Editorial: The Fight for Women’s Rights

China Development Brief No.54 (Summer 2012)

中文 English

In their editorial, CDB staff writers discuss some of this year’s issues and events that have brought the struggle for women’s rights to a wider audience in China.

On hot summer days, many urban professional women report that sexual harassment on the subway or bus has become an unbearable problem. Because of this, women’s rights activists organized on Sina (a Chinese microblogging site) in late June 2012 to challenge Shanghai Metro authorities’ statement that sexual harassment was incited by “scantily clad women.”  Other women quickly joined in, pointing out that criticizing a victim’s clothing actually justifies the harasser’s behavior and absolves him from accusations of sexual harassment.

Needless to say, sexual harassment is despicable behavior that also goes against regulations and is illegal. The root of this behavior lies in an extreme form of cultural consciousness that has framed men as the dominant sex and women as their dependents for thousands of years. However, according to media and internet surveys, about two-thirds of voters support the Shanghai Metro’s viewpoint. These users persist in believing that “sexy clothes” are more likely to attract sexual harassers, and that women are therefore responsible for the harassment.

Some women offered testimonials of their actual experiences with sexual harassment, demonstrating that it occurred to women wearing all kinds of clothing, not just to those who were “scantily clad.” But the long-held tradition of passing moral judgment based on women’s sartorial choices led people to form the opinion that women “wear less in order to entice perverts,” and therefore to criticize the victims. Shanghai Metro’s authorities released the microblogging statement out of good intentions, but actually neglected to take practical measures to combat sexual harassment. Their primary responsibility as a public transportation service is to provide a safe and comfortable environment for all of their passengers.

If the controversy over sexual harassment on the subway reflects the differing values of feminists and a proportion of the public, then the family planning controversy of May and June touches on an even more deep-seated issue involving women’s rights.  At the end of May, the scholar Yi Fuyin (易富贤) gave a speech in the United States advocating the abolition of family planning and encouraging women to have more children and “make the country wealthy and the military powerful,” thus raising the ire of feminists. In June, Feng Jianmei, (冯建梅), a woman from Zhenping County, Shaanxi, was forced to abort her pregnancy at seven months, causing widespread outrage and condemnation of forced abortions.

The feminists who criticized Yi did not do so to support compulsory family planning, but rather to support women’s reproductive rights. There is no doubt that childbirth is a great burden on women, and the right to decide on having a child should reside with women. However, granting such a right is easier said than done. The country’s economic development plan includes higher birthrates, the nationalist “make the country wealthy and the military powerful” slogan urges procreation, and families want younger generations to continue on their ancestral line in order to care for the elderly. Realistically, it is hard to hear the woman’s voice in all of this.

The forced abortion incident in Zhenping county was a grave violation of women’s rights, but in fact there are other factors controlling women’s uteruses. These are hidden in the folk customs of selective abortions and preference for male children, leading women from disadvantaged backgrounds to be forced by their husbands or their families to bear more children. Behind the preference for boys and values that equate “more children with more happiness” lie an imperfect social security system and a weak elderly care system, so that people still rely on their children to avoid the challenges of old age as has been the case for thousands of years.

If we want to ensure that all women are able to have reproductive autonomy, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, a thorough reform of policy and custom is required. On an institutional level, the state must establish a system to improve social welfare for the elderly. From a cultural perspective, more must be done to develop equality between the sexes and change patriarchal customs. Achieving this goal will require raising women’s social status, which will depend on guaranteeing women’s rights to participate in education, employment, and politics. In terms of childbirth, women should be recognized and compensated for the burden of motherhood, and emphasis should be placed on the shared responsibility of husbands and wives in childrearing. Extra expenses should be covered by the social security system, and not by employers which might lack the resources to take on the added expense and simply ignore the regulations. An effort to transform these policies and customs will require the joint efforts of men and women, working through appeals and advocacy to fight for change.

In addition to the sexual harassment controversy and the forced abortion incidents, another important event involving women’s rights that occurred this summer was the domestic violence case of the founder of the “Crazy English School,” Li Yang (李阳)1. The fight against sex discrimination in the job market has also become a hot topic. Yet reporters also used vulgar jokes to ridicule the female astronaut Liu Yang (刘洋).

From the controversy last year over a judicial ruling on marriage law, to this year’s “Occupy the Men’s Room,” and even the article about a controversy over a blind-date program in the charity sector featured in this issue of CDB, this summer has seen a non-stop series of hot-button incidents relating to women’s rights. In these events, women’s organizations and active netizens relied on the strength of citizen power to launch protests through the internet and to bring attention to their concerns through performance art. From marriage to childbirth to bathrooms to sexual harassment, women’s direct concerns became topics for intense internet conversation with thousands engaged and interested.  Intellectuals, urban professionals, and female university students all joined in the conversation, forming one wave after another on hot-topic issues.  Since feminism was transmitted from the West thirty years ago, it has been limited to a few scholars within the realms of academia. But perhaps the present moment could be seen as a pivotal point in the development of women’s rights within China.


  1. Editor’s Note: Li Yang’s American-born wife, Kim Lee, filed for divorce in late 2011 claiming she had been physically abused by Li. In a highly publicized announcement, a Beijing court ruled in February of this year for Lee, awarding her custody of her three daughters and compensation in the form of 50,000 RMB for psychological damages and a portion of the couple’s properties worth more than 12 million RMB. 

走出书-----妇女权利争取出现新动向
中国发展简报2012年夏季刊
每到烈日炎炎的夏季,对众多朝九晚五的城市职业女性来说,地铁、公交中的性骚扰都是不堪其扰的问题。正因如此,2012年6月下旬,当妇女权利倡导组织在 新浪微博上质疑上海地铁官方微博对性骚扰的起因判定不当时,众多女性网友迅速加入,指出上海地铁以“穿着暴露”为由批评作为受害者的女性,其实是为施害者 ——性骚扰者开脱.
毋庸置疑,性骚扰是触犯有关条例乃至法律的恶劣行为。数千年社会文化建构出男性在两性中居于主导地位,女性整体附属于男性这一意识的极端化,成为性骚扰出 现的根本原因。但是,在媒体、网络针对争议进行的大量投票中,支持上海地铁观点的一方仍然占了约2/3,这些网友坚持认为“穿着暴露”更易招来性骚扰者, 女性因此受害,自己也有责任。
一些女性网友的实际经验证明,遭遇性骚扰的女乘客衣着各式各样,“穿着暴露”女性并非唯一的被骚扰者,甚至有可能会被认为泼辣大胆而更不易遇到骚扰。但长 期以来传统礼俗中对女性着装的道德判定,让更多人形成“穿的少就是为了招色狼”的印象,因此批评受害者。上海地铁运营方也基于此,认为发布微博系出好心, 实际忽视了采取切实措施,打击性骚扰实施者,为乘客提供安全舒适的乘车环境才是公共交通服务机构的首要责任。
如果说地铁性骚扰争议反映出部分公众与女权主义者在礼俗与权利观念上存在差异,五六月份另一系列与妇女权利相关的热点事件则从计划生育切入、涉及更深层次 的社会发展问题。五月底,旅美学者易富贤主张取消计划生育的演讲因鼓励女性多生育以“富国强兵”被多位女权主义者杯葛;六月,陕西镇坪怀胎七月孕妇冯建梅 遭强制引产引发各界对强制堕胎的愤怒和谴责。
女权主义者们抨击易富贤并非支持计划生育,她们主张生育权应由女性自主。毫无疑问,生育对女性来说,意味着极大的付出,也是女性对人类繁衍发展作出的重大 贡献,理当由女性自主选择。然而,自主选择说起来容易,做起来难。国家经济发展要计划女性生育,民族主义要“富国强兵”提出鼓励女性生育,家族要延续、要 防老,要求女性多生育、生男孩……在现实中,常常听不到女性自己的声音。
镇坪强制堕胎事件严重侵犯女性权益,事实上,还有更多看不见的因素在主导着女性的子宫。暗藏于民间的选择性堕胎、男孩偏好……让很多处于社会经济弱势地位 的女性不得不服从丈夫、家庭的意愿进行生育,而男孩偏好、多子多福的理念背后,又是社会保障的不完善和养老体系的脆弱,在数千年父母从子居的习俗和无保障 可依的现实中,人们仍然得靠养儿防老的朴素理念来规避年老无靠的可能风险。在转型社会遇到结构性障碍的当下,要确保女性尤其是弱势女性真正获得生育自主权,需要一系列全局性的、相互呼应的政策与习俗变革。
从制度层面来看,国家必须建立、完善社会养老保障体系;从文化习俗来看,理当进一步推进男女平等,改变从夫居的习俗——这一点若要实现,又有赖于妇女地位 的提高,这需要从教育、就业、政治参与各方面保证妇女的权利;从妇女生育保障上看,应对女性的生产付出给予承认和补偿,并明确规定养育责任由夫妻双方共同 分担——由此产生的额外支出应由社保制度解决,而非转嫁到企业身上,避免让原本就过度竞争的私营企业难以负担,造成法规无法执行,成为一纸空文。这些国家政策和社会习俗变革,需要持续不断的呼吁与倡导,更需要男性和女性共同参与、携手推进。
除性骚扰争议与强制堕胎事件外,这个夏天与女权主义者身影相连的热点还有“疯狂英语”李阳家暴事件、记者以低俗笑话调侃女航天员刘洋而辞职事件以随时常可 见的反对招聘性别歧视话题。从去年的《婚姻法》“司法解释三”争议,到今年初的“占领男厕所”行动,再到入夏以来接踵而来的热点事件,乃至本期内文中报道 的公益圈内部相亲会争议,国内妇女权利争取行动出现特征鲜明的变化。在这些事件中,妇女组织和活跃网民为主的公民力量以网络抨击与抗议引发关注,以街头行 为艺术表达诉求,以婚姻、生育、如厕、性骚扰等人们切身相关的话题吸引当今网络女性中的主力——知识分子、城市职业女性、女大学生的参与,形成一浪高过一 浪的热点事件。女权主义走出自西方舶来近三十年始终局限在少数研究者书斋中的趋势初现端倪。这对中国妇女权利发展史来说,也许是一个关键的节点。

Translated by Jane Luksich

Reviewed by Yuan Yang

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