Women’s representation in all social activities has decreased in the reform era as state support and intervention has dwindled. In the face of growing problems Chinese women have started to take the matter into their own hands and are putting up a fight.
Before The Fourth Women’s Conference was held in Beijing in 1995, there were no autonomous NGOs in China. There was only All-China Women’s Federation, an umbrella organization with a nationwide network. It is supposedly responsible for promoting the government policies for women and protecting women’s interests and rights. Inspired by the conference, self-organized women’s NGOs started to emerge, providing legal aid, helping sex workers, or dealing with issues such as domestic violence.
I first met Li Maizi, one of the five detained women, on a bitterly cold day in February 2013, outside the Chaoyang District Court where we both waited anxiously for the verdict of American Kim Lee, who had filed for a divorce against her abusive Chinese husband. Shortly after arrival, Li put on a blood-stained wedding gown. I realized Li was one of the three young activists who had gone out in the Beijing street to protest against domestic violence one year earlier on Valentine’s Day.
In recent years, I’ve noticed increased activism. In 2012, a dozen women in Guangzhou queued in front of a toilet to protest against the lack of public toilets for women. In November 2013, ten university students, wearing giant paper pants over their winter coats, staged a demonstration in front of a local government building in Wuhan, to protest against an invasive gynecological exams imposed on women applying for civil service jobs. Earlier in that year, 20 women across the country shaved their heads, silently expressing their anger against the discrimination in admissions standards at universities. Some universities set higher standards for entrance examination scores for female students. In 2014, I marched for a week in central China with a young feminist friend. She walked all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou, in protest against child sex abuse.
I do believe that such activism has made a difference. Child sex abuse has gained plenty of attention in the media; Guangzhou authorities have promised to build toilets for women and a new comprehensive law against domestic violence will be enacted in August this year, partly thanks to the push by activists such as Li Maizi.
Activism is a sensitive word in China, like any activity that is not sanctioned by the government. More than once, due to her daring acts, Li has been “invited for tea” by authorities. Such intimidation hads’t stopped her.
The latest detention of five activists probably was the reaction of some officials lower in the hierarchy responding to the general political tightening up and lessening tolerance towards dissent in any form. But will these women’s fate put off activism by others? No. Never! More and more young savvy Chinese women have realized that rights will not be bestowed upon them. They’ll have to fight to get them instead.