The Most Dangerous Women in the World: Rebiya Kadeer

by MORE Editors
Photograph: Illustration: Sean McCabe

Her Truth & Its Consequences

The mother of 11 children, Kadeer turned a laundry business into a multi-million-dollar trading empire that supported more than 2,000 merchants. She was known as the Millionairess in her Uighur homeland, called Xinjiang (the “new frontier”) by the Chinese and East Turkistan by the Uighurs. Her appointment to China’s national legislative body in the early 1990s was hailed by the government as proof of equal opportunity and multi-ethnic harmony in China. But instead of playing into the propaganda, Kadeer used her position to fight for Uighur autonomy and resist human rights violations such as forced birth control, limits on her people’s freedom of religion, the deployment of Chinese soldiers in East Turkistan and the use of Uighur land for open-air nuclear tests.

“In our country, men suffered most under Chinese rule,” says Kadeer, now 63. “They were detained, tortured, imprisoned and executed.” But it’s Uighur women she sees as “a strong force for change.” In 1997 she founded the Thousand Mothers Movement, which aimed to empower Uighur females to start their own businesses. After only three months, the government banned the organization.

In 1999, Kadeer was arrested and imprisoned for allegedly stealing state secrets, because she intended to give news clippings about political prisoners in East Turkistan to a visiting U.S. delegation. “We will crush you like a snake,” the chief of police reportedly told her. “And I will emerge from prison like an eagle,” Kadeer replied.

In 2005, after six years behind bars, Kadeer was released to the U.S., where she now lives in exile in suburban Washington, D.C., and runs the World Uyghur Congress. She lobbies international leaders and works with human rights groups to pressure China to change its policies toward the Uighurs. “The persecution by the Chinese has reached the point of no return,” Kadeer says.

Since 2006, tens of thousands of young Uighur women have been transferred to eastern China to provide cheap labor in sweatshops, and in July 2009 an uprising left nearly 200 dead and more than 1,700 wounded. “Before, those who lived in fear were able to at least protest," she says. "Now we hear that Chinese authorities are going door-to-door rounding up men and detaining women, leaving small children at home with no one to care for them.” But she is strengthened by the support of her fellow Uighurs: “I always have this urgency in my heart that I have to deliver something to the people who put so much hope in me.”


Her Dangerous Thoughts

“The Chinese government does not like the fact that its heinous crimes are being exposed. Economic success has made China extremely confident, and it has used this opportunity to intensify its persecution of the Uighur people.”

Click here to meet another of the Most Dangerous Women in the World: Aminatou Haidar.

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