China’s rebels with a feminist cause
Lijia Zhang says cause of equality is well served by activists’ dedication
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 7:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 11:02pm
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The play The Vagina Monologues has provoked debate and controversy around the world, yet nothing as ugly as in China. To advertise for a Chinese version of the show on their campus, 17 women students from the Beijing Foreign Studies University recently posed for the cameras, each holding up a sign "quoting" her vagina. "My vagina says: I want freedom," read one; "My vagina says: I decide who to let in," said another.
They cannot have expected the savage criticism unleashed online after they posted the photos on the internet. Thousands of web users, mostly men, commented unkindly on their looks, accused them of being immoral and compared them with prostitutes.
The online assault was a brutal reminder that many do not favour gender equality
More than three decades of reforms and opening up have dramatically transformed China. Women have unbuttoned Mao Zedong’s straitjacket. And, nowadays, major cities impress visitors with signs of an open and modern society. Even so, the culture of male patriarchy is firmly in place.
This was all too evident in the outbursts against the students by men who clearly find the women’s quest for sexual freedom and their disdain for being chaste both unacceptable and threatening.
For me, the whole drama illustrates the glaring gap between the largely conservative society and an increasing feminist activism in China.
The production of Ying Dao Zhi Dao (Our Vaginas, Ourselves) was actually homework assigned as part of the university’s gender studies course. A creation of BCome, a feminist theatre group, it combines Chinese elements, for example crosstalk, a traditional form of Chinese comedy, and elements from Eve Ensler’s 1996 play The Vagina Monologues.
Since Ai Xiaoming , a feminist professor from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, staged the first show on the mainland in 2003, various versions have been performed in several cities, gingerly, yet bravely.
China’s reforms, with all the opportunities presented to women, have also brought setbacks. The income gap between working men and women is widening steadily; prostitution has become widespread; domestic violence is on the rise; and too few women occupy senior positions in government. Gender equality remains a distant dream.
Yet amid such a harsh environment for women, I have witnessed with delight the blossoming of feminist activism: several women hit Beijing’s streets on Valentine’s Day, dressed in wedding gowns spattered with fake blood, to protest against domestic violence; students rallied in front of the Wuhan city government offices to voice their opposition to an intrusive gynaecological examination imposed on prospective women civil servants; a friend is currently marching from Beijing to Guangzhou to protest against child sexual abuse.
This summer, I and two dozen other women graduated from China’s first Feminist School, organised by several feminist non-governmental organisations. One of our teachers was Li Jinzhao from the Beijing Foreign Studies University, who assigned the Ying Dao Zhi Dao homework. Li and other professors hope to introduce the eight-session course to more universities.
The online assault on the students was a brutal reminder that beyond this circle of enlightened women, many do not favour gender equality. Yet to look on the bright side, I hope the event will raise awareness of gender issues. The history of the feminist movement shows that every step of progress has to be fought for.
Lijia Zhang is a writer, journalist, social commentator and public speaker
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as In patriarchal China, show of feminist defiance will go on