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Jewher Ilham Is Dismantling The Politics Of Fashion And Forced Labor

The author and advocate shares a powerful and vital message for young consumers concerned about sustainability and ethics

By Karissa Mitchell

September 12, 2022

Jewher Ilham speaks to how the apparel industry is complicit in the crimes leveraged against her people. As a human rights advocate and Uyghur woman, her mission is to help shape a world where being a consumer doesn’t have to mean being complicit in forced labor. Here at Teen Vogue, we champion fashion as part of creative expression. But where our favorite styles come from and the implications for human rights are just as important, if not more.

A new statistic, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, shows that year-to-date sales of ginned cotton from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China through mid-June 2022 have decreased 41 percent from the same period of 2021. That monumental shift indicates that companies have already begun responding to legislation barring the import of goods from the Uyghur Region and also perhaps to pressure from groups such as the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour, of which Jewher is a member. Since the Chinese government imprisoned her father, the Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, for speaking up for Uyghur rights, Jewher Ilham has dedicated her life to fighting for the freedom of her people.

In this op-ed, Jewher writes about reconciling her love for fashion with her work to hold apparel brands accountable for their complicity in human rights crimes, with Uyghur forced labor permeating the global apparel market on a massive scale.

From an early age, my father taught me that I must stand up for human rights no matter the cost. He also taught me that it is absolutely imperative to match my socks to my outfit. Both of these lessons are essential to who I am.

Uyghurs like me speak a Turkic language that is completely different from Mandarin and Cantonese; we look different; and the majority of Uyghurs practice Islam, whereas China is a secular state. In my homeland, the Uyghur Region, located to the west of China, Chinese authorities are attempting to erase my people’s culture and ethnic identity through a cruel campaign of mass detention, forced labor, and intimidation.

All my life, my father, the Uyghur economist and advocate Ilham Tohti, spoke up loudly against the abuse and discrimination facing our people, and advocated passionately for a future in which Han Chinese and Uyghurs could coexist in peace despite our differences. In 2014, he was sentenced to life in prison for sharing that vision. I haven’t heard from him in five years.

Even as he put his life on the line speaking up for justice, my father valued the power of an outfit he felt good wearing. That meant a pressed, collared shirt, crisp slacks, and shoes and socks that went with the look. On special days, he’d break out his favorite attire: a velvet, salmon-colored suit with white lambskin shoes. He loved clothes and never thought caring about how he looked was frivolous. To him, nothing about having style conflicted with how seriously he took his work and his willingness to sacrifice everything to stand up for what is right. He exemplifies that those two things can live within one person.

I am doing everything I can to follow in my father’s footsteps and fight for the freedom of my people. I also love to shop and take my time getting ready every morning. During my career, I have addressed the United Nations General Assembly, met with Secretaries of State, been invited to the Oval Office, given readings from the books I have published, and spoken publicly countless other times raising the urgent call to end Uyghur forced labor. In these moments, I have always felt that I should use every tool at my disposal to command attention, because what I have to say is important. For me, at least, what I wear is a big part of projecting that confidence.

I am acutely aware of the uncomfortable push and pull between these things – wanting to advance a human rights agenda and enjoying fashion – especially in the context of Uyghur human rights. The apparel industry is egregiously complicit in the persecution of Uyghurs. Millions of Uyghurs in China have been detained and held in forced labor camps, where they spend grueling days, months, years producing and processing materials for garments that eventually make their way into wardrobes around the world.

It is almost impossible to avoid buying clothes made with Uyghur forced labor. An estimated twenty percent of the world’s cotton comes from the Uyghur Region, and the Chinese government’s strict surveillance and secrecy around what goes on in the area makes it so oftentimes even the brands themselves have no idea how their products are truly made. The only way for a company to be sure their supply chain does not rely on Uyghur forced labor is to extricate their production from the region completely.

As consumers, it’s important to be educated, and I am encouraged by the growing number of people taking a serious interest in the origins and ethics of everything they purchase. But the onus shouldn’t be on the consumer to perform hours of research attempting to unearth and vet the obscure suppliers of every brand they wear. Rather, consumers can make clear their expectation that brands and retailers uphold their responsibility to ensure their business model does not rely on forced labor.

Instead of feeling guilty for being interested in fashion, I focus on holding companies accountable for adhering to international human rights standards. It is critical that as companies adjust their supply chains to come into compliance with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, recently signed into law in the US, that they apply this new legal standard to their entire supply chain, so that goods made with forced labor do not end up on store shelves in other consumer markets, like Europe.

In my work with the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, our goal is to compel companies to cut ties with the Uyghur Region completely and invest in an ethical supply chain. Brands that have signed onto the Coalition’s Call to Action include ASOS, Reformation, and Eileen Fisher, to name a few. It is possible now to make ethical choices when shopping, but I’m fighting for a future when the ethical choice is the only one we have.

Freedom of expression – whether it’s how we choose to practice religion, what we say, what we wear – is a human right. I will not stop speaking out until the day my people can walk free in our homeland. I know on that day, my father will be standing alongside me looking his best in his salmon-colored suit.


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