SEXISM, FEMINISM AND WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN CHINA

SEXISM AND DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN IN CHINA

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Women's Day Stamp
Sexism endures in China. According to AFP: Officially, China proclaims the sexes equal in keeping with Communist principles, and Mao Tse-tung said that "women hold up half the sky". But conservative attitudes remain deeply ingrained, and women are conspicuous by their rarity in the upper echelons of Chinese politics and the ruling party, dominated by men in black suits. [Source: AFP, July 19, 2014]

According to a survey by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), one third of all male and female respondents feel that men are inherently more able than women. One third of respondents (with women responding more affirmatively than men) agreed with the saying "A promising career is no better than a good husband.” More than half answered that a woman’s place is in the home. Studies have also shown that women do 85 percent of all the housework.

Women are more likely to get lower-level jobs and be unemployed than men. The unemployment rate for women in 2000 was 13 percent compared to 6.4 for men. Sometimes highly-educated women are prevented from working by their husbands. One physician told a hotline worker her husband "won't let me go out. I'm ready to kill myself. I feel like a high-class prisoner." [Source: Newsweek]

The incomes of working women have increased by a large margin but the gap with men has increased by an even larger margin. According to a survey by the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF), women made 62.7 percent of what men made in 2000. The gap between rural women and men is even greater. Rural women make 40.2 percent of what men made the same year.

In many places young single women are not allowed to live in their own apartments there are expected to live in dormitories with other young single women. After the one-child policy was first adopted the menstrual cycles of women were monitored to make sure they weren’t pregnant. According to Chinese law pregnant women are exempt from arrest or fines. Some purposely engage in criminal activity.

Gender Inequality in Modern China

Yiqin Fu wrote in Tea Leaf Nation: “Interest in women’s issues is increasing, but China has a long way to go to achieve gender parity. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Report, China ranks 87th worldwide in terms of gender equality, with a particularly poor performance on the Health and Survival Index due to its lopsided sex ratio. (Chinese officials have attributed the imbalance to “traditional preference for sons, the practice of arranging for sons to take care of elderly parents, and illegal sex-selective abortions.”) For advocates of gender equality, the online debate about the Gala’s gender stereotypes was at least a hopeful sign. “The fact that there is awareness and debate of this issue means that we are making progress,” one Weibo user wrote. Others urged for the discussion to translate into action. “[Gender inequality] is an enduring, entrenched problem society faces,” another wrote. “I hope the online debate doesn’t end here.” [Source: Yiqin Fu, Tea Leaf Nation, Foreign Policy, February 20, 2015 <|>]

Ying Zhu wrote in China File, “Years of accelerating economic growth had brought unprecedented social and geographic mobility, as well as pressure on men to strive to succeed and follow the trail of power and money, leaving behind their women.. Economic growth has exacerbated the gender gap, often reviving cultural traditions that can reduce women to sub-human status. Women are still supposed to obey their fathers when young, their husbands upon marrying, and their sons when their husbands die. All too often, the defiant are punished with a beating. The choices for unattached women are stark: they either become “leftover women,” stigmatized for remaining unmarried at thirty or older; join the army of kept women under the thumbs of wealthy businessmen and ranking party officials; or are held captive by rural bachelors in desperate need of brides, as men greatly outnumber women in contemporary China.” [Source: Ying Zhu, China File, February 11, 2013 <>]

“The contempt for women that I have witnessed in China in recent years is alarming. While passing through Shenzhen several years ago, an old male acquaintance who is now a ranking party official hosted a banquet in my honor at a private villa. The rest of the invitees were all local party officials and all male. Halfway through the banquet, a few young girls were ushered in. Several men promptly disappeared into the adjacent room. There were sounds of struggle and muffled screams. I told my acquaintance that whatever was going on in the next room had to stop immediately. While complying, he seemed surprised at my strong reaction. “My guys are just having a little fun,” he said, “and they pay these women well.” The irony was not lost that this was supposed to be a banquet in honor of a woman.” <>

Discrimination and Traditional Views of Women Endures in Modern China

Reporting from Beijing, Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times, “Fresh out of college, Angela Li was proud of her job as a teller at the state-owned China Everbright Bank — maybe it wasn’t exciting, but it had prospects. After a year and a half she applied for a promotion, along with a male colleague who had joined with her. He got it. She did not. “Our boss came to talk to me afterwards,” said Ms. Li, a 25-year-old with scraped-back hair and a quiet gaze. “He said, ‘It’s good that you girls take your work seriously. But you should be focusing on finding a boyfriend, getting married, having a kid.’ ” Ms. Li quit. “I could compete in terms of ability, but not in terms of gender,” she said. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 20, 2015 /^]

“Indeed, powerful cultural assumptions that women should marry young and focus on the ily after a child is born account for some of the disparity. Women in the boardroom is hardly even an issue. “This issue is of interest only to a minority of females,” said Oliver M. Rui, a professor of finance and accounting at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, “and they’re not taken seriously in China.” /^\

“Others say traditional attitudes are just part of the problem. “The real problem is far bigger than any individual and has to do with things like the law and resource allocation,” said Lu Xiaoquan, a gender rights lawyer at Beijing Zhongze Law Firm. China’s Constitution says that women should enjoy the same rights as men, and labor law bans gender discrimination, but those laws are vague and nearly unenforceable, Mr. Lu says. “Chinese law doesn’t define gender discrimination, so how do you even argue a case?” he asked. “It’s very, very difficult to get one into court.” /^\

Chinese Scholar: Women’s Only Ambition: “To Love and to Give Birth to Babies”

In January 2015, Ruan Fan wrote in the China Daily, “Chinese scholar Zhou Guoping, known for his studies and translated works of Nietzsche, tactfully apologized for his microblog post after backlash by Chinese women labeling him a hopeless chauvinist. “I admit that I am a straight man, but I’m not a helpless chauvinist,” he said. A week earlier, his post saying “women have but one ambition”, and that “to love and to give birth to babies is the most important thing in their lives” was criticized by thousands of angry netizens. Adding fuel to the flames are his other claims, such as, “no matter how talented, how accomplished a woman is, if she cannot be a gentle lover, wife or mother, I would think less of her in terms of beauty.” [Source: Ruan Fan, China Daily, January 27, 2015 ^*^]

“Zhou said he did not create this post to intentionally irritate the public. Actually, the claims were excerpts from his article, “Contemporary: Misunderstandings of Feminine Charm,” that published in the magazine Chinese Women in 1991. Hou Hongbin, senior editor at the Southern Urban Daily, said: “Suppressing women by belittling them is quite common, yet a more effective way to achieve this end is by praising female loyalty, chasteness, endurance and sacrifice to the family, and to deem submissiveness as their virtue.” ^*^

Wider Car Parking Spaces for Women: A Sign of Sexism in China

The Dashijiedaduhui – or "World Metropolis" shopping mall in the northeastern city Dalian has reserved spaces for women that are 30 centimeters wider than normal spaces because women "have a few issues with parking". AFP reported: “The parking spaces outside a Chinese shopping mall are distinctive: marked out in pink, signposted "Respectfully reserved for women", and around 30 centimeters wider than normal. The mall has little to distinguish itself from thousands of other retail complexes that have sprouted across the country. It boasts chain clothing stores, fast food franchises, glass lifts, a cinema and the inevitable Starbucks, a favourite hang-out of China's new middle class. Unusually, though, the 10 spaces outside the main entrance were provided after women had trouble parking in the standard basement slots, managers said. "I think this is very convenient," said user Yong Mei. "Other parking spaces are too narrow." "It's not gender biased," she told AFP. "It's just that women have a few issues with vision when parking." [Source: AFP, July 19, 2014]

“But outraged commentators on Chinese social media accused the mall managers of sexism and cliched thinking. "This is supposed to respect women, but actually it's an insult," said one. The mall managers deny the allegation. "We just wanted to make things easier for women, who make up most of our customers," said Yang Hongjun, a woman herself. "It's not an insult to women at all," she added. "If their parking spaces are larger, it's only for practical reasons. It doesn't mean that women drive less well than men."

“One online poster on the Dalian car park said: "The two most dangerous things in the world are men who cook and women who drive." Manufacturers' advertisements in the world's biggest auto market are invariably aimed at male buyers, and a man at the mall, Wu Zhicun, said: "Women don't really know how to park a car." "The few times I've come close to crashing was basically with women driving the other car," he added. "I've noticed they're a bit rough at the wheel, they only look forwards, too often they ignore their mirrors." The parking initiative is not unprecedented – other countries have similar female-dedicated spaces, including South Korea and various European nations.

“The latest Chinese controversy echoes a series of microblog posts Beijing police made last year advising women on driving techniques – including not wearing high heels, releasing the handbrake before setting off, and not panicking if they suddenly realise they're going the wrong way. "Some women drivers lack a sense of direction, and while driving a car, they often hesitate and are indecisive about which road they should take," reads one of the entries on the police department's verified microblog. Another featured a cartoon depicting a confrontation between a police officer and a woman driving a vehicle shaped like a large red high-heel shoe.

According to a World Health Organization estimate in March 2013, globally males are more likely to be involved in accidents than females, and 77 percent of all road traffic deaths occur among men. Even so, for some posters the Dalian parking places amounted to discrimination against male drivers. "It's always women who enjoy privileges!" complained one. "Men have become the weaker sex."

“Leftover Women” Versus “Victorious Women” in China

“As a result, partly, of the increasingly defiant attitudes of women like Ms. Liu and Ms. Wang toward a term that many still find terribly hurtful, a riposte to “leftover women” has been born — and it’s a clever one. Yes, they’re saying, we’re “shengnu.” But that’s “sheng” as in “victorious,” not “leftover.” The pun that turns the tables on the prejudicial description is made possible by the fact that “sheng” has different meanings in Chinese depending on the written character: either “leftover” or “victorious” (or “successful,” as some prefer). Chinese is filled with homonyms, making punning a popular pastime. <=>

“The redefining of shengnu has been abetted by a television series, started last July, that translates as “The Price of Being a Victorious Woman.” It’s an exploration of the romantic life and career of the fictitious, unmarried Lin Xiaojie, played by the Taiwanese actress Chen Qiao En. In the series, the quirky, pretty Ms. Lin has troubled romantic encounters with attractive men. But along the way she builds a successful career. While some consider the series overly sappy, it has had the effect of spreading the concept of “victorious women” as a morale-boosting alternative to “leftover women,” and delivering unmarried Chinese women more self-respect. <=>

“In the series, the perfect metamorphosis of Lin Xiaojie from a ‘leftover woman’ to a ‘victorious woman’ shows you that in the working world too, it’s better to be strong and in charge of your destiny than to let other people control your future,” runs a summary of the series on the Web site of iQiyi.com, a major Chinese film and TV portal. It offers 10 pieces of practical advice to young women, including: Don’t be bad but don’t be too good, either. Learn not to be influenced by your colleagues. Don’t fall in love with your boss. <=>

“Even the state-run media, which have long issued lugubrious warnings to young women on the perils of becoming a “leftover woman,” are — slowly — joining in. The official microblog site of People’s Daily recently displayed a post suggesting that “leftover women” needn’t despair. “Leftover women, don’t be tragic,” it said. “There are 20 million more men under 30 than women in China. So how can there be so many ‘leftover women?”’ It provided a common explanation: “Isn’t it because they’re not ‘leftover’ but ‘victorious’, and their requirements for partners are very high?” But it continued, in a less judgmental vein: “They’re free, and can stand on their own feet. As China modernizes fast, ‘leftover women’ may turn into a positive term.” <=>

“It’s better to be “victorious” than “leftover,” said Ms. Liu, the N.G.O. worker. But overall, she’d rather not have to choose. “I think it’s a very positive word,” she said. “But it’s also kind of odd because I never thought of this as a victory or some kind of a struggle.” “We should have the right to choose what we want to do. So do we really need such a power-filled word as ‘victorious’ to describe something so normal?” Ms. Wang agreed. “I’ve heard of it and I think it’s O.K., but I don’t think it’s a question of victory or defeat,” she said. “It’s just a way of life. If I had to choose, though, I’d tend toward ‘victorious’ for sure. Still, it all feels a bit tiring.” Meanwhile, there are still many over-25-year-olds, fretting under strong societal pressure to marry, who have internalized the cultural and social values that they are “on the shelf.” China’s minimum marriage age for women is 20, so the window of opportunity for those who want to escape labeling is small. For them, “shengnu,” with its double meaning, is, at best, neutral. “I’m not completely proud of it,” said Zhou Wen, 27 and unmarried, a secretary at an American marketing company in Beijing, “but it is at least a neutral word. Not bad at all.” <=>

Women's Rights and Feminism in China

Feminist issues include discrimination in the work place, domestic violence, lack of education opportunities for rural girls and women kidnapping. The government promotes equality of the sexes but these ideas fail to reach very deep into the countryside. Grassroots organizations are helping rural women with literacy training, micro-loans, advise on becoming more politically active, hotlines for those with abusive husbands and those contemplating suicide, and help escaping schemes that abduct and enslave women..

In January 2015, Ruan Fan wrote in the China Daily, “Changes are really taking place, in thinking and in the actions of the Chinese women. Domestic violence, once thought to be a skeleton hidden in the closet and sidelined as a private matter, for example, has been brought out into the open bit by bit by women in the last decade. More and more victims of sexual assault, especially those on campus, are coming out of hiding and efforts are being made to end such crimes. The Chinese Department of Building and Housing, for example, has vowed in response to build on a 1.5:1 pro-rata basis respectively, for female and male toilets, in buildings since November 2014. The first national anti-domestic violence law was drafted and issued for public outreach on November 25, 2014, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.[Source: Ruan Fan, China Daily, January 27, 2015 ^*^]

In March 2010, the Women’s Law Studies and Legal Aid Center, which had won praise for its 15-year battle against domestic abuse and workplace discrimination, lost its sponsorship from Peking University because, it organizers think, its receives overseas funding and took a controversial “black jail” case.

Hillary’s Beijing Speech: a Watershed Moment for Women’s Rights

Feminism in China was given a boost when the International Conference on Women was held in Beijing in 1995. Some 40,000 women showed up for the event, but Western diplomats estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 delegates, including Jane Fonda and Sally Field, were not allowed to attend. The conference exposed the fact that many antiquated ideas about women persist. Taxi drivers were warned not to pick up naked foreign women who might try to get them to reveal state secrets; some security guards were given bug spray for protection against insect-borne AIDS carried by lesbians; and women attending the conference were offered a special herbal medicine that reportedly shrunk their vaginal walls and made sex better.

In 1995, Hillary Clinton gave a groundbreaking speech on issues facing women and girls at the Beijing women’s conference, where she famously stated, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” [Source: Erin Delmore, MSNBC, February 1, 2013]

Ying Zhu wrote in China File, “To the dismay of the White House, which was wary of offending the Chinese Communist Party leadership, Clinton catalogued a litany of abuses that afflicted women around the world and sharply criticized China for limiting free and open discussion of women’s issues. Her talk and the ensuing discussions served as an inspiration for new ideas and perspectives on gender equality.”[Source: Ying Zhu, China File, February 11, 2013 <>]

Recalling the event, Melanne Verveer, then the U.S. State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, told MSNBC: “Well, it was difficult getting to Beijing. There was a lot of controversy about whether she should go to that women’s conference. But the world was gathering in that place. And when she finally did make her way there, there weren’t too many people who knew what she was going to say. And that was a very big debate....Was she just going to throw out a softball? Was she going to not upset her hosts? Was she going to really move the ball down the field? Just what was she going to do? -

“And when she stood up for all the world to hear and said, it is time to end the silence. Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. And that meant that women’s rights weren’t some subset of human rights, weren’t marginal to human rights, weren’t some separate category, but human rights and everything that that entailed for access to education, to economic participation, political participation, be free from violence. -

“And I think when she came out of that setting, no matter where one stood on the political spectrum, right or left, the unanimous conclusion was that it was probably her most historic moment…She was such an extraordinary voice for the United States and all of the values that we held true. And you remember so well the thunderous positive reaction she got in that hall. And she went through a litany of violations of women’s rights and said that each of those was, indeed, a violation of human rights...And it was like the beginning of a movement. It sparked so much, to this day, whenever people meet her or me or so many others, they say I’m so and so and I was in Beijing.” -

Chinese Feminists and Feminist Groups in China

“We have to fight for our own rights,” Xiao Meili, a 25-year-old feminist told the China Daily. She once wore a wedding dress tainted with blood to call attention to violence between lovers and couples, and took nude photos of herself to urge anti-domestic violence laws. She shaved her head to protest against higher university admission scores for female students. She also participated in an “occupy men’s rooms” activity with her friends to lobby for more public toilets for women.

In 2013, Xiao, together with her friends at K2ome, a Beijng-based feminist drama association, took a hike from Beijing to Guangzhou to promulgate feminist ideas. They traveled to over 20 cities or counties, held more than 10 lectures and wrote to local governments to apply for disclosure of measures taken on the prevention of sexual assaults and similar crimes.

Yiqin Fu wrote in Tea Leaf Nation: “NGOs such as Women’s Media Monitor Watch have gained a sizable following online, recently engaging issues like gender discrimination in college admissions in an October 2014 report.” In November 2013, students at Beijing Foreign Studies University were forced to defend themselves when, to promote a campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, they posted photos of themselves holding up messages such as, “My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom.” [Source: Yiqin Fu, Tea Leaf Nation, Foreign Policy, February 20, 2015 ]

Xiao Meil: China’s Walking Feminist

On Xiao Meili’s 2,000-km walk from Beijing to Guangzhou to raise awareness of sexual abuse, Emily Rauhala wrote in Time: A hundred days. That's how long it took Xiao Meili to walk from Beijing, in the arid north, to the humid, central city of Changsha. Since September, the 24-year-old has been trekking south and west across the Chinese heartland, along rumbling highways, around construction sites, down dusty streets. She stops along the way to send letters to local officials. Her plea: China must change the way it handles sex abuse. A 2,000-km walk from Beijing to Guangzhou is not a bad way to capture attention. The sight of a young, female backpacker is relatively rare on China's freeways, so people stop to ask questions and offer rides (which she declines). "They ask, 'Why would you travel on foot? It would be so much easier to drive!'" she says. "Some say, 'You're crazy,' but many express support." [Source: Emily Rauhala, Time, January 24, 2014 ~|~]

“In a video about her journey, Xiao Meili (who uses her nickname for her activism) explains that walking is a way to reclaim a space -- the street -- where girls and women are sometimes at risk. It's an idea that resonated online, where her writing, videos and drawings have earned a steady following on a popular Chinese microblog. Some of her readers offer money for accommodation, or a place to crash en route. Others, like Jia Wen, a 23-year-old art student, and Yuan Hang, a 24-year-old filmmaker, picked up sticks and joined her on the road. "Artists use form to change reality," says Jia. "I want to see if we can use feminism to do the same thing." ~|~

“Xiao Meili and her friends are, in some ways, unexpected activists. Born in Sichuan province in 1989, Xiao Meili is part of a generation Chinese call post-'80s. Among older folks, the conventional wisdom is that these (mostly) only children of China's economic boom are spoiled, apolitical bunch, more interested in designer fripperies than in social movements. Raised by doting, aspirational parents many do indeed feel burdened by the pressure to succeed in a world where success is defined as a good education, a lucrative job, an apartment, marriage (to someone of the opposite sex), then a kid. For most families, cross-country protest walks are not part of the deal. That, of course, is part of the appeal. Growing up, Xiao Meili cared little for politics. She was too busy studying. At university in Beijing, she started to read more, including feminist writing from the U.S. and Taiwan. Spending a semester in Taiwan gave her a glimpse of a "more equal" society. "China is more authoritarian and patriarchal, and this inequality leads to abuse," she says. ~|~

“In Beijing, where she lives when not on the road, Xiao Meili connected with feminists who are active, in different ways, in their communities. The ruling Chinese Communist Party sees collective action as a threat to social stability and often shuts down group demonstrations. Yet there is room for creative resistance. Xiao Meili starred in a Chinese adaptation of The Vagina Monologues, and on Valentine's Day 2012, she dressed up in a blood-drenched gown to protest domestic violence. When it comes to her family, she's more reserved. "My parents don't know I'm here. If I told them, they would try to oppose me," she says. Besides, "they wouldn't understand what I am doing here." Jia's parents wanted her to take the civil-service exam and get a steady job. "I don't want that way of life," she says. "I want to be freer." ~|~

“Being on the road offers that sense of freedom, though most days unfold in much the same way. Xiao Meili and her supporters wake up around 8 a.m. and start walking around 9 a.m. When they reach a new town or city, they stop by the post office to send letters asking local officials to improve sexual education, screen teachers and better investigate abuse claims. And so it was on Day 101. On the cool, smoggy morning of Jan. 17, Xiao Meili, Yuan and Jia gathered around 9:15 a.m. to resume their journey south. For the next few weeks, as they make their way through Hunan province, they'll be joined by three fresh recruits, all students, who read about the project online and joined up. First stop: the post office. After mailing some letters, they set out. They walk slowly toward the edge of the city, where high-rise buildings are rapidly sprouting. Momentarily lost at the edge of a half-demolished street, they pause to consult their phones. "That way," someone gestures, pointing the way through the mud. They hope to reach Guangzhou by spring.” ~|~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015


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