The Disappearance of Rahile Dawut10 min read

A vanished professor, remembered by students and colleagues – Darren Byler


On December 4, 2017, the disappearance of Professor Rahile Dawut, an eminent scholar of the Uyghur ethnic minority which she herself belongs to, sent quiet shockwaves among her students and colleagues around the world. On that day she had packed her bags for a flight to Beijing from Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the majority of Uyghurs live, and has not been seen since. Presumably she is being held in detention. The cryptic text messages a colleague sent regarding what happened did not provide many details. They ended with the message, “I am going to delete my VPN [virtual private network, for communicating behind the Chinese firewall] and never use it again. So please if you care about people here, stop asking questions.”

Dawut’s Uyghur students care too deeply to stop asking questions, but for many months they have kept their questions quiet. Many of them have already lost friends and family to the “transformation through education” camp system that has disappeared hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in 2017, and continues to do so in 2018. They know about the dangers of speaking out against the state’s human-engineering campaign.

Although they have remained silent, her students told me they have cried uncontrollably. They felt dizzy. It has been hard to breathe. They feel that with Dawut’s disappearance, their collective future has also disappeared, erasing their work to bring native Uyghur knowledge – its world view, its system of values, its life practices – into the present, translating and amplifying it for audiences around the world.

Rahile Dawut has taught them an ethics of survival. Born in Urumqi in 1966 to a family of intellectuals, in 1998 she became one of the first Uyghur women to receive her PhD. The determination it took to achieve this has also shaped her work, which strives to preserve the enduring life of Uyghur cultural values and practices. Throughout her career she has refused to let her students simply watch as Uyghur traditions vanished and sacred landscapes were barred. Instead she has shown them how Uyghurs can take control of their own stories by sharing knowledge of their land.

“She has refused to let her students simply watch as Uyghur traditions vanished and sacred landscapes were barred”

Dawut is more than just a scholar of Uyghur folklore and sacred geography. When she founded the Ethnic Minorities Folklore Research Center at Xinjiang University in 2007, she built an intellectual home for dozens of young researchers. Historian Eric Schluessel noted that when he first met her in 2008, other Uyghurs already thought of her “as a kind of superstar.” This awe came not only from her pathbreaking work as one of the first female Uyghur academics to  rise through the ranks of Chinese academia, but also from her student-centered approach to teaching and research.

She not only pioneered native ethnography in Xinjiang, but as one of her Uyghur students put it, “established herself as a model for many young female ethnographers and has shown them what is possible.” Another of her students – who must all remain anonymous for obvious reasons – told me that her influence on campus extended far beyond her focus on anthropology, and that because of Dawut “many women, even those in computer science or mathematics, saw that a woman could be successful in her career in Uyghur society. Our society can be so patriarchal.”

The anthropologist Rune Steenberg observed when he met Dawut for the first time in 2010 that her office was full of bookshelves crowded with the MA and BA theses of her students, stacks of papers, books, cassette recordings, DVDs of weddings, oral storytelling events, and records of shrine pilgrimages and other celebrations that Dawut has collected from all over Xinjiang. Like many international researchers, Steenberg spent hours in her office looking at her collections of ethnographic data and learning from her and her students. “I was struck by how well Dawut took care of her students,” she said. “She bought lunch for them, saw after them when they were ill and generally took an interest in their work and life. She treated them as equals.”

One of Dawut’s students told me, “We are like sisters! She is my hero. Even after I first came to the US, whenever I had a problem I would write her an email. She always encouraged me. She said, ‘This is your chance, every single day you are learning something! Not everyone can get this chance! Don’t give up! I believe in you, you can do it!’ So, I never gave up even if I felt that a mountain had collapsed on my head.”

Rahile Dawut talking with Uyghur village elders in 2005 (Lisa Ross)

Historian Joshua Freeman, one of her long-term collaborators, commented, “For a generation of master’s students at Xinjiang University, Rahile Dawut is more than an advisor. With her boundless energy and generosity, she made sure her students – many from distant towns and less privileged backgrounds – had the means to get by in Urumqi, that they were doing OK in their studies and in life. Dawut’s students have gone on to remarkable success in academia and in other spheres, and I have heard from many of them about the role she played in their lives.”

When I talked to over a dozen of Dawut’s international colleagues for this essay, a common thread emerged: nearly all of them mentioned how modest and self-effacing Dawut is, even though she has achieved so much as a scholar. It often feels as though she is not fully aware of how monumental her contribution to Uyghur studies is. The modesty that Dawut’s colleagues and students associate with her also proceeds from her ethics of survival. For her, the true carriers of knowledge in her research are not scholars and academic institutions, but the Uyghur farmers who use traditional knowledge in their everyday life.

Dawut’s monumental 2002 study of religious geography mapped hundreds of shrines (mazars) that dot the desert landscape surrounding the oasis cities that make up the Uyghur homeland. She examined not only this network of pilgrimage sites but, as historian Rian Thum commented, also the “beliefs people held about each shrine’s history and the rituals they performed at the shrines.” As the landscape portrait photographer Lisa Ross remembered, Dawut’s book became an object Uyghur farmers “were excited to look at and hold in their hands.”

“The negative intersection of Chinese patriarchy, minority status and international misrecognition made her success even more remarkable”

Since many Uyghurs are not permitted to make the journey to Mecca – passports are restricted, and a strict quota is enforced – visiting a number of the shrines Dawut describes in the book allows them to achieve a life-goal similar to the Hajj without ever leaving China. Because of this, the book itself became a highly sought-after object in the region, affirming Uyghur believers as they traced the paths of their ancestors.  The eagerness of Uyghurs to participate in this shrine tradition and their interest in Dawut’s work demonstrates the importance of shrines for Uyghurs. Her work shows that shrines are “a pervasive, rather than exceptional, feature of the Uyghur landscape,” according to Thum.

Ethnomusicologist Elise Anderson recalled Dawut’s commitment to the people who maintain these traditions when they co-authored a chapter on Uyghur oral traditions in 2015. “When the foundation that published our textbook chapter offered us small sums of money for the audio and video materials we included, all of which came from Dawut’s decades-long archive of recordings from her fieldwork at mazars, without skipping a beat Dawut insisted that we turn around and give the money back to the oral poets (dastanchis) who had originally performed the poems.” Her students told me she asked Uyghur village elders for input on what she planned to publish and respected their desires when it came to sharing their knowledge with the wider public.

Dawut documenting Uyghur village life in 2005 (Lisa Ross)

In January 2017, Dawut was featured on the front page of the magazine Xinjiang Women in recognition of her 20 years of research, her four books and more than 30 research articles in Uyghur, Chinese and English. She had received millions of yuan in state grants and was a native scholar superstar. As ethnomusicologist Rachel Harris observed, “As a minority woman she shouldered not just a double but a triple burden.” Her ability to succeed despite the negative intersection of Chinese patriarchy, minority status and international misrecognition made her success even more remarkable.

Dawut has been a member of the Chinese Communist Party for over 30 years, and her disappearance is particularly shocking because she has long been celebrated within the Chinese academic and political system, as a student of the celebrated Chinese folklorist Zhong Jingwen. In 2008, she was awarded the prestigious Zhong Jingwen Award for her research.

This collegiality also left a big impression on her students and colleagues. Steenberg said, “I never heard her even covertly say bad things about the Han [ethnicity]. Her Mandarin was great and she used it without a grudge. She held good relations to her Han colleagues, and they were always invited to the talks I held at her institute.” He continued, “I see Dawut as a bridge-builder between western, Uyghur and Han-Chinese academia. She embraced all of these traditions, learned from each of them and managed to have their practitioners interact in mutual respect and support.”

Perhaps Dawut has such a powerful effect on those who know her because of what historian Alexandre Papas referred to as her “particular attention to the material, often barely visible, aspects of veneration in Islam.” She observes the feeling of the places she documents, the tears people shed. She cares about what Uyghurs care about, and when those around her watch this in action they cannot help but care too. As Ross says, “Dawut helped me to grow and develop in my humanity, in my hospitality and in my generosity.”

Rahile Dawut speaking at a conference she helped to organize in Urumqi in 2008, titled ‘Studies on Mazar Cultures on the Silk Road’

On a visit to Urumqi in 2017, anthropologist Timothy Grose remembered meeting Dawut in her office at the Folklore Center she founded. “We discussed the deteriorating situation in Xinjiang – convenience police stations every 200 meters in Urumqi, bans on Sufi prayer (zikr) in Turpan, and her inability to freely travel outside China for conferences. Yet she shrugged these matters off with humor. She said to me, ‘The officials say that if you are thirsty or need to charge a mobile phone, you can visit a convenience police station and they will help. I’ve always wanted to see if I could get a bottle of water if I ask.’”

Dawut’s humor, another expression of her ethics of survival, resonates with what Native American studies scholar Gerald Vizenor refers to as survivance. This indigenous methodology is typified by an “active sense of presence over historical absence, deracination and oblivion.” Rather than focusing on the way histories have been violently erased in native societies, Vizenor argues that native life continues on in its humor, its oral traditions, and its moral fortitude.

Dawut exemplifies just such a spirit. Her legacy will survive, even though she has now disappeared along with hundreds of thousands of her fellow Uyghurs. Her students and colleagues hope that she will return, released from detention or otherwise free to continue her work. Yet the Uyghurs whose culture she worked to preserve cannot help but worry about the future of their homeland, about the thousands of recordings and notebooks that have been taken from Dawut’s office, and about the future of their survival. ∎


Join Rahile Dawut’s friends and colleagues in asking the Chinese state to release Dawut by signing and sharing this petition.
Further reading
Rahile Dawut, Lisa Ross, Beth R. Citron and Alexander Papas, Living Shrines of Uyghur China (Monacelli Press, 2013)
Rahile Dawut and Jun Sugawara, eds. Mazar: Studies on Islamic Sacred Sites in Central Eurasia (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Press, 2016)
Rian Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History (Harvard University Press, 2014)
Header image: Dawut documents the Charqiliq mazar near the city of Korla in 2005 (Lisa Ross).