Editorial: The Fight for Women’s Rights

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. 

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