Category Archives: Loreli

Gender Equality in China (Loreli Interview)

Cas Sutherland, whose work we first showcased last September, is a model global citizen. Dedicated to the cause of gender equality and h*#man r*ghts, Cas keeps involved in activities around Beijing and greater Asia, blogging at Zhendegender.com

You are a professor here in Beijing. And you blog about feminism, mostly in a Chinese context. You interview fascinating female movers and shakers. Does this sound about right?

Yes, I am lucky to teach at a progressive Chinese university. I see roomfuls of young, mostly female, students every week, and I get to talk to them about issues that are meaningful to me, in the hopes of instilling the student with an understanding of the nuances of the world both in and outside China. I think I learn just as much from them as they do from me. It really is a two-way learning process.

I usually frame my work as blogging about gender, which includes feminism but encompasses a range of other issues too, including LGBT and women’s health issues. All of these issues interact, which is where we get intersectionality (or intersectional theory) – a contemporary feminism that examines how various cultural and social categories (such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.) intersect.

I’ve been writing about gender and women’s issues for a few years now, but only recently has my focus turned specifically to China and Asia. Living in China does not necessarily make it easy to write about China, and the women’s rights movement here is controversial and highly political. This makes it a fascinating and necessary topic to write about, but also holds potential dangers for anyone openly involved. The project is pretty new. So far I’ve published interviews with Chinese writers and activists, who are already in the public eye, but I’m planning to feature interviews with people from a wide range of backgrounds. My only problem now is getting around the language barrier.

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Li Tingting (or Li Maizi), Xiao Meili, and Wei Tingting raising awareness of domestic violence.

How do you follow feminism in China, and even other parts of Asia (such as Burma)? How do you keep up-to-date?

Coming to Chinese, Burmese and other Asian feminisms as an outsider means a lot of background research was involved to build a base of knowledge. Having intelligent young Chinese students and friends is a huge source of information and inspiration. Most of my research I do simply by talking to people with similar interests – engaging with people on a topic that they enjoy is my favourite way to learn and to challenge my own ideas. I’m also part of a large group of Beijing-based Feminists, who arrange regular meetings to discuss various issues.

Attending events about related topics has been very useful too. For example the annual Bookworm Literary Festival and the regular events listed on Legation Quarter invite experts, both foreign and Chinese, to speak on contemporary Chinese issues. Many events about China will touch on gender relations in some way, whether or not the event is specifically about a related topic. If I’m curious about the way gender relates to the topic, I will ask. I’m one of those people who sit at the front and always ask questions!

If you were to look back on this time in history 50 years, what would you say is happening with females in China right now?

From my perspective, now is a time of major change. Feminism has gained serious momentum in the past 5 or 6 years, and a specifically Chinese feminism is emerging. Women’s rights issues are more widely regarded as important; issues surrounding women’s health are being taken more seriously and sex education is making progress in schools. LGBT rights have moved forward with the announcement that gay conversion treatment is illegal, and the first hearing given to a gay couple demanding their relationship be recognised as under marriage.

That said, progression continually comes face to face with deep-set traditional values that seem to have little grounding in contemporary life yet hold an established place in Chinese culture. Sex-selective abortion continues in its prevalence (13 mil. per year, 60% are unmarried women) and insubstantial (4 months) maternity leave is forcing women to leave their jobs. A large wage gap prevails in a majority of jobs and women’s education is stigmatized (Female PhD students are viewed as a third gender). Gender equality will continue to be a problematic issue with such a huge gender imbalance in China.

What are the latest major achievements and deeper challenges to feminism in China at the moment?

One of the latest achievements to gender equality in China is the domestic violence law, which came in at the end of 2015. It basically means that the police are obliged to intervene when they get reports of domestic violence, where previously the authorities were instructed not to interfere in peoples’ private lives.

Another ongoing controversial issue is the arrest and detention of the Feminist Five in March 2015. The day before International Women’s Day last year, seven campaigners were arrested for planning to distribute fliers about sexual harassment on public transport in Beijing and Guangzhou. Five of them – Wei Tingting, Zheng Churan, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Li Tingting (known as Li Maizi) – were detained for 37 days. They quickly became a vanguard for women in China.

A year later, they went back to the site of their detention to have their one-year bail revoked and to collect their belongings. Three of them went back with their lawyer, but the case against them was not dropped. This means that they could be prosecuted at any time in the next four years.

These young women are not the type to balk at the threat and their detention kick-started an unprecedented era of widespread feminist activism across China. However, the on-going political opposition to the women’s movement, and the dangers associated with it, could be a major obstacle to the future of Chinese feminism.

You use this phrase ‘global feminism’ – what’s that all about?

I think it is pretty clear by now that feminism is making waves the world over. Here in China, not only is there a burgeoning curiosity to learn about the way feminism operates in the west, but China is claiming feminism as its own. While the label ‘feminist’ means a person who believes we must work toward gender equality, women and men in the UK are experiencing very different challenges to gender equality than those faced by people in China, Burma or elsewhere in the world. While labels can be useful, feminism means different things to different people. I see feminism as a tool for change – it must be applied in new ways in different contexts, and however much we support one another, we cannot fight other peoples’ battles for them.

I use the phrase global feminism because disconnects between western feminist strongholds and developing world feminism can often be misconstrued. There is no reason a western feminist ‘we’ must set the agenda for a developing world feminist ‘them’. Chinese activists are navigating the way toward gender equality using a contemporary Chinese feminism, on their own terms. Nonetheless, Chinese feminism still embodies the principles by which feminists around the world are bound together.

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Super-badass activist Xiao Tie

I read on your blog that a super-badass feminist Xiao Tie may be in some sort of trouble. What gives?

She is indeed a total badass. Thirty-year-old bisexual LGBT activist Xiao Tie is the director of Beijing’s LGBT Centre and one of Beijing’s most prominent young figureheads. Her campaigns for LGBT rights have gained international attention, most notably those protesting ‘gay conversion’ treatment, that is still a widespread problem in China. The authorities are aware of those facts. I don’t think she is in immediate trouble, but she has been prevented from attending events (ie. a discussion of Women’s Rights in China at The Bookworm’s Literary Festival this March) with the threat of detention. This threat could be realised at any time, so she has to monitor her every interaction, whether in public on or social media.

Xiao Tie is among a group of young activists of both sexes who campaign for gender equality and LGBT rights. The ‘Feminist Five’ and their allies are prominent figures in the press (both national and international) and are thus potential targets for the authorities, wumaodang (the fifty cents party) and criticism from Chinese citizens. They are fully aware of this risk, but they are not likely to stop working towards what they believe is right for the country.

Is the Chinese word for ‘feminism’ as stigmatized in Chinese as in English? 

This is a really fascinating and complex topic that I actually covered with my students this week. There are two Chinese words for feminism, sometimes used interchangeably. Both hold somewhat different connotations as each emerged in a specific historical context.

An early translation was 女权主义 ‘nuquan zhuyi’ (women’s power or rights + ism), denoting a militant demand for women’s political rights reminiscent of the earlier women’s suffrage movements in the West and in China. It has distinct militaristic connotations.

The women’s movement later took a very different direction, and the identity of Chinese women thus came to be defined by state organisations, like the ACWF (All China Women’s Federation), exclusively in terms of an official discourse on gender. Use of the term ‘feminism’ was rejected and ‘forbidden’ within this discourse from 1949.

Feminism returned to China during the 1980s, and the new translation proposed in the 1990s was 女性主义‘nuxing zhuyi’ (femininity + ism), which emphasises gender inequality rather than women’s rights, and is seen to have a richer set of cultural and political meanings than the earlier term.

The word feminism is stigmatised in the west because it connotes previous incarnations of feminist thought that have since become less popular. Thus the need for naming developments in feminist thought in ‘waves’. Second wave feminism – the bra-burning era – is part of the reason contemporary feminism is often treated with such reticence. Fourth wave feminism (which is where we’re at now), encompasses intersectionality (or intersectional theory) and operates on the basis that feminism can and should work for every – and I mean every – individual within their own unique social context.

My students tell me that女权主义 ‘nuquan zhuyi’ holds connotations closer to second wave feminism, and女性主义‘nuxing zhuyi’ is probably closer to fourth wave feminism. It depends who you talk to, but from what I understand, ‘nuquan zhuyi’, the stronger of the two, is used much more often, whether colloquially or among writers and feminist thinkers, even though the word is not recognised by the Party.

How can we [any reader] help the situation?

First off, get informed. Learn about the nuances within gender equality movement wherever you are in the world – by reading, attending events, asking questions – and challenge your existing views by talking to people about theirs. Second, go to events and support the cause – whether it is a charity event at the LGBT center, an discussion run by Lean In Beijing, or an event that gives you the chance to talk to experts about what more you can do. Many of the organisations will take donations and are eager to find volunteers. You can even by a Chinese ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt from Xiao Meili’s taobao page.

This interview was originally published on Loreli on 12th May 2016.

Looking back: 2015 in review

This has been a whirlwind of a year. In the past 12 months, I’ve truly settled into a happy, fulfilling life in China. I’ve got a lot to be proud of, much of it a result of hard work, some of it springing from luck. But it didn’t all go smoothly.

I began the year with a long, rather lonely, 6-week vacation during which I felt like I achieved very little and that I was trapped in China (by passport issues). There were points at which I was only “getting by” on the knowledge that I would see my family soon – from March I was getting through the weeks by counting down to April when my mother would arrive.

I spent too much time alone, trying to meet people on Tinder and not enough time socialising with real people. I spent a lot of my time feeling trapped by little details of my new life in China: a country I chose to come to because it made me feel free.

I’d have gone insane by now if I didn’t have myself to talk to. Looking back, those months refocussed my ability for self-reflection. Talking to myself proved a necessary tool for my continued sanity, happiness and success.

I pushed through until things changed, fast and dramatically, just a week after Mum flew home. By the time July rolled around, bringing my brother and sister for a month-long visit of hilarity and intrepid travel, my life was utterly changed.

At the end of May, I had just signed a new contract to stay in my job for a second year, and felt pleased with myself (probably a result of my mother’s enduring praise which often centred around my small but successful indoor garden). While still recovering from a hangover only partially self-inflicted during an accidental group Tinder date the night before, and after almost fainting at the gym due to low electrolyte levels, I went to my first ever Beijing Storytellers event. My first performance of any kind in months, I told a story in front of a small crowd. The final performance of the night was delivered by someone I immediately admired and later fell for, head over heels. His influence has changed my life.

IMG_1729This time last year I created a way to a note of things throughout my year – a little jar of happy memories and achievements to remember. Not an alternative to New Year’s Resolutions, but a wonderful way to track and share my highlights of 2015.

Here they are, in the order they came out of the jar:

  • Setting up a life that I don’t feel the need to escape from
  • Sven’s unfaltering belief in me
  • Completing NaBloPoMo, Nov 2015
  • After my story, a friend stating: ‘That was awesome. There should be more stories about female masturbation on that stage.’
  • A new friend’s face: impressed that I can read Korean; amazed by Dad’s book introduction written by Henri Cartier-Bresson; saying he felt he knew me from across the world and that he was happy to be around “intelligent people” again
  • Boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend having a friend crush on me
  • People enjoying my stories at 4C Storytelling
  • Dancing with disabled and non-disabled participants of Pojie Arts
  • Meeting Seve and Anna in Hong Kong
  • Being given a copy of a stranger’s book of photographs while waiting in the visa application line at the Myanmar embassy in Beijing.
  • The solid, safe familiarity of my friendship with Emma. Her visit renewed my patience for China

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  • The anti-feminist troll on Catherine and the Lion: one indication I am making an impact through my writing!
  • Mum learning beginner Chinese before her visit and repeatedly telling me: Wŏ shì yīngguórén!
  • Being recognized by the man at the Myanmar visa office (“I know this photo”), then told “[we] warmly welcome you to live in Myanmar.”
  • Big group trip to the Great Wild Wall; the wind nearly blowing us off the other side; belly aching from so much laughter
  • Realising I had just heard 12 of my undergraduate students present coherent arguments in good English while following a clear debate structure, then others asking them intelligent questions. Cycling home thinking: I LOVE TEACHING!
  • Endless kindness shown by a Burmese friend in Yangon
  • Hearing a friend’s catchphrase, “I say goddamn…!” ricochet around my head months after he left the country
  • A new blog post about personal feminisms got this response (and stacks of re-postings) on Facebook: “I was waiting to see what you’d say… and girl, you delivered!”
  • Meeting Sven
  • Having full conversations in Chinese in many different cities and provinces

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  • Discussing writing tools – the benefits of pens, paper and typewriters vs. laptop / computer keyboards – with internationally famous Chinese author Xiaolu Guo (she borrowed my pen)
  • Taking MSc students to their first contemporary dance show, one student told me he “didn’t understand” it, but concluded that “art doesn’t need language.”
  • Janey and I bonding by agreeing: “Sven is a boy.”
  • My very first pint of Guinness to myself, and my friend’s enjoyment at watching me drink it with my eyes closed
  • Practicing Chinese tones with my mother by repeating the names of cities we visited
  • Boyfriend gave me a key! (The first time a relationship has been so mature / serious.)
  • My piece of work about a rape joke gone sour being published on Loreli, a very new platform for Beijing artists / writers
  • Being complimented on my Chinese (and knowing the compliment is meant!)
  • “She’s telling me about hitchhiking to Morocco – I’m so attracted to her right now…”
  • A student’s bounding energy every time I arrive at her family home; their joy that I will stay in Beijing a second year
  • A first glimpse of day-to-day Tibetan life and culture in Western Sichuan
  • Talking to a stranger on a bus about Buddhism, reading, travelling, then at the train station him saying: “From what you’ve told me I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you were in Burma.” Realising that he’d keyed in exactly to my hopes and ambitions, and shared my feelings for it all
  • I “inspired” (bullied) a colleague to take the next step in his life and leave his job for another opportunity
  • “You don’t need ecstacy – you’re awesome enough without it.”
  • Meeting and befriending celebrities on my first trip to Burma.
  • A student announcing: “I think G.I. Jane is like Hua Mulan. They’re both women heroes.”
  • Traveling up and down China with my brother and sister, who never seem to lose their mad sense of humour despite immense heat and long train journeys
  • One night at Lush: beer fountain from Stian’s nose; mad stories from Jim; singing with Janey; whole group drowning out the live band singing Hallelujah; Sven teaching me ripsticking
  • Dancing in the bright moonlight at Setse beach, Myanmar
  • Bemused stares when I go for an early morning 3k run through high school kids and businessmen on their way to work at 7am
  • Sven (immediately after the event) saying: “Remember that time we fell in love and ate all those mangosteens?”
  • Being a reliable friend, supporting everyone around me in their endeavors – one friend going to Dubai, another leaving her job
  • Mum’s unwavering energy throughout our trip together; she seemed less tired than me despite a 37 year age gap
  • Acting in a web series about menstruation

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  • I am have an awesome family (and everyone I meet tells me so)!
  • Clear blue skies and warm sun, hot for January in Northern China – sitting with a new friend and listening to the silence of nature above our frozen pool full of air bubbles at the Great Wall
  • Lunch on a rooftop, cartwheels at Tian’anmen, brandy at home and doing a gym sesh a bit tipsy
  • “I want to take you home and just squeeze you.”

Here’s to creating a long list of joyful memories in 2016!

 

Can Rape Jokes Ever be Funny?

Sexist Faux Pas at a Beijing Bar

A woman takes the Beijing subway to work every day. One day her doctor tells her she is pregnant. “That’s impossible,” she says. “I’ve only been on the subway.”

When this joke was told to a friend and me at a party, the punch line hung in the air. The young man seemed to be trying to impress us with his… wit? charm? good looks? I said:

Rape jokes aren’t funny.”

His counter was not an apology, nor admittance that the joke was problematic, nor even a recognition that some people might be offended by it. He said, “It’s not a rape joke — it’s a sex joke.”

So began a long argument that did little but make me angry and him defensive. He refused to see that this wasn’t an appropriate subject to joke about, as he refused to believe he had made a joke about rape. He did not see himself as someone who would – or could – make a rape joke, and thus the actual issue, the real perpetrator and perpetuator of crimes against humanity – the femi-Nazi, as it were – was me.

How convenient that there were no other men present at our table when he sidled up to share his joke – that he didn’t run the risk of being called out by his own gender for being a creep. Had he imagined that only women would grant him a laugh? Was it painful to him that even a girl wouldn’t laugh at his joke?

Though he was seemingly oblivious to his actions, he was indeed using his gender to assert some level of dominance over we two young women. As though I had never heard such a joke before, he told me I simply did not understand the humour and began slowly to explain it in detailed language for the girl who didn’t “get” the joke.

As if to redirect his listener’s fury, he added that part of the humour lay in the stereotype that Asian men have small penises; this was the reason the woman had not noticed being penetrated and thus did not know who the baby’s father was.

While I wished to place the blame entirely on him – it would be much easier to do so as we left the party enraged, primarily due to him – I know it’s not entirely his fault.

Making friends among the lad culture in UK high schools and universities requires a flippant attitude toward both gender and sex. Many young men, like this one, feel they can be blasé about rape primarily because they do not believe themselves or their friends to be potential rapists, and imagine this fact is equally as clear to everyone else. Young women learn to laugh at jokes that undermine and humiliate them, in order to attract and compete for potential beaus.

“It’s just BANTER.”

I recently had a friend – an otherwise thoughtful, sensitive man – tell me that he felt rape was simply a sub-category of sex. He felt that “sex” as a label covered a whole range of practices that not everyone understood, approved of or agreed were acceptable behaviour. Rape, paedophilia, and sexual harassment would fall under this label. So do polyamory, naturism, and sadomasochistic relationships. It’s all “just sex”, and sometimes it happens without mutual consent. By his definition, it’s simply a matter of taste and preference; an echo of the Freudian model that rape is the result of individual sexual deviancy.

Yet the Freudian model does not account for the use of violent rape as a weapon. It is used as a part of the standard toolkit in the deployment of genocidal army tactics. Why? Because rape can have far longer-term effects than the duration of the crime.

Rape is commonly believed to be a demonstration of unequal power relations. Rape is not about sex, desire or sexual attraction, but about power: “Rape, properly understood, is more like an injury to the brain than a violent variation on sex. Rape, properly understood, is always aimed not just at the female sex organs but at the female brain.” [1] It seems pretty clear to me.

And yet ambiguity prevails. This party guest embraced the ambiguity and even felt empowered to impress it upon his audience. I wonder what that’s like, to see the ambiguity of involuntary sex as good party conversation material. Flirting material, nonetheless.

What is crystal clear to me was muddy and vague to him because he had never needed to see the threat of sexual violence from the same angle. The issue remains a zeitgeist because people – such as subscribers of British lad culture – are uncomfortable to dig in. They are socially rewarded for joking about rape rather than recognising rape for what it is.

“Only yes means yes.” 

Is it sexy to ask permission? If I ask, will she think me less of a man? What if she doesn’t actually say yes? Is she acting like she doesn’t want it to make me try harder? Am I in a position to say no?

How many people have felt confused or misled in that vital moment yet unable to ask their partner for clarification? People feel able to play around with ambiguity when it grants them a laugh to serve their ego, but humour fails to solve the issues left by vagaries and miscommunication.

Rape as a crime is defined by the FBI as follows: Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim. 

I do not believe that all rape jokes are inherently offensive. Humour can be a great source of healing; laughter is a tool that can aid recovery. Rape survivors may benefit significantly from joking about their experiences; humour allows the freedom to openly express what taboo prevents us airing. There is a degree of truth to every joke, as they say.

But with no previous rapport with his listeners, he had no idea how the joke might affect either of us. He was using ambiguity as a tool to reassert a traditional patriarchal power imbalance that falls along gender lines; his harmless anecdote about male sexual dominance was not funny because it was, however deep within its gift-wrapped box, a threat.

In the words of Naomi Wolf: “If your goal is to break a woman psychologically, it is efficient to do violence to her vagina.” [2] Short of committing the physical act itself, a sly joke among strangers may serve to slicken the way.

Originally published by Lo.Re.Li., China in September 2015

[1] Naomi Wolf, Vagina: A New Biography, 121.
[2] Ibid.

Read my Lo.Re.Li interview here or read more about Lo.Re.Li here