China’s “Feminist Five” Activists Continue To Fight For Women’s Rights Despite Opposition

You may recall the story of 5 Chinese feminist activists arrested in 2015 for “creating a disturbance”, which in real talk means they were organizing a march for International Women’s Day on March 8 raising awareness about sexual harassment and gender violence. Dubbed the “feminist five”, the news of their arrest went global, and sparked an international outcry, where humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International, the European Union, the UK Foreign Office and the US Ambassador to the UN (at the time) Samantha Power spoke out demanding the women be released.

This wasn’t some arbitrary arrest. It is part of China’s ruling Communist Party’s crackdown on free speech demonstrations, where even artists using their work to send political messages are tortured, beaten, jailed and silenced for sharing dissenting opinions.

The feminist five (Li Tingting also known as Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Wang Man and Zheng Churan) were among 25 other activists who were arrested on the eve of Int’l Women’s Day 2015. Their crime was their intent to hand out anti-sexual harassment stickers in public. What is most ironic is that the arrest happened around the time the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women was due to be held in Beijing, and attended by President Xi Jinping. They spent 37 days in jail and their lawyers told media they suffered from ill treatment, medical neglect and harassment during that period. Eventually they were released, but the “public disturbance” case against them has not yet been withdrawn.

On the one year anniversary of the ordeal, one of the core activists Li Tingting dressed up as WWII American feminist icon Rosie the Riveter (image above) and posted an image of herself on social media. Her accompanying status sarcastically thanked the Chinese government “for pushing the feminist movement in China to another peak” by detaining the women, and vowing that the women would persist in their cause, despite being “greatly restrained.”

You read that right – these women are not backing down and are part of a burgeoning feminist movement being supported by feminist allies the world over. Their activism began in 2012 with protests such as one of the most notable of theirs where the women donned bloody wedding dresses to bring attention to domestic violence. It seems their activism has not been in vain, and neither has the international outcry over their arrest and pressure to release the jailed women. In 2016 China passed its first ever anti-domestic violence law – a major step forward, although not entirely comprehensive as legal protections do not extend to LGBTQ couples.

But as in other countries like India or Brazil which now have more stringent anti-domestic violence laws in their penal code in the wake of horrific crimes which shocked their respective nations, the real test will come from a cultural shift. Will law enforcement actually enforce the law? Will threats of jail or punishment deter ingrained sexist attitudes about gender violence and intimate partner violence? Will victims of abuse actually come forward knowing they will be supported by authorities and the government.

It is because of questions like this that the Chinese activists will not stop their activism. They know what it’s like to live in a country where laws may exist, but reality can tell a very different story. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Li Tingting, a lawyer who is very open about being a lesbian (homosexuality is not illegal in China) says she wants the rest of the world to know more about the Chinese feminist movement and help local groups organize and mobilize effectively. She reflects back on her arrest in 2015 as a turning point for China.

“This incident provided a good opportunity for the international public to notice that in the past, the Chinese authorities had a gender equality image of China – “women hold up half the sky” – that is totally not true. So we as five feminists are trying to do something to change China and to chase gender equality, even though it is very hard,” she said.

Li’s upbringing was the motivating factor for choosing not to give up despite the traumatic arrest she and the other women suffered. Growing up, she was bullied by other kids, but her dad told her to never give up or give in, despite inflicting his own terror upon his wife.

“I think resistance is our daily life. It’s a part of my life; I can’t give up…my father had a very severe domestic violence problem, so I protected my mom a lot. My whole childhood experience was about fighting back, resistance, helping other girls. So it’s very hard for me to give in, or give up,” she said.

For the future of feminism to survive in China and for culture to change, Li says they cannot necessarily rely on the law as it can be very unpredictable. The government could make “being a feminist” illegal all of a sudden, for example. But what gives her hope is the increased social consciousness toward gender equality issues, especially among women.

“They are becoming more and more active on social media, and they complain about the patriarchal system. But also, we have a lot of problems, because they can’t see the structural problems. They’ve never met people who are Muslim or Uygur, so they hate Muslims a lot. But if you are a feminist, you shouldn’t do that. It’s a kind of racism. They don’t have that consciousness, since our propaganda says that Muslims are bad. The propaganda is very strong, and we are very weak. So our job is sustaining our community, trying to mobilize more people, and talking about these issues,” she said.

For the LGBTQ community in China, the lack of official recognition from the government plays a role in how they are perceived (and subsequently stigmatized) by wider society. It is one of the issues Li and her fellow feminist activists want to raise awareness about.

“The first thing is about visibility. There’s media censorship – we can’t see LGBT movies, and there’s no LGBT TV shows. Our government should publicly recognize the LGBT community and our rights, recognize we are living in this country… Our authorities don’t want to mention LGBT rights or about the LGBT community – they use words like “men who have sex with men.”…When you break the law, they recognize you as gay, but they don’t have any protections for the LGBT community. It’s a problem if our country treats the LGBT community like they do not exist in our country; it’s very dangerous,” she said.

Li has described herself as an “international slut” as a retort to the way she has been painted by authorities. She says she embraced the term because she wants to dismantle narrow ideals about women set by patriarchal standards.

“It’s about anti-slut shaming, it’s a global issue. When we talk about gender equality, we talk about how women’s rights are human rights, but it’s very superficial. You also need to change the way you talk about women. Stop stigmatizing feminists, stop humiliating women. I was denied the right to be a “decent feminist,” so I’m an indecent person,” she said.

Her activism and bravery in raising her voice despite the many threats and real consequences she has faced should be a wake-up call to the rest of us who have the privilege of living in free and democratic societies. Although she is reluctant to call herself a hero or a leader, Li believes it is her duty to stand up for what’s right.

“I care about our feminist communities and also I have devoted a lot of time in this movement,” she said.

Closer to home in the United States, we are certainly not living under a Communist regime, but we are seeing glimpses of what may happen when freedom of speech and basic measures of equality are eroded. A woman was found guilty and is facing jail time for laughing at US Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his Senate confirmation hearing, as he described himself as someone who treats all Americans equally (spoiler alert: he does not).

A reporter was arrested for pressing Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price about the Republicans’ appalling healthcare plan. A Guardian journalist was literally body-slammed by Montana Republican Congressional candidate Greg Gianforte (who sadly won his recent election) for also asking tough questions relating to the healthcare plan.

And more than a dozen Republican state legislators have been discussing possible bills which could clamp down on protests and demonstrations, in the wake of numerous marches such as the Women’s March, Science March, Climate March, Tax march and more. We cannot be complacent while elected leaders have the power to take away rights with enough legislative support. If there is anything we can learn from the Feminist Five ordeal, is that equality is always the right thing to fight for.



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