War II. Families have been separated, mosques have been destroyed and other gruesome human rights abuses are regularly reported, and many groups have viewed this as genocide. And the fashion industry benefits directly from it.
“Instead of making forced labor a rare practice that should not be tolerated in the industry, it has become the norm.”
Tasnim explained how the competitive nature of the fashion industry has led big brands to consciously or subconsciously benefit from this genocide. “Instead of making forced labor a rare practice that should not be tolerated in the industry, it has become the norm,” she said. Fast fashion has taken over the industry because of its accessibility, relative affordability, and adaptability to rapidly changing trends and interests. However, these properties come at a cost. The high demand leads to longer working hours for employees, extremely low wages and potentially unsafe working conditions. Unfortunately, the normalization of forced and free labor has also made consumers complicit. Our society has taught us to prioritize “cheap” shopping over ethical shopping, “said Tasnim. And often, fast fashion seems like the only option for those who can’t afford to shop ethically. It’s not about feeling guilty for taking advantage of those $ 10 spikes, notes Tasnim, but rather “shaming an industry that works freely on the backs of marginalized and / or oppressed communities.”
What can be done to help the Uyghurs?
The good news is that activists from the Uyghur Free Movement have worked to demand change by putting pressure on governments and the public alike. In June 2020, Congress passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act and submitted a genocide resolution to the Senate. Whether there were subtle political motives (Donald Trump claimed that the sanctions were motivated not by the concentration camps but for economic reasons) is a step in the right legislative direction. Grassroots activism began this movement with Yale students writing “Free Uyghur” on their clothing and continued in 2020 when Tasnim and her fellow students led a demonstration outside of New York Fashion Week.
The tireless work of these groups is not political – it serves human rights. Tasnim says meeting and hearing Uyghurs herself struck her deeply. “Many Uyghurs I have met have a family member who has disappeared and none of them can contact their families at home, whether it be a phone call to ask how they are doing or a simple ‘Eid Mubarak ( Happy Eid) Others have constant nightmares about being in the camps or their family members disappearing to one. “But it is the resilience of the Uyghurs that makes Tasnim fight for them. She pleads with others to donate, sign petitions, urge agents, demand transparency from China and companies that benefit, and most importantly, raise awareness. Giving genocide a human face is the first step in making real change, even if it just means wondering about the story behind the next addition to your closet.
Please visit the Free Uyghur Coalition website for more information.