Uighur Mawluda Momin still remembers the day she left her village in China’s Xinjiang region to come to Australia.

She was eight years old.

“The day [my mother, brother and I] left, it was snowing. I was just thinking ‘why are we leaving?’” she told SBS News.

“I still remember my family standing at the door and waving. We had to rush into the taxi … we weren’t allowed to make a big deal out of it.”

Today, she and her older sister, Nigara, are the owners of their own international fashion business, Twiice Boutique, based in Greenacre, in Sydney’s west. 

The brand aims to empower women by putting a modern twist on modest fashion – a trend in which people wear less skin-revealing clothes, often to satisfy spiritual or religious beliefs.

“What makes me so proud is the process it’s taken for us to get here,” Nigara said.

“We don’t have a business background, we don’t have wealthy parents to fund us – everything is from our own hard work and sacrifice.”

From Xinjiang to Sydney

Greenacre is a long way from Xinjiang, where China has allegedly established scores of internment camps in which human rights abuses have been carried out on the Uighur Muslim minority.

Their treatment has been labelled a genocide by parliaments and rights groups across the world.

In the early 20th century, the Uighurs declared themselves as part of independent East Turkestan. However, the region was usurped by mainland China’s newly-formed communist government in 1949.

Uighurs say their persecution by China started in the mid-20th century and began escalating in the early 2000s. Today, more than one million Uighurs are believed to be detained in ‘re-education’ camps in China.

Mawluda and Nigara, now 27 and 28, mostly have happy memories of their time in Xinjiang. 

They were surrounded by family and friends, and say they never felt there was a tangible difference between the way Chinese and Uighur people were viewed.

“We were such a big family. Back then you could openly celebrate Eid or Ramadan. The restrictions were nowhere near as bad as they are now,” Nigara said.

Nigara and Mawluda Momin’s home in Xinjiang
SBS News

It was the girls’ father that first came to Australia in the early 2000s.

He had been involved in an organisation that protested against inequalities towards Uighurs. After Chinese authorities got wind of his group’s activities, he decided to flee. Australia granted him a refugee protection visa.

While Mawluda was able to flee Xinjiang shortly after that with her mum and younger brother, Nigara and another sister had to wait until their passports were ready – something she says was only possible through bribery.

“We had to pay people a lot of money just so they could help us get a passport,” Nigara said. “Every time we went to the [Chinese] cities, my aunty would take off her scarf because she didn’t want her religious experience to affect me getting a passport.” 

It was only after the girls began their new lives in Australia they started to realise what was really happening back home.

“When I first came here and I started to see the blue [East Turkestan] flag, that was the first time in my life that I saw it. I was like, ‘is this our flag? Isn’t our flag supposed to be red?’” Mawluda said.

The girls had to also come to terms with the fact that they may never be able to return home or see their loved ones again. Maintaining contact with loved ones in Xinjiang has been extremely difficult.

“Sometimes I try to talk to them on [Chinese social media platform] WeChat, but they deleted all of us four or five years ago when things got really intense between Chinese and Uighur people,” Mawluda said. “But, I tried to add them anyway and sometimes they’ll accept me for a day just to say hi so we know they’re still alive.”

‘We didn’t want it to be in a dark alleyway’

While adjusting to a new country, culture and language were difficult for Nigara and Mawluda when they first arrived in Australia, they have worked hard to transform their childhood interests in fashion into careers.

“My mum as a young girl, her dad told her she needed to have some sort of skill in life, because it’s something you can take with you wherever you go. So she got into sewing at a young age. That’s what first got me interested in fashion,” Mawluda said.

The sisters said when they first arrived to Australia, they had to get most of their clothes tailored as they couldn’t find many things they liked already made modest.

They started a modest fashion blog in 2015, sharing their outfits and ideas in a bid to build an audience.

“In about 12 weeks we had 6,000 followers. At 30,000 followers we decided, ‘okay, we could probably do something with this’,” Mawluda said.

In 2018, while both working full time, they launched Twiice Boutique with their friend and partner.

“When we launched and had an open day in [the western Sydney suburb of] Bankstown, we were shocked because so many people turned up,” Mawluda said.

Three years on, they now have a second store and ship their products across the globe.

“We are so proud because we wanted our customers to have a luxury shopping experience. We didn’t want modest fashion to be in a dark alleyway or store,” Mawluda said.

As the business expands, the sisters hope to become the go-to place in Australia for modest fashion and get their products into mainstream department stores, such as David Jones.

“It depends where the business goes, but definitely we want to expand into a bigger fashion label and be catering for Muslim women – from headscarves, to formal wear to casual wear – with a diverse range of designs and styles,” Mawluda said.

“That’s the long-term plan, and we are getting there slowly.”