In the face of the proposition that feminism has become too mainstream, that feminist activism has become an empty marketing tool, Adichie responds:
This idea of feminism as a party to which only a select few people get to come: this is why so many women, particularly women of colour, feel alienated from mainstream western academic feminism. Because, don’t we want it to be mainstream? For me, feminism is a movement for which the end goal is to make itself no longer needed. I think academic feminism is interesting in that it can give a language to things, but I’m not terribly interested in debating terms. I want people’s marriages to change for the better. I want women to walk into job interviews and be treated the same way as somebody who has a penis.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian novelist and feminist activist, who lives in the US with her husband and young daughter. Her most recent publication, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, is based on a letter she wrote to her friend, who asked Adichie for tips on how to raise her child as a feminist.
The book, which was published on 7th March 2017, focuses on teaching feminism to those we love through one’s own actions and relationships, taking Adichie’s suggestions far beyond the realms of parenthood. Dear Ijeawele is accessible to anyone anywhere, making it a truly intersectional manifesto for feminists the world over.
Looking up from my book, I scanned the crowded subway car, eager for some good people-watching. But as a new group of folks clambered on, I cringed at some of the actions and attitudes I saw.
Boyfriends pushing (excuse me, “guiding”) their girlfriend onto the train, or speaking to them as if they were children. Women dressed in wildly uncomfortable clothes that align with current fashion trends. Men speaking over the women in their group, or taking no notice of them at all.
From my point of view, these sort of cultural interactions encourage frail, helpless women and domineering men. But as I watch, I try to look past the (irritating) face value of the situation, and understand what societal norm encouraged it. Other times, I mutter angrily under my breath about bullshit men and their bullshit behavior and all these bullshit societal expectations women felt they needed to live up to.
But whether it manifests as deep consideration or silent fuming, it’s always a very quiet sort of rumination on rights and equality, or lack thereof.
I’m sure some reading this would argue my response isn’t much of a response at all. That observation or contemplation aren’t enough – they won’t create change.
But despite always having strong views and clear opinions, I’ve often avoided direct action. Rarely would I self-identify as a liberal or feminist or activist (though I am all those things). Ultimately, I was simply avoided labels.
Why? I found them intimidating.
These labels seemed too rigid, too narrow, and far too easy to use as a crutch in writing your own self-definition.
I saw many paint broad strokes based on a label, and often their interpretation of that label was inaccurate from the start. Kellyanne Conway anyone? Often, it seemed:
If you’re a *insert label here*, you’re x, y, z.
If you agree with that person or their label, “x, y, z” can be encouraging, positive associations. If you don’t agree, “x, y, z” become negative, and often inaccurate, slurs.
What was my incentive to don these labels, just to have someone assume they knew me based solely on those words?
Well, now I’m not so easily intimidated.
Whether it’s age or perspective or an expat-driven need to further self-identify, I find I’m more comfortable slipping into those labels. Thanks largely to my time living abroad, I no longer feel timidity over being the realme.
Increasingly, I feel a need to go beyond identifying as what I am, by using my own personality and actions to reinforce a positive, more realistic, definition of that label. If I can present myself as a strong, capable, kind, loving, forceful woman and identify as a liberal, a feminist, etc., then perhaps people will start to correlate the two.
Within my life in China, that correlation is often on as small a level as my classroom interactions each day.
I challenge what my students think a woman should wear by donning the mismatched, often baggy or faded, clothing that I love to wear. I pair a feminine skirt with a man’s oversized flannel, because that’s my style. That way, my students see a woman they describe as beautiful deciding herself how she’ll dress and act.
I purposefully twist my hair into a frazzled, messy pile atop my head to show individuality and even a touch of eccentricity. “That looks crazy, teacher!” “Well it’s good to be a little crazy.”
Despite my being in a loving relationship, I argue every day that women don’t need a man to achieve all their dreams. Nor does finding a partner – man or woman – mean they cede their dreams.
With my brilliant little girls, I celebrate their intelligence. I tell them to dream big. Through some personal (and probably knee-jerk) response to this country’s blatant patriarchy, I go out of my way to push these girls to be forces of nature, strong enough to challenge any societal norms they’re up against.
With my clever little boys, I try to teach them equality by quieting their disrespect, and praising their teamwork.
I do my part, and spend that subway-ride home dreaming about how I hope my students will grow up to be.
So, while I may not be setting the world ablaze with radical thought or loud protest, I thrive through more close-to-home feminism. I may not be powering grassroots movements, but I’m making sure everyone around me supports equality. I may not be rallying, but I’m empowering the women in my life, looking up to them and giving them my support.
I also hope I’m teaching the men in my life how great a world it would be if they did the same. By being powerful, independent, intelligent and strong-willed, I hope to help men see the beauty of that kind of woman. I want to help them shed any fear they have of what a world equality would look like – help them see it’s not about their subordination to women, but their standing alongside women.
Wearing the labels I’m now comfortable owning, I take small steps and celebrate them. Whether it changes the world, I know it changes the world of those around me. And for now, that role is one I am more than happy to play.
Alexandra Sieh is a freelance writer currently working as a marketing director and English teacher in Beijing, China. Read more from Alexandra at Wild-Eyed and Wandering.
Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw can be found at the British Embassy, working for the Department for International Development (DFID) in Yangon from 9-5, and leading her own dressmaking start-up, Virya Couture, on 39th Street every evening, juggling two completely different careers but pursuing one dream.
Pyone spans sectors while securing rights for her fellow women and financial stability for her family. As the founder and head designer at Virya Couture, Pyone acts as a leader to women in both private and public sectors. Through her dressmaking shop she teaches vocational skills and employs underprivileged women, helping them overcome poverty in a country rife with change.
My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can wear very vibrant colours. I think for men there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, and very colourful.
How do your fashion choices reflect who you are as a woman?
At DFID, I quite enjoy representing my country in a foreign organization. I work in a UK aid department trying to end extreme poverty, where we deal with many different organisations and partners. Whenever we go to Naypyitaw (the capital) dealing with the government agencies, or parliament, or the election commission, then I like to wear Burmese traditional dress. That feels somehow more acceptable and proper.
For the office I wear casual western style dresses and I make all my clothes myself. I am quite petite, so I like wearing soft colours because it makes me feel like I have a little bit more volume. I tend to avoid black or any dark colours, which make me feel tinier. During the daytime, I prefer cream or white colours, which are better for our weather. And it has to be locally made cotton. The sunlight is really strong here.
For daily wear, still I like the traditional cotton, but in a freer, looser style, not flared though. I think flared dresses make you look younger, and with Asian genes you already look younger than you are. At thirty-five, I don’t want to look younger anymore.
I think I am a bit more professional, I want to wear more professional style dresses. Maybe when I was younger I would be open to wearing quite short styles. Whereas now, it has a lot to do with age as well, my taste is quite different from in my twenties.
How does wearing traditional dress change the way you feel?
Oh, it makes you feel a lot more proper. And, how do you say it, a bit more timid – is that the word? You behave more like a proper traditional lady. Whereas if I wear a more Western style, then I feel a bit more free. It definitely changes your mood and your professional feeling.
My favourite thing about being a woman in Myanmar today is that you can actually wear those very vibrant colours, you know. I think for men, there are much more limited options out there. For women it is very vibrant. You can be very fashionable, very colourful.
What’s the best thing to have happened to you in the past year?
Personally, in the past year, it was my decision to go ahead launching this business. I kind of thought that because of my full time job, and having to run this shop, I thought I might lose my balance. But actually it turns out that I really love this job and because it is my passion, I really never get tired. It’s now been four months, so ask me in another one or two years! For now, though, I really love it and I don’t get tired of it.
We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. When internationals wore my dresses, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. So some Burmese women who have seen the dresses come to have something made too.
How did you discover the gap in the market for your designs?
There are quite a few designers already doing the same thing, but in a sense they were too creative. Some people are doing haute couture shows in big cities like Bangkok, so they tend to make big gowns and showy things. But I design for daily life. It’s all about more casual and semi-casual garments, so people really like to wear them.
At the beginning I made everything for myself. I wore things to work, people started to notice and want them too. Seeing people react to the dresses I made was my market research.
I want to imagine that the business is not personal to me. Yes, I made it in such a way that people come to the shop thinking, “oh, I want to have one of Pyone’s dresses”, but I really want to change that. I want the business to be able to run even without me. So I want to build the brand beyond me, so that it goes on without me.
What challenges do you face when you’re designing for a specific person?
Traditionally in dressmaking, you do the design first and then look for fabrics, but we’re doing it the other way around. Because we’re more about using traditional fabrics, we start with fabrics and turn them into a wearable design.
Depending on the type of fabrics and patterns, we often have to negotiate on the design. For example, with strong colours we may have to tone it down a bit, or if the customer really likes a colour, but it doesn’t suit her, I may have to convince her that an alternative might be better. So we come to a compromise, then we measure and then make the dress.
I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. It is actually true that if employers let their employees do what they are really passionate about, then they bring that energy to the day job. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now.
How does the tourist industry affect your business?
The majority of people who like my style are internationals. When internationals wear them, the locals began to see alternative ways of wearing Burmese clothing. We make Burmese dresses, in several different non-traditional styles. So I have now a few Burmese people who have seen the dresses and they come to have something made.
I think with tourists it is different. They want things quick, and they’ll usually just come one time. But there have been a few occasions when foreign tourists came in and then recommended us to a friend who was coming in, but that’s just one scenario.
We do have customers coming back constantly and recommending one person, then another person. We don’t do active marketing. Our marketing strategy now is all word of mouth. So, we had a few customers, friends of friends, family members, and the customer base is gradually building.
Did DFID have any doubts about you taking on this opportunity?
Some people actually warned me, like, “maybe you should not mention it explicitly”. But they do know that I am the founder and lead designer here. I decided to be frank and open about what I do and what I like doing. So I’m not a profit maximising person, you know, this is not to make a big profit or anything like that. I’m not doing this for money, I can actually survive without this income. So for me, this is about what I really want to do, a passion, and a hobby in a job. So there were a few people who, although they had good intentions, warned me not to tell anyone, not to tell the boss, but I did. And it is going really well so far.
I feel passion and adrenaline, and it is having a positive impact on my day job at DFID. So, I think when I read tips for entrepreneurs and things like that, I kind of thought, it might not be true. But it is actually true that if employers let people do what they are really passionate about, outside of the job, then that really makes them feel happy. And you bring that energy to the day job, which is really good. I feel very positive about my life and where I am now. That’s really great.
Is the organisation supportive of you?
Yes, very encouraging. Specifically at DFID, they really want the local staff to succeed in what they do. They look beyond their service in DFID, so if someone is really keen to become a politician, they will help them to build that capacity. It’s a really helpful way of capacity building. In the end, DFID, as an agency, will have to leave the country, and then the skill set that they give to local staff and local people, will remain in the country.
What are your wildest dreams for the coming few years?
My wildest dream is the most peaceful thing I can imagine. I always wanted to have a little compound. Well, not little, just enough for me to have a green and flower-filled garden, and an ecological wooden house and just be there. It would either be in Hsi-Paw (Shan state), Kalaw (Shan state), Putao (Kachin state), or Dawei (Tanintharyi region).
Inspired by her grandmother’s deathbed confession of being sold to a brothel, Lijia Zhang injects her cutting social criticism into her first novel, Lotus. The book delves deep into the sex industry in contemporary Shenzhen, following a young migrant woman, Lotus, who is eager to escape her life as a prostitute.
China is going through a sexual revolution. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.
I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel, Lotus. In part one of this interview, we discussed her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.
Here, in part two, we talked about how women are faring in China’s sexual revolution, Chinese attitudes toward contraception and reproductive health, and the lengths some women go to in the fight against the patriarchy.
Lotus struggles to align sexual desire and social norms. She’s learned that good women shouldn’t enjoy sex, yet earning money involves trying harder to please clients. How are attitudes towards women’s sexuality changing?
I met a woman who was very empowered by earning money, and by her relative liberation since becoming a sex worker. People don’t get into the trade for sexual pleasure, but some women do find sexual pleasure with clients, which they hadn’t experienced with their husbands.
China is going through a sexual revolution. Studies show that a much higher number of people are having sex before marriage than previously. In sociologist Li Yinhe’s 1989 study, 85% of people claimed they had no sexual experience before marriage. Among the 15% who did have sexual experience, some of them were already engaged, which means by Chinese standards that they are already a couple. (According to The Report on the Health of Chinese People’s Sex Life, jointly released by Media Survey Lab and Insight China magazine, 71.4% of people were sexually active before marriage in 2012.)
There are more prostitutes, more pornography, more young people having sex before marriage, a higher rate of divorce, and now people have many different sexual partners. If her husband cannot satisfy her, a woman can divorce him. These women will not stand for second best, because they don’t have to any more.
Another woman I met felt very conflicted about one of her clients. An older colleague with more experience told her to just imagine, “The clients give us sexual pleasure and money. We use them for a service – not them using us.” She called clients dogs. She joked that a perfect job would be something that would give her both sexual pleasure and money. But she also craves respect.
Having a mistress (Ernai, or second wife) is a very common way for a man to show his money and status. This started with the Emperor and noblemen, who would have many concubines. Maoist reforms in the 50s changed that, even though Mao himself was doing all sorts of things with young women behind closed doors, disobeying his own rules. For some time prostitution was very uncommon in China but the rates are high again. Now, men have mistresses to prove they have a lot of money and a high status. Ernais are just glorified prostitutes. The relationship between a man and his Ernai is primarily about money and economic status, not love.
Abortion is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.
Lotus accompanies her friend Mimi to an abortion clinic, where she listens to her friend’s screams from the waiting room after Mimi’s boyfriend disappears. Although this is an emotive scene, abortions are very common in China with about 16 million abortions are performed annually. Is abortion viewed as a social or political problem in China?
Abortion is quite a normal thing in China. I’ve had an abortion, my sister has had several abortions, and my mother had abortions. There is no social stigma because Chinese women don’t carry the same emotional or religious baggage about abortion as people in the West. It is not considered a danger to society. It is just a common form of birth control, and people rely on access to abortion. Women don’t get counseling after abortions like in the UK. Most people don’t think a foetus is a human being, so it is not a problem.
It is very easy to get an abortion, but it is not always safe. There are many hospitals and clinics that women can go to. There are adverts in the back seats of cabs: “quick and easy treatment at such and such a clinic.” Some women go to get very cheap backstreet abortions, and it can be very dangerous. They go to places without proper licenses and get a razor treatment or something like that and it is very harmful.
Most women don’t know about other types of contraception. The information is not really available. So they just use abortions as contraception. I think this is changing, if slowly, and more women are learning about other ways to prevent pregnancy.
What is the worst thing about the state of women’s rights in China today?
There are a lot of problems for women in China. Women still have much less power than men, and lower social standing but the wage gap is probably the worst thing. The latest official statistics suggest that the income for urban women is 67.3% of men’s income while women in the countryside make only 56% of what men make. But many women are empowered by being able to earn money. There was one sex worker I met who bought a flat for herself and her mother to live in, in a city near her village. I think moving to the city is the best possible outcome that villagers hope for.
Did you hear stories about women fighting back against patriarchy while you were researching the novel?
I know a woman who was with a client who wanted a blow job. He had not given her enough money, so she said no. He told her “stop pretending you are a noblewoman, you are a common prostitute,” but she still refused to take less money. He said, “fuck your mother”, and she replied, “leave my mother out of it.” Again, he said “fuck your mother”, so she picked up a heavy glass ashtray and she hit him in the face with it. She lost her job for that, and she lost a few thousand kuai on the deposit she had paid the massage parlour she worked at as a guarantee she would not run away. But a friend helped her get a job at a higher-class establishment instead.
I know another woman who ultimately wanted to get out of the trade. She made a deal with herself that she would get out if she could earn 10,000 kuai. So she earned 10,000 and she said, 20,000 and I will leave. When she reached 20,000 she said to herself, “now I have to save up to buy a home.” When she had bought her home she still did not give up the trade. Then she learned about the dangers of unprotected sex: she got very worried that she had contracted HIV because she had had unprotected sex. She realised she could have died by now. So she went for a test. Back then the results would be really slow, she had to wait several weeks. While she was waiting for the results, she made a deal with herself. She decided if she got through this without HIV, she would really quit the trade. Her results came back clean, so she quit.
International Women’s Day began as a day of women’s protest in Europe and the United States. Celebrating this socialist holiday largely died out in the US, while communists in China have been commemorating Women’s Day annually since 1922. The tables have turned this year. Women in the US are striking today, while working women in China are enjoying a half-day off work.
A highly politicised holiday this year in the US, with vast support drummed up organisers of the Women’s March on 20th January, women are demonstrating to raise awareness about economic inequality, reproductive rights, civil liberties and ending violence.
Meanwhile in China, thousands of women are taking the half-day to focus on themselves, hanging out with girlfriends and spending their money online or in major shopping malls advertising huge women’s day discounts.
There’s no question that this vast disparity stems from women’s feelings of political and economic safety on the one (Eastern) hand, and women’s desperation at the current political and economic situation on the other side of the Pacific.
While women are commemorating International Women’s Day in their own ways, it might help to remember that the history is on the side of those protesting today.
First observed in the US on February 28th, 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and the right to vote. The Socialist Party of America organised a strike on the same day in 1909. Similar demonstrations marked the last Sunday of February for the following five years.
European women were also staging demonstrations throughout this same period, calling for the right to vote, economic equality and civil liberties. A consensus was reached, and International Women’s Day became truly international on March 8th 1914.
In London that day, during a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.
The women’s march in Petrograd on 8th March 1917 sparked the Russian Revolution, which lasted for 8 days. Women in St. Petersburg went on strike for “Bread and Peace” that day, demanding the end of World War I. Women’s Day was officially adopted as a holiday by Soviet Russia that year, and later made a non-working day. As a result, celebrations took place on March 8th in socialist communities and communist countries worldwide for fifty years.
Women’s Day was celebrated by communists in China from 1922. After the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the state council proclaimed that March 8 would be an official holiday with women in China given a half-day off.
In 1975 the United Nations recognised the importance of March 8th and announced today as International Women’s Day, to be celebrated the world over.
People are taking stock, today, of how gender equality stands in a variety of arenas, from political power, to earning parity, to family leave. We’ve come a long way since the women of Europe and the US began protesting in the early 1900s, because those women changed things. Let’s hope those protesting today can harness that power and show the world what International Women’s Day is really about.
British actor and pioneer of the UN’s HeForShe campaign, Emma Watson has faced criticism for the publication of a photo in which her breasts are partially exposed. The image is one of a series taken by acclaimed fashion photographer Tim Walker, with styling by Jessica Diehl. It accompanied Watson’s recent cover story interview for Vanity Fair. Of the shoot and images Watson has said:
It felt incredibly artistic. I’ve been so creatively involved and engaged with Tim and I’m so thrilled about how interesting and beautiful the photographs were.
As the UN Global Goodwill Ambassador, Watson promotes gender equality while maintaining her career as an internationally renowned actress. She’s a major role model for women, young and old, worldwide.
Watson’s critics argued that by posing for this revealing photo, she betrayed her feminist ideals. Rather than apologise, Watson came back at her critics with a simple explanation of what feminism really means:
Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it.
Feminism is about empowering women to make their own choices. Equality means women have the freedom to choose how their bodies are treated and viewed, in both public and private spheres. This issue is up there with the right to education, the right to equal pay and the right not to be sexually harassed and abused.
Watson’s critics, whether or not they’re aware of it, reinforce the case of people denying women access to reproductive healthcare. The argument against giving women access to abortion and other essential healthcare stems from a misogynistic view that women do not deserve control over their bodies. Access to reproductive healthcare is about allowing women to choose how their body is treated and viewed, in both public and private spheres.
A little glimpse of boob might seem like a drop in an ocean of all the things feminist women have been fighting for for hundreds of years. It might seem like a single image from a fashion shoot is hardly worth all this conjecture. But it is our reactions to these seemingly small issues that snowball until we have an entire woman-shaming culture: by opposing a single woman’s consensual decision to bare her body, we become complicit in preventing hundreds of thousands of women from life-saving healthcare.
As Watson put it, this criticism is synonymous with:
saying that I couldn’t be a feminist and… and have boobs.