Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old Muslim-American high school student, posted a 40-second video about eyelash curling on the Chinese social media app TikTok in November as a ruse to discuss China’s oppression and maltreatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority. The video begins as a tutorial for creating longer lashes, but Aziz abruptly shifts into a discussion of the plight of the Uyghurs to draw public attention to their situation in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region. The video, which quickly went viral, was viewed more than 1.6 million times. TikTok subsequently blocked it and temporarily suspended Aziz’s account for violating a policy on terrorism-related material. Nevertheless, Aziz says she will continue broaching the subject via social media. In an interview with Gulchehra Hoja of RFA’s Uyghur Service, Aziz talks about why she is speaking out about the Uyghurs and what kinds of viewer feedback she has received. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: How did you become involved in speaking out about human rights for oppressed peoples?
Aziz: I’ve always been into human rights issues and other advocacy issues since I was around 12 or 13 years old. As an Afghan-American and a Muslim-American, I’ve faced a lot of discrimination and a lot of prejudice and racism against my beliefs and where I have come from, and so I’ve always had this side of me that has connected to people who have been discriminated against as well regarding their religion, race, or ethnicity. It didn’t really specifically mean that they had to be Afghan-American like me or Muslim like me. I relate to everyone who is oppressed. For example, I live in a very Jewish community, and my heart broke always having to hear stories about the Holocaust from World War II, so I’ve always tried to be aware of oppression that occurs.
RFA: When did you become aware of the suppression of the Muslim Uyghurs by China?
Aziz: I became aware of the Uyghur situation around the winter of 2018 in January, and I did not find out through mainstream news, but through an Instagram post on someone’s story. I found it out through social media. And I thought it was crazy that no one was speaking about this, that no one was speaking about this on the news or bringing attention to this. It’s scary. This is a genocide of over a million people who are being detained, according to the U.N. But we all know that those numbers are obviously higher now since it’s been two years since that statement has been released by the U.N. I though this is crazy and scary and disgusting that people are being detained because they are Uyghur or because they are Muslim. And it’s not just Uyghurs, but also other ethnic minorities and religious groups. I thought that this was very, very crazy that people were being punished or tortured because they followed a religion or because they were from a certain place. I thought that this was wrong and that people needed to speak about it. Unfortunately, no one is speaking about it.
RFA: How did you come to use social media as a platform for speaking out about the Uyghurs?
Aziz: I’ve continued to post on my social media platforms like Instagram to raise more awareness especially among family and friends. This time I didn’t really have a following to give it to too many people, but one day I downloaded TikTok and saw that it was just videos for the youth, videos that were meant to be funny and entertaining and about fashion and makeup. I thought that maybe I should do something else. I always knew that this app drew attention for those entertainment things, so I thought that if I made a video and pretended that it was an entertainment video — a makeup tutorial — people would want to watch it. That was one of my reasons. My second reason was, obviously, to disguise the video from China, because the first time I posted a video about the Uyghur situation, it got taken down. TikTok claimed it never happened, but it did.
RFA: What happened after you posted the eyelash tutorial video?
I did the video around Nov. 23, and it reached a million views right away, and it’s reached millions of more views on Twitter and on Instagram, and on other TikToks it was reaching lots of views. I decided to post two more videos about it on Nov. 24. After that Monday, I saw that my account had been suspended from my personal device, and I could not get onto TikTok itself. I was suspended for a few days. One or two days later, my original eyelash tutorial was taken down by TikTok for around an hour. They said this was a human error, which I find mind-boggling. I have access again to TikTok. I’m going to continue to spread awareness, and I’m always going to continue to spread awareness whether it’s on any social media platform, whether it’s at an event or a protest, a YouTube video — whatever it is, I will always speak up about the oppressed, people who are discriminated against, and the Uyghurs especially.
RFA: Have you received any threats because of your video?
Aziz: Yes, I have received threats. I have not received any threats, thank God, from Chinese officials or the Chinese government. However, I have received some threats from Chinese accounts. Most of them are inappropriate in a sexual way, and there have been a few death threats. But aside from that, the reaction that my video has gotten has been extremely positive. I don’t really like to focus on the negative like those death threats because, honestly, it’s not that much compared to the positive impact it’s created. I’m really happy because 60 percent of the viewers who have seen my video were thanking me because they had never heard about this, whereas the other 40 percent were saying, “Thank you for finally speaking up about this.” I’m really happy that this video has gotten a lot of attention from this, and I hope it’s not me who is getting the attention, but this issue, this genocide, this holocaust, is getting attention. As human beings, everyone should be scared about what’s happening. As human beings, everyone should care about this issue, and it’s sad that no one is speaking about it. Anyone and everyone should be speaking about this. If this was another religion or another ethnicity, I would also have spoken about it, because my only reasoning is that I’m a human being, and human beings need to come together and fight together with our voices against oppression.
Reported by Gulchehra Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.