For the past few days, Uyghur-language WeChat (Ündidar) has been bustling with messages from friends wishing one another a happy International Women’s Day (in Uyghur, Xanim-Qizlar Bayrimi; in Chinese, 国际妇女节 or 三八节).* People have been celebrating the day by exchanging money—combinations of 3s and 8s are most popular—in virtual “red envelopes.” Women are being told, by both men and one another, that they make the world “beautiful” (güzäl) and complete (pütün). Poems such as linguist-poet Mahire Haji’ekber’s “Men Uyghur Ayal” (I am a Uyghur woman), which celebrates the distinctiveness of being both female and Uyghur partly through an invocation of the scent of food, have gone viral, making the rounds in group chats and on individual WeChat “circles” (walls). Real life, too, has been full of holiday greetings.
This is the fourth Women’s Day I’ve spent in Ürümchi, where I’ve found the day tends to be celebrated not unlike Valentine’s Day: flower vendors set up on street corners to sell at slightly inflated rates, and restaurants fill up, sometimes with families but mostly with groups of women celebrating their day together over sometimes extravagant banquet feasts. Gift-giving in general is popular, as is that peculiar practice of sharing online the photos of the gifts one receives. But as internationalwomensday.com reminds us, this day is much more than a chance to eat out, exchange gifts, and send holiday greetings. Gender disparity and violence against women remain grave problems worldwide, and this day is about bringing those issues to the forefront of public consciousness while also fighting to resolve them.
Over the past few years, many Uyghur women have confided in me about the ways that gender disparity play out in this society, where women are by default ajiz (weak), where they are expected to bare the brunt of domestic work even in cases when both spouses work outside the home, and where domestic abuse remains rampant, as many men (and women) believe it is perfectly fine to strike a woman as a form of discipline. Their world is in many ways a man’s world, marked by male privilege and deeply engrained forms of inequality.
Women have long been making waves in Uyghur society, though. Uyghur women are studying for advanced degrees at the best universities in China and abroad. They’re winning tenure-track academic positions and conducting important research around the globe. They’re serving as leaders in the rapid growth of Uyghur-run companies making products for Uyghurs, an exciting development taking place in present-day Xinjiang. And they are, of course, writing excellent literature and making beautiful, skillful, soulful (mungluq) music.
Still, though, the most famous “culture producers,” the ones who get the most airtime both in Xinjiang and abroad, whose work is being translated and/or written about and whom the average Westerner who knows a bit about Uyghurs is likely to know best, are virtually all men. And so, in celebration of International Women’s Day, and motivated by a conviction that far too many Uyghur women have been “buried” (kömülüp qalghan) on stages dominated by men, I want to introduce to you a few of what I think are the best, brightest, and most influential female musicians in Uyghur society, from across the spectrum of the often overlapping pop, folk, and classical repertoires.
Adile Sidiq ئادىلە سىدىق
Singer-songwriter Adile Sidiq was born and raised in Ürümchi, where she still lives. She is a graduate of Xinjiang University, where she became infamous in the early 2000s for her rendition of “Titanik Naxshisi” (The Titanic song, or “My Heart Will Go On”). Adile recalls regularly dismaying her parents by listening to “European-style music” throughout her adolescence, a practice which instilled in her a sensibility for writing diva ballads in adulthood. She is currently a coach on the second season of Yipäk Yoli Sadasi (The Voice of the Silk Road).
Here’s Adile’s hour-long appearance on a 2015 episode of Men Neq Meydanda (I’m live):
And here is “Nefise,” one of Adile’s most beloved tunes, a tribute to the female historical figure and culture hero Amannisa Khan, whose pen-name was Nefise:
Ayshigül Muhemmed ئايشىگۈل مۇھەممەد
Ayshigül Muhemmed, native of Shiho County, in Northern Xinjiang, is a performer and educator in the folk and classical muqam styles. She has advanced degrees in folksong performance from the Uzbek State Conservatory in Tashkent, and today enjoys a reputation as the most beloved of all instructors in the muqam program at the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Ürümchi. Well-known for her deep voice and commanding stage presence, she has released several albums in Xinjiang, as well as “Ayshemgul Memet: The Female Voice of the Uyghur Muqams and Folk Songs” (Amazon, iTunes). She has performed widely in China, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Germany, France, Taiwan, Dubai and the United States, among other places.
Here is her rendition of a dastan song from Ghérip-Senem, part of the Twelve Muqams repertoire, at a performance in Tashkent:
Here is one of Ayshigül’s performances of selections from the Chäbbiyat muqam suite at the International Mugam Festival in Azerbaijan. She is accompanied by Mijit Yunus and Abdukérim Osman, also professors at the Xinjiang Arts Institute, on tämbur and satar, respectively:
Berna Enwer بەرنا ئەنۋەر
By far the youngest singer on this list, little Berna Enwer (she is usually known simply by “Berna”) has made a name for herself as a voice of contemporary Uyghur children. She currently attends elementary school in her hometown of Ürümchi, takes voice lessons at the Xinjiang Arts Institute in her spare time, and maintains an active, busy performance and recording schedule throughout the entire autonomous region. Edited to add: Berna is particularly active as a performer for charity events such as this one in 2014. Reports state that her 2015 “Chim Chim Berna” Concert raised 71,324 RMB, all of which was donated to the families of students in need. Berna—with the help of her parents, who manage her—has managed to carve out a space that no other young singer, male or female, has in the Uyghur music industry.
One of her most recent songs is “Raka Raka Dum” (raka and dum are names of beats), a rather fun, mini-sized celebration of Uyghur culture and hospitality:
She has also released a Uyghur-language cover of an old bilingual (Uzbek-Russian) rendition of the folksong “Namangandi olmasi” (The apples of Namagan):
Dilber Yunus دىلبەر يۇنۇس
Dilber Yunus, a Kashgar native, is a world-renowned soprano based out of Finland. Today she still travels regularly to Xinjiang, where she appears in operas and musicals such as the 2014 “A Love Story in the Tianshan Mountains.” Dilber’s repertoire includes a number of Uyghur songs from folk and other repertoires performed in operatic and art song style, as well as Western opera and art song.
Here is one performance of her beloved take on “Bir Piyale Mey” (A teacup of wine):
And her rendition of “Ave Maria,” sung in an effortless way that belies just how difficult the song actually is to sing well:
Gülmire Turghun گۈلمىرە تۇرغۇن
Gülmire, born and raised in Aqsu, is a graduate of the dance program at the Xinjiang Arts Institute in Ürümchi. In recent years she has made a name for herself as a “new-style” pop star for Uyghurs, and manages to exude what I like to think of as a “bad-girl” image that still remains well within the bounds of feminine propriety. She invokes the image of someone not unlike a Uyghur Britney Spears, what with the synthesizers, auto-tune, dancing, and tight clothing.
Here’s a bit of that “bad girl” ethos I mentioned in “Qoghlashma” (Don’t come after me):
For something quite a bit different in visuals, if not in vocals, here’s “Élipbe” (Alphabet), a song about learning the Uyghur-language alphabet featuring both Gulmire and Berna (see The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia for a discussion of this song):
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming March 10. More reflections on the roles of women and women musicians in Uyghur society, and introductions to the music of Izzet Ilyas, Nurnisa Abbas, Pasha Ishan, Peride Mamut, Senuber Tursun, and Zulpiye Küresh!
A note on transliteration: I have transliterated personal names and words from Uyghur using the system outlined in ULY (Uyghur Latin Yéziqi, or Uyghur Latin Script). There is a remarkable inconsistency in the transliteration of Uyghur into Latin script, and so be aware that there are many possible spellings of all these names and words.