URUMQI, China – The petite Muslim woman with the sky blue head scarf began by complaining that the public washrooms were closed at a crowded mosque on Friday — the most important day of the week for Islamic worship. When a group gathered around her on the sidewalk, Madina Ahtam then railed against communist rule in China's far western region of Xinjiang, rocked by ethnic rioting that has killed at least 184 people this week.
The 26-year-old businesswoman eventually led the crowd of mostly men in a fist-pumping street march that was quickly blocked by riot police, some with automatic rifles pointed at the protesters.
The incident was one of many examples of how Muslim women have been taking bold leadership roles following the deadliest communal violence in decades in the Xinjiang region. As the communist government launches a sweeping security crackdown, the women have faced down troops, led protests and risked arrest by speaking out against police tactics they believe are excessive.
Chinese leaders have alleged that a woman masterminded the rioting in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi. They blame activist Rebiya Kadeer, a 62-year-old businesswoman who was once the government's favorite Uighur success story. But she began criticizing communist rule, served time in prison and eventually went into exile in the U.S. She has repeatedly denied instigating the violence.
Women have been on the front line in Urumqi partly because more than 1,400 men in the Muslim Uighur minority have been rounded up by police since ethnic rioting broke out July 5.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said late Friday that the death toll has risen to 184, with 137 of the victims belonging to the dominant Han ethnic group. The Han victims included 111 men and 26 women, the report said. The rest of the deaths were 45 men and one woman who were Muslim Uighurs, along with one man of the Hui ethnic group, Xinhua said, citing the information office of the regional government.
The violence came as the Uighurs were protesting the June 25 deaths of Uighur factory workers in a brawl in southern China. The crowd then scattered throughout Urumqi, attacking Han Chinese, burning cars and smashing windows.
Many Uighurs who are still free live in fear of being arrested for any act of dissent.
Thousands of Chinese troops have flooded into Urumqi to separate the feuding ethnic groups, and a senior Communist Party official vowed to execute those guilty of murder in the rioting.
At the Group of Eight summit in Italy, Gen. James Jones, the U.S. national security adviser, urged two Chinese diplomats "to ensure that government forces act with appropriate restraint," according to a senior Obama administration official, who described the meeting to reporters on condition of anonymity because of White House ground rules.
In many Uighur neighborhoods during the crisis in Urumqi, the women did much of the talking with reporters as the men gathered in small groups on street corners and in back alleys, speaking quietly among themselves.
"I can't speak freely. The police could come any minute and haul me away," said a Uighur man who would only identify himself as Alim.
But on Friday, some men challenged officials when they showed up for prayers at Urumqi's popular White Mosque and found the gate closed. Officials had earlier said the mosque would be closed for public safety reasons as security forces tried to pacify the capital.
The mosque was eventually opened when the crowd swelled and there was a threat of unrest, police said.
Most Muslim Uighurs practice a moderate form of Sunni Islam or follow the mystical Sufism tradition. The women often work and lead an active social life outside the home. Many wear brightly colored head scarves but the custom is not strongly enforced. Young Uighur women often wear jeans, formfitting tops and dresses.
As the faithful streamed into the White Mosque, Ahtam arrived holding a lilac umbrella and told foreign reporters in broken English, "Toilet no open. No water."
She led reporters to an area where the faithful are supposed to cleanse themselves before prayers and said with tears running down her cheeks, "Washing room not open. Everybody no wash."
After the prayers, she continued speaking on the sidewalk and attracted about 40 people who applauded when she criticized the government.
"Every Uighur people are afraid. Do you understand? We are afraid. Chinese people are very happy. Why?" said Ahtam, who wore a blue head scarf and leopard-print blouse.
The government believes the Uighurs should be grateful for Xinjiang's rapid economic development, which has brought new schools, highways, airports, railways, natural gas fields and oil wells in the sprawling, rugged Central Asian region, three times the size of Texas.
But many of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, with a population of 9 million in Xinjiang, accuse the dominant Han ethnic group of discriminating against them and saving all the best jobs for themselves. Many also say the Communist Party is repressive and tries to snuff out their Islamic faith, language and culture.
As Ahtam's crowd became more agitated, about 20 riot police with clubs marched toward the group. The Uighurs pumped their fists in the air and walked down the street with Ahtam leading the pack.
About 200 more riot police arrived and cut off the group, with some of the security forces kneeling down and pointing their automatic rifles at the marchers. Foreign reporters were led to a side alley, out of view of the protesters, who were forced to squat on the sidewalk along a row of shuttered shops.
Hours later, calls to Ahtam's cell phone went unanswered and it was unknown what happened to her.
Police quickly closed off parts of major thoroughfare for much of the afternoon after the protest. In the past two days, the capital had been moving closer to its normal state, but Ahtam's simple protest about the public toilet showed how volatile the situation is and how quickly it can regress.
Women led another protest Tuesday — one day after they said police rounded up 300 men in their neighborhood, a hot spot during the July 5 rioting. Foreign journalists visited the area during an official government media tour that was supposed to highlight the damage done during the violence.
But the trip backfired when the Uighur women emerged from a market nearby and began crying and complaining about missing husbands and sons. They screamed in the faces of the hundreds of riot police who were mobilized to shut down their spontaneous protest.
Later in the week, the women were less willing to talk, but some met with foreign reporters in side streets and complained.
"We haven't had any news about our husbands. We haven't been allowed to call," said one woman, who only gave part of her name, Guli.
Most of the arrested suspects were Uighur men, and police and witnesses have said they used rocks, sticks and knives to brutally and randomly kill their victims. Officials have said many of the targets were women.
In other parts of Xinjiang, the city of Kashgar, near the Pakistan border, was declared off-limits to reporters in all but name. Foreign reporters were not allowed to leave their hotels, except to go to the airport. An Associated Press photographer was detained repeatedly and escorted to the airport. The effect was to make it impossible for reporters to work.
Associated Press writer Charles Babington contributed to this report from L'Aquila, Italy.