On International Women’s Day, Students Reject “Girl’s Day” as Women Fight Sexism

On Chinese college campuses, International Women’s Day is preceded by “Girl’s Day,” a recent invention that often degrades the students it purports to honor. On March 7, male students hang banners around campus, many of which propagate sexist stereotypes about their female classmates. At Sixth Tone, Zhang Wanqing reported on female student’s drive to abolish the unofficial holiday:

The backlash continued this year. Joanne, the Beijing student, designed two posters that read “Instead of perfume and lipstick, we prefer equality, freedom, independence, and respect” and “Refuse the trap of consumerism, say no to age discrimination, and give this day back to women.” She shared them on microblogging platform Weibo in a post that has since gone viral.

[…] “Many people think those of us who oppose Girls’ Day are too extreme, and that the original intention of Girls’ Day is good — but is it really?” Joanne said. “This kind of deviation from the real Women’s Day isn’t just about age-shaming. It’s also an insult to the women’s rights pioneers who fought hard for equal pay, equal work, and abortion rights.”

[…] Together with Joanne, many other young women from domestic universities have joined the campaign to reclaim Women’s Day in China. On social platform Douban, a female student shared a picture of an artificial “graffiti wall” on campus that had been covered in slogans decrying the country’s patriarchal order. Another student said several sexist banners at a different school had been reported to administrators and replaced with a more suitable message. [Source]

At VICE News, Viola Zhou wrote about a clutch of sexist banners displayed at the elite Tsinghua University that went viral on Weibo:

“I fail at doing an analysis into your attractiveness,” says a banner from Tsinghua University’s civil engineering majors.

[…] “Women’s Day is for commemorating women’s protests for equal pay, not for men to express their lust,” said the most liked comment under Tsinghua University’s Girls’ Day post.

[…] Over the weekend, some female college students put up their own banners against Girls’ Day, carrying slogans such as “say no to age-shaming” and “smash the patriarchy,” according to photos posted online.[Source]

International Women’s Day, March 8, is an important day in the Chinese feminist movement. In 2015, the Feminist Five were detained on the date for planning a public awareness campaign against sexual harassment. Leta Hong Fincher told CDT that their jailing “was the real demarcation point” on the way towards authorities’ “really systematic aggressive censorship of feminist issues online.” Official anxiety over online feminist expression was underscored this year when secret police prevented Wang Yu, a prominent human rights lawyer, from attending an online ceremony honoring international women of courage.

Contemporary issues surrounding women’s day rhyme with those from China’s 20th century history. At SupChina, Jay James Carter wrote about Ding Ling, the author of a 1942 essay criticizing the Party’s treatment of women and demanding more equal representation in the communist movement:

In “Thoughts on March 8,” Ding Ling points unflinchingly at the hypocrisy in Yan’an. She begins by asking, in terms that resonate in many political debates today on the nature of identity politics, “When will it no longer be necessary to attach special weight to the word ‘woman’?” She acknowledges all that is being done to mark Women’s Day: “meetings,” “congress speeches, circular telegrams, and articles.” Yet fundamental challenges remained unmet.

In particular, she calls out the leadership for their attitudes toward marriage and divorce. In both cases, Communist policies against arranged marriage and in favor of freer access to divorce were meant to liberate women, but in reality they did not always function in this way. Women were condemned for bourgeois attitudes if they wanted to marry, yet “single women are even more of a target for slander and gossip.” And once married, the care and raising of children quickly divided not only the “progressive” from the “backward,” but also those with means to acquire childcare and those without: “When women capable of working sacrifice their careers for the joys of motherhood,” she writes, “people always sing their praises. But after ten years or so, they have no way of escaping the tragedy of ‘backwardness.’” And when women who have raised their children are found to be wanting, either in their political consciousness or their careers, “in the great majority of cases it is the husband who petitions for divorce.” [Source]

Ding’s essay has particular salience in 2021, as new restrictions on divorce freedoms have led to at least one woman’s death at her spouse’s hands. Barriers to divorce are seen by officials as a means of stemming declines in China’s birth rate. Official commentary on International Women’s Day seemed to frame women primarily through a reproductive lens. Xi Jinping’s comments promoted a natalist vision of women’s role in Chinese society, as did a video shared by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian:

At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo and Pei Lin Wu reported on official efforts to increase China’s birthrate, which ignore popular fertility methods in favor of policies tied to patriarchal notions of family and work:

But it is not clear how open any new policy will be. Access to assisted reproductive technologies is only available to married heterosexual couples. Single women are barred from treatments such as in vitro fertilization or freezing one’s eggs. The Health Commission said last month that it would maintain its ban on single women freezing their eggs, citing health risks and the “controversial” use of egg freezing for delaying childbirth.

[…] “They are saying that kids must have fathers and only when there is a legal father can women give birth,” said Xiao Meili, a feminist activist in Beijing. “The government is forcing marriage and children to be bound together.”

[…] “If there are no corresponding measures giving women more security at work, we worry opening the birth policy will mean more employers are unwilling to hire women or promote them,” said a volunteer behind Employment Gender Discrimination Monitoring Team, a Weibo account where users can report workplace issues. [Source]

The Employment Gender Discrimination Monitoring Team collects reports of gender discrimination in job postings across the Chinese web. Team members accept submissions from anyone, and then send official complaints to government organs tasked with policing sexism. In 2020 alone, the group received reports of 1,263 incidents of gender discrimination in job postings. CDT has translated excerpts from a profile of the group published by All Now (全现在) on International Women’s Day:

The Employment Gender Discrimination Monitoring Team came to be in an unruly, but natural, way. At first, it was just a small team absorbed in its work. There were two groups, a content team and an action team, and their work was simple: sending out harassment reports and publishing contribution information. Bai Xingxing sent out report letters for two years, eventually becoming responsible for her own team. As time went by, others began pouring in one by one. Today, the online alliance, once only seven people sending letters, has developed into an organization with a dozen “core members” and over 50 volunteers. Most of them are young women who linger at the intersections of job-posting sites, paying careful attention to gender discrimination.

[…] A few years ago, Bai Xingxing read “Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work,” a book about court cases that changed women’s employment environment. The book seemingly described all the problems women face in their career: hiring discrimination, unequal pay, narrow paths to promotion… Each suit broke down [discriminatory practices] that society viewed as “normal,“ and promoted feminist awakening.

But in today’s context, Bai Xingxing believes that a sole reliance on court cases to improve and promote gender equality is too slow. “Hundreds of thousands of women need jobs. They will never be a plaintiff immediately after graduation, suing for three or four years.” She believes in the power of measured, specific efforts [to affect change] and so searches for small avenues of protest in daily life.

[…] When she first started sending letters, a long time went by before she received any sort of response, good or bad. Until one day, she received a written response from a government Human Resources Bureau. She recalled that she had once reported a Real Estate company’s add for gender discrimination. In the response, the local Human Resources Bureau explained that they had inquired into the company and sent them a “rectification notice.” Afterwards, the company rewrote their online job placement advertisements. The Human Resources Department attached the company’s rewritten advertisements in their letter.

For a while afterwards, she was happy. It restored her faith. “If you send out ten, I’d bet, even guarantee, that you will get one real response.”

That one in ten rate is the source of the energy to resist dismay and usher in change. [Chinese]


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