In the stifling heat of Shanghai last June, Xiaoyan walked through a subway passage wearing a black cotton sheath from head to toe with only her eyes showing. Her friend wore a black face covering along with a homemade metal bra over a red t-shirt and mini-skirt.
They were responding to a comment from a Shanghai metro operator who had posted a photo of a woman in a see-through dress on his blog and wrote: “It’s no wonder that some people get harassed if they dress like this.”
Instead of carrying placards, the women displayed a simple message on their iPads to passersby: “I can dress provocatively, but you cannot harass me”—echoing similar calls around the world against the “victim-blaming” of sexual assault survivors.
“We couldn’t march on the streets like the SlutWalk protests that have happened in other cities,” said Xiaoyan, a slim 33-year-old, a year later during lunch at her favourite restaurant in the former French concession.
“So we did our own small action then posted photos online and asked others to help promote our message. It led to a lot of debate and media attention.”
China is home to 1 in 5 of the world’s women, and women’s rights seem to be sliding backwards. Chinese women are being denied equal access to education and employment and domestic violence on the rise. Lacking the right to organize large-scale protests, women like Xiaoyan are striking back in creative ways.
On Valentine’s Day last year, three women in wedding dresses splattered with fake blood boldly demonstrated on a Beijing street behind Tiananmen Square holding signs such as “Love is not an excuse for violence.” In August, four female students in the city of Guangzhou shaved their heads to protest unfair double standards for female students seeking university admission, inspiring at least 20 other women to follow suit across the country. And in December, a dozen “microbloggers” posted nude photographs of themselves on social media to support a petition calling for anti-domestic violence legislation. These small acts of defiance have routinely caught the attention of foreign media and even local media would sometimes cover their activities.
Before Xiaoyan became one of a handful of outspoken women’s rights advocates in the country, she was a sociology student interested in contemporary women’s issues. She said her first exposure to feminist activism happened when she helped put on her university’s yearly production of the Vagina Monologues, which was adapted for a Shanghai audience from Eve Ensler’s play.
It was at a Vagina Monologues performance in 2006 where Xiaoyan met her current partner, Xiangqi. At the time, Xiaoyan was still coming to terms with her sexuality while Xiangqi was already a prominent leader in the lesbian community.
In 2001 Xiangqi had started a website to help lesbians in Shanghai to meet one another. The online forum led to real-life social events and evolved into the city’s only lesbian rights group, Shanghai Nvai (a play on the Chinese words “nu ai” meaning love between women). Xiaoyan and Xiangqi now co-lead the organization and hold events and workshops in their living room.
“I never thought I would become a lesbian community organizer,” said Xiangqi, a soft-spoken but articulate 36-year-old with an athletic build. “After I started the website the members wanted to meet up in person but I wasn’t sure it was worth it until I met lesbian activists in Taiwan and Hong Kong at a conference and learned from their experiences.”
During my recent travels in Shanghai, Beijing and cities in the southern province of Guangdong, the women I met often told me that they had become activists by accident. Those who have the basic Internet skills to organize online tend to become, often reluctantly, leaders.
But while they are brave, they still need to be careful. “If you do a lot of political lobbying you run into safety issues and if your group is shut down, then you can’t do anything,” said Xiangqi. “So we focus on giving workshops in schools and other venues to try to gradually change cultural attitudes.”
More often than not, the most outspoken women’s rights advocates also happen to be lesbian, bisexual or transgender. While a grassroots women’s movement in China has barely just begun, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement started gaining momentum in the early 2000s after online communities spun off into a variety of advocacy organizations. The groups catered for self-identified women tend to be interested in women’s issues in general.
This trend is especially apparent in Beijing, a political and cultural hub where many non-governmental organizations have their offices. I visited a high-rise building at the edge of the city centre, where I asked women’s groups based there about the risks involved in their work.
Xiong Jing, an outreach officer at the group Media Monitor for Women’s Network, said that on top of the potential of upsetting government authorities Chinese feminists also risk being ostracized from society. That is why she estimates that although many aren’t open about their sexual orientation 90 percent of women’s rights activists—including NGO staff and individual volunteers—are queer women.
“It’s because we have less to lose,” she said. “We can’t get married. Straight women need to find husbands and be a part of mainstream society. Gay women can step up and speak out without worrying as much,” she said.
When the Chinese Communist Party assumed control of China in 1949, women were declared equal with men, having already played key roles in the early success of the revolution. But while the new government initially promoted androgynous dress, encouraged late marriages and attacked traditional social beliefs, as the party’s rule became more established and maintaining stability became the priority, the government changed course. They began to actively endorse traditional gender roles and the nuclear family as bedrock of a harmonious society.
Since 2007, for example, according to research from Tsinghua University, the state-supported All-China Women’s Federation has been campaigning for women to get married earlier and be less ambitious in their careers. Activists say that pressure to marry and perform traditional gender roles is a factor in the pervasiveness of domestic violence.
The Media Monitor for Women Network was one of the first non-governmental women’s groups that formed after United Nations held its Fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995. The group now supports protest actions that raise public awareness of women’s rights issues, in addition to holding community workshops and activities and publishing Feminist Voice, a weekly online journal.
The network helped spread the news about the anti-domestic violence action last Valentine’s Day where women in blood splattered wedding dresses protested near Tiananmen Square. It was a particularly brazen act because few activists dare to protest near the site of the 1989 government massacre of student demonstrators. The women marched for half an hour before police peacefully told them to stop.
“We couldn’t make an announcement asking people to come because they’re organizing a protest. It’s unsafe and illegal,” said Xiong Jing. “But we took pictures, posted them online and contacted reporters to cover the event after it had happened.”
Sina Weibo, the popular Twitter-like microblogging website, has been especially important in creating unprecedented public space for the discussion of social and political issues. Content about women’s rights are usually not deemed “sensitive” enough to be removed by government censors. Weibo has helped facilitate fruitful interactions between activists in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and communities overseas.
Social media is especially important for small women’s groups with limited resources who want their messages to reach large audiences. “I spend half my time on social media,” said Xiong Jing, who manages a Weibo account with over 15, 000 followers.
Women’s groups also agree that in a country where 1 out of every 4 women suffers spousal abuse, reducing domestic violence is a top priority. In 2011, the All-China Women’s Federation and the National Bureau of Statistics conducted a national survey of women, finding that 24.7% of women had suffered insults, beatings, restriction of personal freedom, economic control, forced sex or other forms of spousal violence.
The survey also found that 61.6% of men and 54.8% of women agree with the traditional Chinese saying: ”Men should be socially based, women should be family-oriented.” These figures have increased by 7.7% and 4.4% respectively, compared to the same question in the survey in 2000.
In a high profile case that recently helped raise awareness about domestic violence in China, the eccentric founder of Crazy English, a wildly popular English teaching program, was found guilty earlier this year of abusing his American wife. He was ordered to pay $8000 in compensation along with assets of almost $2 million in the divorce settlement.
In an interview with the newspaper China Daily, Li Yang said: “I hit her sometimes but I never thought she would make it public since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders.” His comments revealed an attitude common among Chinese that domestic violence is not a problem the public should care about.
Bi Wenjuan, an officer at the Beijing-based Anti-Domestic Violence Network, said: “Gender-based violence is seen as normal. Lots of people don’t think it is wrong. Many women are afraid to speak out about it because it would make their families ‘lose face’.”
The Anti-Domestic Violence Network is lobbying for the passing of anti-domestic violence legislation, and holds regular workshops to educate the public, police, judiciary and government officials.
Xiaoyan and Xiangqi agree that it is smart for women’s organizations to focus on promoting cultural change and to work with the government–rather than directly opposed to the government–to gradually improve laws and policies.
“Family pressure to conform is very serious,” said Xiaoyan, whose parents do not know that she is a lesbian or that she participates in feminist demonstrations. “It’s time for all of us to have an intimate discourse and challenge social norms,” she said.
Published in the Fall 2013 issue of Herizons Magazine