A quick rundown of how International Women’s Day looked from the perspective of women in China – in pictures.
Global Times, a daily newspaper owned and published by the state-affiliated People’s Daily, decided International Women’s Day (known as Women’s Day in China), was an appropriate time to remind readers of International Men’s Day. Apparently, Global Times thought Men’s Day seemed a more effective “time to celebrate our achievements and fight against discrimination” than Women’s Day. Here’s looking forward to November 19th to see how they do so.
Chinese search engine, Baidu, went for a celebratory angle this year, promoting restaurant, cinema and shopping deals for women on their special day. The image is a distinct improvement on the controversial doodle of 2015, going for a “modern women can have it all” feel.
In comparison, Google’s doodle was diverse and dynamic, including representations of a variety of influential women, and stressing the importance of intergenerational relationships – every women pictured (whether or not she had children in life) was shown sharing her experiences with a young girl.
Demonstrators around the world showed their support for Feminist Voices, the Chinese women’s rights organisation whose social media accounts were temporarily blocked on 20th February for criticising Donald Trump’s misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and racist policies. The overlaid green text is a reminder that the account has been forcibly inactive for 20 days so far (the total given was 30 days).
Chinese feminist activist, Li Maizi (or Li Tingting), spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in London this week:
Marking two years since her arrest by Chinese authorities, activist Li Maizi of China’s ‘Feminist Five’ is joined at SOAS by a panel of experts to share her activism experience, and discuss the current state and future of feminism in mainland China. Unprecedented in the UK, this is a chance to hear from one of the PRC’s leading activists and one of the most inspirational figures in global feminist and LGBTQIA+ networks.
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.
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.