Three days after International Women’s Day, I was given a women’s day present by my employer.
“That’s very kind”, I said aloud. Inwardly I was screaming: “This is not what women’s day is about!”
Overreaction? To the event itself, absolutely. Being given a beautiful silk scarf out of the blue simply for being female, is, of course, a delightful surprise. But look back at that statement. I didn’t say ‘simply for being’ – I said simply for being female. What bothers me is that the age-old division of people along gender lines (for absolutely no good reason whatsoever), is being powerfully reinforced by the Chinese media and industries.
March 8th is International Women’s Day. It is a UN designated day upon which we should be celebrating the progress of women’s rights activism worldwide, congratulating governments and NGOs for their hard work and thinking about our next step towards achieving equality. In an ideal world, we would no longer have any need for this day, because everyone would be equal. For now, it’s a reminder of that goal.
In China, however, Women’s Day is preceded by Girls’ Day (“Women’s Day” has somehow been translated to exclude young women), thus dividing the already underrepresented female population of China. Additionally, the ‘international’ element seems to have been dropped, which cuts all ties with communities of women around the world. The simple exclusion of one word has the psychological effect of isolating Chinese women from the very group this day is designed to connect them with. China’s media uses a celebratory day to further divide and isolate Chinese women.
Both Women’s and Girls’ days are marketed as commercial holidays designed specifically to enable women (both young and old) yet another opportunity to shop ‘til they drop. I saw women opening gifts and men carrying bunches of flowers, as if what Chinese women really need is another Valentine’s Day/Black Friday/[insert shopping holiday here], as opposed to more comprehensive human rights. What is this but playing to a plethora of media-induced and industry-generated gender stereotypes?
This may not seem like the deeply-ingrained wide-spread sexism I am making it out to be. I mean, commerce has commandeered and invented all kinds of random holidays worldwide in order to increase sales, right? But this goes beyond individuals giving and receiving gifts. This kind of behaviour has serious effects on women, socialising half (more than half!) the Chinese population into silence.
I wasn’t going to complain about my gift. Who would? And there’s the crux of the issue. Being honoured for a day by all sources commercial and capitalist makes women believe they are being treated with respect. A shower of material wealth on a day designed to celebrate women… what woman could find fault with that?
Nonetheless, there were public outcries about the representation of women in Chinese media last Sunday, when the Chinese search engine Baidu sported the equivalent of a Google Doodle for the occasion. Here’s what it looked like:
“The Chinese search company featured on its home page a princess doll twirling on top of a music box surrounded by jewelry and other accessories”, said the NYTimes Sinosphere blog.
It isn’t just that, though. As one Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) pointed out:
“Baidu’s Women’s Day logo made me sick[…] The Chinese still see women as an ornament, a Barbie doll, an easily manipulated windup toy […] This is what a happy woman should look like in the eyes of many.”
It still isn’t just that. Anyone looking closely at the image of the tiny rotating woman saw that she came in three models. She transforms from girl to bride/wife to mother, with appropriate accessories to match her changing social status. A young woman’s prized possessions are mirror, beads and lipstick. The bride wears a heart pendant and veil, her image made complete with a rose and wedding bands. The mother’s life revolves around baby’s pram, bottle and rubber duck.
These are the three manifestations of woman. The only three roles the mainstream Chinese media seem to support. Youku (Chinese youtube) scrapped a commissioned illustration encouraging women to “be the person you’d like to be” in favour of a woman sitting among plants and drinking tea beneath a wreath of flowers:
“Our country doesn’t need creative women, it just needs pretty dolls to put in cages”, was the message one user gleaned from the Youku illustration. It’s not exactly an encouraging thought.
It’s all the more frustrating to know that China is inextricably linked to major women’s rights events. Beijing hosted the United Nations’ 4th World Conference on Women in 1995. Twenty years ago, 17,000 representatives from 189 governments came to this city and put together policies for protecting women’s rights.
In her Guardian article (link below). Chirlane McCray mentions Hillary Clinton’s address at the 1995 conference – an address that identifies women’s rights as human rights – but doesn’t mention the repercussions of her words in China.
Clinton, who was first lady at the time, had been working closely with Wang Xingjuan. Wang had established China’s first women’s hotline (a support service for women experiencing domestic violence) in 1992. This affiliation with Clinton threw the women’s hotline into the spotlight; it was shut down shortly after the conference left Beijing.*
This week, leaders from around the world gathered in New York City for the Beijing+20 conference. They met to review the progress of the last two decades and renew their commitment to the policies and principles laid out in 1995.
Pictures from New York this week show world leaders participating in the public demonstration – happily engaging with citizens, activists and NGOs alike. The NGO forum for the 1995 event was moved (at the last minute) to the countryside outside Beijing and held in Huairo, a significant distance from the conference itself, in order to avoid potential ‘disruptions’ to the proceedings.
The 1995 incident was echoed this year: While many women were being distracted with a shower of sexism and unnecessary gifts, Chinese feminist activists were arrested and held over International Women’s Day without cause. Ten women were detained on Friday and Saturday, and five were still being held in custody on Monday.
This was a security issue, apparently. These activists had intended to campaign against sexual harassment on Sunday, as they’d done on previous International Women’s Days. This year, the event coincided with China’s annual National People’s Congress. Because of course women’s rights activism is a security threat.
On International Women’s Day this year I attended a discussion about women’s rights in China with my two best friends – two strong young women I know will go far, both with ambitions of living/working/studying abroad but whose families are pressuring them to find boyfriends and to get married. I admire these two wonderful women, but I can’t help wonder how they’ll get past the disadvantages deeply ingrained in them simply through growing up in China.
* Wang Xingjuan is now the director at The Maple Women’s Counseling Center, which grew out of the women’s hotline initiative.
Baidu Users Object to Women’s Day doodle (NYTimes)