The Chinese military has began recruiting Uygur Muslim women for its navy in what appears to be first such experiment to open up its ranks for minorities, especially from volatile Xinjiang province where Islamic militants are fighting a separatist movement.
Twenty Uygur women were recruited for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) who now started their voyage missions on naval ships, according to state-run China Daily.
"It is an honour that I am among the first 20 Uygur women to serve our country in the navy," said Aytulun Xukrat, a 19-year-old woman who joined the navy along with two of her sisters.
Xukrat, from Turpan in Xinjiang, now works in the communications section on the Jinggangshan, one of the Chinese navy's most advanced landing craft.
"After I was recruited in 2011 and later joined the navy's South Sea Fleet, two of my younger sisters followed suit and are now serving in the North Sea Fleet and East Sea Fleet. We are the pride of our family," she told the Daily.
The Chinese navy has three fleets and began to enlist Uygur women in 2011. The move has triggered the enthusiasm of a large number of these women who harbour dreams of becoming sailors, the report said.
Their recruitment was significant as Uygurs, Muslims of Turkish-origin, were restive for the past several years agitating against the increasing settlements of Han Chinese nationals from the mainland.
Scores killed in several violent attacks prompting China to deploy a large number of security forces including some of its elite commando forces there. China blames the East Turkistan Islamic Movement for trying to build a separatist movement.
Analysts say this may the first such attempt by China to recruit minorities like Uygurs and Tibetans whose numbers in government services other than those regions.
Hu Zhihao, the political commissar of the Jinggangshan, said the Uygurs cannot perform duties on their own, due to language problems.
The ship has assigned an officer to help them improve their Mandarin.
Arkin said: "My comrades come from many places in our nation, and we have become friends. I will invite them to Xinjiang and to my beautiful hometown after I return home. And even if one day I retire from the navy, I will never forget my brothers and sisters in the PLA."
Aliya Arkin, 20, from Aksu also in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, operates navigation radar in one of the ships, said: "I wanted to see the ocean and liked the PLA navy's uniforms very much, so I decided to join when I saw a notice on a local TV programme that the navy was recruiting female sailors from the Uygur ethnic group."
She was successful and sent to the Jinggangshan in the South Sea Fleet with Xukrat and another three Uygur women. The women said they spent six months overcoming seasickness after joining the ship on August 26.
Xukrat said: "When I applied to join the navy, we were taken to a recruitment office in my university and shown a large map of China."
"A PLA draft officer pointed at the sea and told us: 'This is where you are going to be, and it is very far from here'. Finally, I was chosen and the other students ruled out because each university only has a limited quota," she said.
She suspended her studies at XinjiangNormalUniversity to prepare for a new life at sea. Xukrat said before joining the navy, she often wondered what her new life was going to be like.
"We Uygurs are also taken care of in terms of our ethnic customs - the ship has allocated a special kitchen and designated a cook to make halal food for us."
Nurbiya Ablim, 19, a signals operator from Turpan, said: "At first I couldn't endure the tough training. We would train for four hours under the scorching sun each day. But now I am used to the life."
"A lot of my shipmates who come from other places are very curious about Xinjiang, so I have spent hours telling them about my life there and stories about my hometown," said Xukrat.