The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 24th and incumbent President of Liberia
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female head of state in 2005, and was re-elected in 2011. In June 2016, she was elected as the Chair of the Economic Community of West African States, making her the first woman to occupy that position since it was formed.
Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her efforts to secure peace in Liberia. The prize was jointly awarded to Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen. The three women were recognised “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
Words and Women is a regular feature that spotlights short quotations from influential women activists, artists, and authors.
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.
There are a bunch of ways to measure gender equality. While some believe that giving women the right to vote solved that problem long ago, women are still a long way from equal representation in politics. Why’s equal representation important? Women politicians are far more likely to hold women’s best interests at heart.
Without women’s participation in decision-making, women’s needs will never be fully respected.
Here’s a quick look at the top three countries for female representation in Parliament, with stats from a couple of superpowers thrown in for good measure.
When you think of women’s rights, you probably don’t imagine Rwanda, Bolivia, and Cuba heading the list. But these three countries are taking equal representation seriously, and their numbers of female parliamentarians reflect that:
Rwanda: Women hold 61.3% seats in the lower house and 38.5% in the upper house. Since 2003, the country has required that at least 30 percent of representatives be female.
Bolivia: Women hold 53.1% of seats in the lower house and 47.2% in the upper house, following a 2009 measure requiring women to occupy at least 50 percent of elected positions.
Cuba: Women hold 48.9% of seats in the single house since positive discrimination has put women in almost half the seats in the National Assembly.
Iceland, Nicaragua, Sweden, Senegal, Mexico, Finland and South Africa fill out the rest of the top 10. Here are the figures from a couple of superpowers, the UK at 47th, China at 74th, and USA at 104th, just for comparison:
United Kingdom: Women parliamentarians have 30.0% of seats in the lower house and 25.8% in the upper house. The UK is currently governed by its’ second woman Prime Minister, Teresa May (whose love of eccentric shoes has confused the public for years).
People’s Republic of China: 23.7% of the single house is female. That’s 699 seats of 2949 since the most recent election in 2013 (yes, those exist in local governments).
United States of America: 19.1% of representatives (that’s 83 women out of 435 representatives) and 21.0% of senators are women. This reflects the outcome of the November 2016 elections, which the first female Presidential nominee of a major party in US history, Hillary Rodham Clinton, lost.
190. At the bottom of the list, in joint 190th place, we have: Federated States of Micronesia, Qatar, Vanuatu, and Yemen. All four boast a total of no women in power anywhere in the political system.
‘Outside In’, episode exploring women’s social position in Rwanda, Invisibilia
‘Bolivian Women are breaking down barriers to seek political power’, Guardian
‘Party and State in Cuba: Gender Equality in Political Decision Making’, pdf
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.
The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.
Adrienne Rich was an American poet, essayist and radical feminist. She was credited with bringing “the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse” (Flood).
Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”
Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions–predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in the places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different”…The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”
2016 was characterized by sexism across the board, from President-elect Trump and Duterte to the Olympics and the music industry. We’ve lost a bunch of significant icons for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’d would rather forget all about it, for one night at least.
But the world has made some serious strides towards equality and liberation in 2016, with female heads of state taking power worldwide, and women standing strong together in the face of adversity. Here we take stock of the year to recognise how we’ve continued to move forward.
Taiwan elected their first female President, Tsai Ingwen, who is leader of the Democratic Progressive Party. Tsai has since vowed to reduce Taiwan’s dependence on mainland China, which considers the independently-governed island as a Chinese territory, desiring eventual reunion.
English musician David Bowie, who consistently challenged social norms of gender and sexuality with his androgynous appearance, music and performance, died of liver cancer. After his death, he was remembered as a unifying force: “a human bridge between the queer and the hetero-normative.”
American musician Kesha sued Dr. Luke, her music producer, for over a decade of sexual abuse which “put her life at risk”, including drugging and raping her. Sony refused to release her from her six-album recording contract, signed in 2005.
During proceedings, talk-show host Wendy Williams victim-blamed Kesha for not simply filming the abuse, stating: “business is business, and it sounds like it’s fair. If everybody complained because somebody allegedly sexually abused them … contracts would be broken all the time.”
Female stars, including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga, stood in sisterly solidarity with Kesha, with Swift donating $250,000 toward legal efforts to #FreeKesha
Police removed bail conditions on China’s Feminist Five who were arrested and detained last March for planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transport. One condition of the lifted bail was no travel outside their legal place of residence. However, police have not dropped the case and these young women could remain suspects indefinitely, despite committing no crime.
Aung San Suu Kyi took office as the first female political leader of Myanmar, after her National League for Democracy won a majority in the November Elections. The Lady became Myanmar’s first State Counsellor – the de facto head of government – a role created to counteract a constitutional clause preventing her taking office.
The death of American musician Prince, who famously defied categorization of race, gender and sexuality, shook fans worldwide. The Los Angeles Times called Prince “our first post-everything pop star, defying easy categories of race, genre and commercial appeal.”
Female Judge in New York, Judge Shirley Kornreich, ruled against Kesha’s motion to end her contract with Sony, even after attorneys argued that it was “slavery” to force her to work with companies associated with her rapist and former producer, Dr. Luke. Kesha stated: “All I ever wanted was to be able to make music without being afraid, scared or abused.”
Tsai Ingwen became the “most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world” when sworn in as President of Taiwan, when she vowed to promote democracy and freedom, and refused the idea Taiwan was part of “one China”.
Philippine citizens elected “proud womanizer”, Roderigo Duterte, in the Presidential election. He began as he meant to continue: by wolf-whistling and serenading a female journalist in a nationally televised press conference before taking office. Since his election, he has pursued the brutal execution of drug dealers, with a death toll of 6,000 in six months.
Despite all hopes (and votes) of the British youth, the island nation voted to leave the European Union in the national referendum. Brexit voters, many of whom were among the elderly population, were disappointed to learn they’d been lied to during the long campaign. The promise to re-route large sums of money into the National Health Service was immediately refuted by UKIP party leader and leave-campaigner Nigel Farage, who promptly resigned. Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, also resigned, leaving the country to wonder why he’d proposed this referendum in the first place.
Amid the post-Brexit chaos, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, Teresa May took office after all the male contenders played themselves out. British media ironically embraced sexism by reporting on the PM’s husband’s attire on the day they moved into Number 10.
Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic nomination, making her the first female Presidential nominee of a major party in US history. Her opposition, Bernie Sanders, called for a unanimous nomination, and civil rights leader John Lewis said: “Tonight we will shatter that glass ceiling again.”
China overstepped it’s bounds in the South China Sea, by creating artificial islands with military runways on reefs in territories claimed by other countries, inviting major international dispute with the Philippines. The issue came to a head when an international tribunal favoured claims from the Philippines and China refused to acknowledge the ruling. In an October visit to Beijing, Filipino President Duterte had seemingly brushed the matter aside, stating a realignment with mainland China’s vision, snubbing long-term ally the United States.
A UK police force made strides towards fair reporting of sex crimes, in a decision to record misogyny as hate crime. Panic ensued, but, as Laura Bates stated: “fears of innocent men being locked up for compliments were proved misplaced when women instead reported abuse and assault.”
Tokyo’s first female governor, Yuriko Koike, took office after winning a landside in the July election. To the displeasure of many politicians it seems – one politician implied her leadership abilities are compromised because she’s “a woman past her prime in thick makeup.” Comparing her battle for office to Hillary Clinton’s, Koike once said: “Hillary used the phrase ‘glass ceiling.’ It’s often a sheet of steel in Japan.”
A woman in France was forced by a group of policemen to remove her clothing on a public beach in Nice after France banned the burkini citing concerns about terrorism related to religious clothing. Images show at least four policemen surrounding the woman, who sat on the beach with her family wearing leggings, a tunic, and a headscarf.
Female athletes suffered as Olympic Games commentators seemed to compete for the “most sexist” award.
Hong Kong held its legislative elections, with the highest turnout of voters in the territory’s history.
New statistics about the gender pay gap show how factors like race, age and education also affect the chasm between men and women’s earnings over their lifetimes. In the US, there’s a negative correlation between education and earning power. Similarly, earnings decrease with age: the older a woman is, the smaller percentage of a man’s wage she earns. As a result of gender- and race-based wage gaps, student debt is all the more crippling for women of colour.
North Korea tested nuclear warheads for the second time this year, in the most powerful detonation unleashed in a North Korean nuclear test so far.
New data displayed a significant rise in the birth rate of babies born to women over 45 in the UK. There were 1,578 babies born to mothers aged 45 and over in England in 2009, but in 2015 there were 2,119.
Women the world over were not all that shocked by the release of an audio recording of Donald Trump telling a reporter how he likes to pick up women: “Grab her by the pussy”, is a statement he brushed off as “locker-room talk”. In a moment of solidarity against the oligarch, women across America revealed stories of sexual harassment and abuse by Donald Trump, which he consistently denied.
The more allegations emerged, the more Hillary Clinton seemed the obvious champion for women’s rights across America. The majority of people using the early-voting system were reportedly Republican women whose husbands wanted them to vote for Trump. Predictions showed Clinton to be the next President.
Xi Jinping was announced “core leader” of China, an honour only three previous leaders (Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Chairman Mao) have been given. The new title is a sign that, “willingly or not, senior Communist Party officials have bowed to his dominance.”
Hong Kong and mainland China clashed over the chaotic swearing-in of young Pro-Democracy politicians, several of whom referred to the mainland by a racial slur, ‘Shina’, and one called it the “People’s ref**king of Shina”. Protests erupted in the streets of Hong Kong as a result of Beijing’s interference in legal proceedings.
Women mourned the reinforcement of the glass ceiling as Donald Trump won the US Presidential Elections, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was infinitely more qualified for the job. Protests ensued across the United States and further afield. Many were upset to learn that no, allegations of rape and sexual abuse do not ruin a man’s career.
Moroccan TV normalised domestic violence with it’s make-up tutorial showing how to cover bruises.
Protests that broke out on the streets of the South Korean capital in November came to a head as the people called for President Park Geun-Hye to resign amid allegations of corruption. Park, the first female President and daughter of President Park Chung-Hee (in office 1961-1979), was suspended from office on 9th December to wait out impeachment hearings.
I turned 27, which puts me at risk of becoming a “leftover woman” – a shameful term invented by the government affiliated All China Women’s Federation to guilt unmarried women.
British musician George Michael was found dead on Christmas morning. George Michael was half of the first western act to play in the People’s Republic of China. Wham! toured China in April 1986.After Wham! separated Michael came out as gay, thus challenging notions of masculinity and sexuality, while remaining a sex symbol for the majority of his life.
Mother-daughter actresses Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher died 24 hours apart in the last week of the year. Debbie Reynolds was known for her wonderful singing voice, heard alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connell in Singin’ In The Rain (1952). Carrie Fisher was best known for her portrayal of Sci-Fi’s earliest strong female character, Princess Leia. The Star Wars character runs an empire on her own after both her brother and lover disappear with no explanation.