What thoughts roll through your mind when you see your favorite brand is having a midseason sale? I think about what outfits I’ll wear my new clothes with or how great of a steal I just got. I’ll tell you what I haven’t thought about until now: Was this garment made with voluntary or forced labor? How old was the person who constructed this? What’s the humanity in this piece of clothing? The student activists behind the growing Free Uyghur Now movement are hoping to get us to start asking those questions.

I had the pleasure of connecting with one of the activists behind the student coalition, Tasnim Benalla (pictured below). “I’ve always found it my responsibility to work for the world I want to create,” she said. And work she does. What started as a paper on an unfamiliar subject turned into a passion for raising awareness about the Uyghur genocide at the hands of the Chinese government.

Image Source: Tasnim Benalla

What’s Happening to the Uyghur People?

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 Uyghur people a minority in their own land. They were forced to assimilate into Chinese culture through abusive “reeducation” camps. However, as Tasnim told me, “after the world became more aware of the utterly unjustifiable ‘reeducation’ camps, the Chinese government moved a sizable portion of the imprisoned Uyghurs to forced labor camps instead.” With estimates of anywhere from one million to 1.8 million Uyghur and other Turkic people 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 atrocious human-rights violations are being reported regularly, and many groups have deemed this a genocide. And the fashion industry is directly benefiting from it.

“Instead of forced labor becoming a rare practice that should not be tolerated within the industry, it has become the norm.”

Tasnim explained how the competitive nature of the fashion industry has led major brands to, either consciously or unconsciously, profit off of this genocide. “Instead of forced labor becoming a rare practice that should not be tolerated within the industry, it has become the norm,” she said. Fast fashion has taken over the industry due to its accessibility, relative affordability, and adaptability to quickly changing trends and interests. These qualities come at a cost, however. The high demand leads to increased hours for employees, extremely low wages, and potentially unsafe working conditions. Unfortunately, the normalization of forced and free labor has made us, the consumers, complicit as well. Our society has taught us to “prioritize shopping ‘cheap’ over shopping ethically,” Tasnim said. And many times, fast fashion seems like the only option available to those who cannot afford to shop ethically. The point is not to feel guilty for having taken advantage of those $10 tops, Tasnim notes, but to “shame an industry that makes free labor off the backs of marginalized and/or oppressed communities.”

What Can Be Done to Help the Uyghur People?

The good news is activists in the Free Uyghur movement have been working to demand change through pressuring governments and the public alike. In June 2020, Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, and it has introduced a genocide resolution to the Senate. Whether there were ulterior political motives at play (Donald Trump has claimed the sanctions were not motivated by the concentration camps but for economic reasons), this is a move in the right legislative direction. Grassroots activism began this movement with students from Yale writing “Free Uyghur” on their clothes, and it continued in 2020 with Tasnim and her fellow student activists leading a demonstration outside of New York Fashion Week.

The tireless work these groups are doing is not political — it’s for human rights. Tasnim says meeting and hearing from Uyghur people themselves has affected her deeply. “Many Uyghurs I’ve met have one family member who has disappeared, and all of them are unable to contact their families back home, whether it be a phone call to ask how they are or sending a simple ‘Eid Mubarak (Happy Eid)’ text. Others have constant nightmares about them being in the camps or their family members disappearing to one.” But it’s the Uyghur people’s resilience that keeps Tasnim fighting for them. She implores others to donate, sign petitions, urge representatives to demand transparency from China and companies profiting from this, and, most importantly, spread awareness. Putting a human face to the genocide is the first step in making real change, even if that just means asking yourself about the story behind the next addition to your closet.

For more information, visit the Free Uyghur Coalition website.

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