I have been self-quarantining for over five weeks now. In that time, the only access I have to the outside world is my balcony, which I feel so blessed to have.

Interview with Munawwar Abdulla

Introduce yourself!

Hello, salam, yaxshimusiler! I’m Munawwar. I have been involved in Uyghur advocacy, and community building work in its various forms for most of my life and consider it to be my passion. I am also a lab manager and RT for a neuroscience lab at Harvard.

 

What do you love the most about your background and culture (ex. traditions, food, family gatherings, etc.)? 

I do love the food and tea; there’s such a wide variety of dishes and tastes, and the practice of sharing food and entertaining guests is so integral to our culture. That sense of community makes me feel really warm. (Although it is taxing at times when you’re the eldest daughter and have to help with all the cooking!)

 

I am reading more of the literature lately and have been really, really enjoying it, especially the poetry and short stories. I grew up listening to my uncles tell me and my brother so many folk tales, and I think there’s a treasure trove of excellent modern literature as well that needs to be translated and shared with the world.

 

Who are your greatest inspirations in activism and everything?

My family for sure, and particularly my mum, who always said I could be anything I put my mind to. She left her home in a village outside of Ghulja at the age of 16, with the support of her parents, to study at university. Now, she does everything in her power to help fight for the rights of all Uyghurs while also being a great person to talk to. You can check out her work at uhrp.org.

How did you come up with the idea of Uyghur Collective? What’s the story behind visualizing Uyghur culture? 

I got the idea from stumbling upon a very niche section of the internet where someone had shared some great pictures of their own under-represented culture. I realised all you saw when searching “Uyghur” at the time were the same few pictures over and over again: Uyghurs as victims of violence, or as happy dancers and farmers. I wanted to share images of Uyghur people, culture, history, and geography that were good quality, interesting, and gave a new perspective – and one that reflected my reality as Uyghur. As I found those photos, I also learned more about these topics and just felt so excited to share that information, not just with non-Uyghurs but with Uyghurs like me, too, who was raised in diaspora and did not have the cultural or linguistic education that Uyghurs growing up in East Turkistan may have had. Conversely, those coming out of the region tended not to know much about Uyghur history because of censorship from the government. So, it became this learning hub and a place to connect for me.

 

With both Uyghur Collective and the Tarim Network, what do you hope for your audience to take away from those pages? What long-term goals do you have for them?

The Tarim Network came about because I managed to connect with someone on Uyghur Collective who shared the same vision I did. I want UC to continue to do that – connect like-minded people who are passionate about their heritage and community, be a space for people to learn and share, and also one where we remain optimistic, uplift one another, and make a positive impact on the world.

 

My goal for the Tarim Network is to be this resource for all Uyghurs – and others who share our dilemmas right now – to use to connect with others in a social and professional capacity. At the moment, we have programs to learn Uyghur, a podcast, avenues to connect to professionals or mentors in fields that the younger generation may be interested in, and a line-up of seminars introducing topics of interest. We want to continue working on bigger and better ways to “Unite, Inspire, and Advance” the Uyghur diaspora, both for the future of our people as well as for the communities we live in and interact with.

 

It would be great to collaborate with other non-Uyghur groups and networks who share similar goals!

 

There’s a lot of news going around about the concentration camps in China. How can non-Uyghur Asians and BIPOC best spread the word and offer the most efficient help? 

The Uyghur Collective website has a bunch of projects people can help with – and do check out all the links in the “More” dropdown menu for a list of credible places you can either get more information from, donate to, or volunteer at, such as shahit.biz. The actions we can take are always changing with the situation. At the moment, one thing we can all do is boycott companies that are implicated in forced labour, be more ethical consumers and influencers in general, while also writing to those companies, and writing to your representatives (if you’re in the US) to pass the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act.

 

Part of what we lack is enough people to do all the work that needs to be done. We love seeing everyone raising awareness about the situation on social media – this is something I could never have imagined just a few years ago. I’m hoping this will create a new base of people who can dedicate some of their time to the projects and organisations who are in need of enthusiastic volunteers.

 

Still, continue to speak to your communities, organisations, and governments. And donate if you can!

 

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?

I’m not sure if I can pinpoint one big substantial thing I’ve done, but I enjoy seeing the gradual impact of projects like UC and the Tarim Network on our community, as well as in raising awareness of Uyghurs outside of a catastrophe/suffering narrative. I also like that I’ve managed to pursue my interests in science and literature while doing the best I can for my people. Most of all, I think I have managed to keep sane despite all the issues that have weighed heavy on my mental health, and I think that it is really important for everyone in advocacy/activism to take a step back and care for themselves as well, once in a while.

 

Any advice for other Uyghur/Asian women who are also looking to make a change?

My best advice is to just start. If there’s something you want to see in the world, if there’s a vision you want to bring to reality, just begin now. Some projects might flop while others will get buoyed and supported to new heights by people who shared that vision of yours. Either way, there’s no regrets. Another piece of advice that might be a bit trickier to do is to find a support network, friends, or a good team to help you out. You can achieve a lot on your own, but having that team just makes everything in life a little lighter, a little brighter, and will almost always maximise the impact of that change.

 

What do you think are the most frustrating challenges facing Asian women today? 

It’s difficult to say since Asian women vary so much across the board. Perhaps one thing we all share to an extent is we seem to be dismissed a lot easier than other groups. Whether it’s our emotions, professional opinions, or hard work, we’re often not taken very seriously, which can mean anything from having the cries and suffering of displaced or persecuted women be disregarded or even normalised, or having to work extra hard and take on more emotional and mental labour to be heard and valued in the workplace.

 

What’s next for you? Any exciting projects?

Yes! Currently, I’m helping to raise funds for this new project in Turkey called the Atlas Media & Design program. UC and Tarim also always have mini projects and programs popping up that can use a bit of support. I have some ongoing translation projects on the side that you can check out here. I am also heading a social media outreach, and networking platform for women scientists called My So-Called Lab and would love to feature more Asian women in STEM!

 


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Munawwar Abdulla is an Uyghur advocate and writer moonlighting as a scientist. Her poetry and writings have been published in various literary journals and online magazines based in Australia and the US. In her free time these days, you can find her geeking out over a particularly well-translated sentence, her chillies, the idea of starting karate again, or a newly acquired Switch, all while being afflicted with tsundoku.

Uyghur Collective: Instagram, Twitter

The Tarim Network: Instagram, Facebook

Munawwar: Instagram

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