Women’s Day and the Fight for Gender Equality in China

International Women’s Day was first celebrated by the Socialist Party of America and later in Europe to call for women’s equal rights, suffrage, and right to strike, but is now celebrated in China by giving women half a day off work and incentivizing them to shop. Official celebrations often tend toward showcasing women’s physical attributes and fashion sense. This year, the official People’s Daily newspaper honored the day with a photo shoot of women construction workers “transformed into elegant ladies,” in glamorous dresses and full makeup. In a separate editorial, People’s Daily announced that China is “quietly stepping into the ‘She’ era,” while lauding women’s accomplishments. Several tweets from state media accounts showed how far attitudes toward the holiday have strayed from its origins:

China’s feminist activists are fighting against the commercialization of the holiday to try to return to its roots. At the Washington Post, Emily Rauhala and Xin Jin profile Wei Tingting as one of “five women changing their world for the better”:

In China, International Women’s Day has for the most part been commercialized — it’s about buying flowers, not building a movement. This year, Wei hopes people will take the day to reflect on the fight for gender equality. The day is “not for sales in shops, not for roses, not for vacations,” she said, “It’s for women’s rights and human rights. [Source]

Wei was one of five women detained two years ago while launching a public campaign against sexual harassment. One of her associates, Li Maizi (also known as Li Tingting), writes in The Guardian about the status of the women’s movement in China since their detention and release:

Two years later, is there any hope for the Chinese feminist movement? Definitely, yes. Since my arrest, there has been both progress and a backlash against women’s rights. On the one hand, the first legislation against domestic violence was passed in December 2015, an event of huge significance. Women who have been beaten by their husbands or partners now have the law on their side.

On the other hand, state surveillance of NGOs and feminist activists is increasing, and those who have tried to hold the government to account on human rights abuses have faced crackdowns.

[…] However, despite the pushback against grassroots organisations, and thanks to women’s issues becoming more prominent on social media, women are becoming more active in the fight against gender discrimination. When I was released from detention, I faced a tough decision: should I continue my , or give up? I chose to continue. What I do is for the rights of women all over the world. But I can’t help but be especially concerned about China. My own experiences, and the experiences of my friends in China, have had a profound effect on me. [Source]

For SupChina, Jiayun Feng writes about many of the challenges faced by China’s feminists, stemming from both prejudice from the general public and interference from the government. Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch writes about the government’s tactic “to silence independent women’s voices and replace them with tame ones trumpeting the government’s achievements,” including the recent shuttering of the Feminist Voices Weibo account. The closure of the account has been both applauded by anti-feminist critics and condemned by its supporters.

Both subtle and overt discrimination against women is still rampant in the workplace as well, according to a recent study from the Zhaopin online employment platform. Yet according to a report from China Labour Bulletin, women are increasingly using the courts to fight back:

According to the study, 22 percent of women report severe or very severe discrimination when seeking employment, while 14 percent of men raised the issue. Employers across China often state a gender preference in job postings, even indirectly as in Xiao Zhou’s case, and women are sometimes asked about family planning when applying for jobs.

White-collar, college-educated female job hunters like Xiao Zhou don’t seem to have an advantage, survey respondents say. Compared to men, higher-level graduates are more than twice as likely to be discriminated against when they applied for jobs, with 43 percent of female graduates encountering severe discrimination, according to the Zhaopin report.

[…] Such explicit discrimination has faced pushback from courts in recent years. Xiao’s complaints, like earlier, more high profile cases, tend to deal exclusively with overt discrimination faced by women, glossing over other, more subtle ways in which discrimination shows up. [Source]

Some of those more subtle manifestations of discrimination were made apparent in a survey from Sixth Tone:

For IAPS Dialogue, Séagh Kehoe writes about progress in China’s women’s movement in recent years but questions why ethnicity isn’t more widely discussed among Chinese feminists:

How might we account for the absence of attention for ethnicity in an otherwise highly intersectional Chinese ? Might it be that delving into the question of ethnicity could simply have been considered too politically sensitive given the Party-state’s heavy crackdowns across Tibet and Xinjiang in the past decade? Could it be that Han feminists were practicing a strategic silence of sorts, making occasional mention of racial injustices in the US and elsewhere, but avoiding a more detailed examination of the domestic situation for fear of attracting more negative attention from authorities than they already have?

When put to some Chinese feminist friends, I was told quite explicitly that this was not the case. The problem, they noted, was that Han feminists lack knowledge about the situation Uyghurs and Tibetans face.

Given the heavy censorship and distorted media coverage about protests in Tibet and Xinjiang, the punishments faced by Tibetans and Uyghurs for dissent, the constant stream of propaganda about the Han state so generously developing both regions and dishing out subsidies to help ethnic minorities, it is perhaps not surprising that the issues of Tibetan and Uyghur women could easily become a blind spot in intersectional practice among Chinese feminists. The absence of engagement with specific issues faced by Tibetan and Uyghur women in many ways simply reflects the wider culture of Han normativity that pervades Chinese officialdom, education, and media. [Source]