While the genders are more equal than ever before, festive feminism is still needed

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/6 19:18:39

As families come together for Spring Festival, women and feminists of all kinds have taken the chance to challenge traditional views that they say perpetuate gender inequality in Chinese society.

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 I have not seen my cousin Lin for 10 years.

Every year, she misses the family reunion during Spring Festival. Ever since she got married, she has dropped off the family's radar, giving herself entirely to her husband and her in-laws. Only occasionally do I hear about her from others.

I last saw her at her wedding, when I was in middle school. There she vowed to be a good wife and daughter-in-law and to be devoted to her new family. As far as I can make out, she has followed her vows to the best of her ability.

Another cousin told me a couple of years ago that she went to visit Lin at her husband's house during Spring Festival. It's only about an hour away by car from our hometown, yet that distance seems too great to travel during the holidays.

When she arrived, Lin was washing vegetables in the sink. She knew they would have guests and was busy preparing a meal. Her in-laws were sitting on the sofa watching TV, and her husband was nowhere to be found.

After the meal was over, she at once started wiping the table and washing the dishes.

Her husband, seeing all this, never thought to help, not even to put on a show of kindness in front of their guests from her family.

Her chosen family had not only forbidden her to visit her own parents during the holidays "because it's traditional to stay at the man's house," they had made a servant out of her.

Spring Festival has long been a divisive time for married couples in China. The fight over in whose parents' house they should spend the holidays has been going on for years. It has even ended marriages, according to stories I've read on Internet forums. I never really believed those tales of female subservience until I heard what had happened to Lin. They were no longer myths. These were heartbreaking stories from real women suffering from an ancient tradition and family pressure.

A woman serves food during a family banquet in a village in Fengtai district, Beijing. Photo: CFP

A woman serves food during a family banquet in a village in Fengtai district, Beijing. Photo: CFP


Fighting for 'her' rights

Lin's story became my worst nightmare. It bothered me so much that when I got married last year, I swore this was not going to be an issue in my life. I told my husband that we are going to take turns spending Spring Festival with each other's families, or we won't be celebrating the holidays at all. Luckily, he agreed without a fight.

I have noticed this trend is spreading, much to my delight. Among my friends at least, nobody gives up their right to see their family during the holidays like Lin did. We are all our parents' only children and we all need to keep them company during the holidays.

A friend of mine married last year into a family from Shanxi, a province known for strict in-laws and strong sense of Confucian family values. Several movies and popular Chinese TV shows take place in the courtyard homes of Shanxi, describing how the concubines of dynasties past fought for the favor of the male owner of the household.

Ever since she married, her in-laws have been forwarding her articles on WeChat hinting that she should do more to fit the traditional role of a good daughter-in-law, such as going to their house for the holidays and doing all the housework. When she visited their household before she and her partner were married, she saw her then boyfriend's mother and sister working in the kitchen the whole time, while the dad just sat on the sofa watching TV, enjoying this "tradition."

She didn't want to be taken advantage of like that. She told me if she conceded to this ignorant, backward "tradition" that's really discrimination against women in disguise, she wouldn't be doing justice to all the education she's received. So she made it totally clear to her husband there is no way she will follow in the footsteps of his mother, and that they will share the housework as well as the time they spend with each other's families during the holidays.

Besides taking control of their own personal lives, more women have started to speak out in public, expressing their opinions on these outdated social mores and protesting against what they see as discrimination.

My cell phone was buzzing nonstop on the eve of Spring Festival when the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala, watched by more than half the country, was on TV.

In a skit performed in the gala, a woman chose to divorce her husband because she was unable to give birth. In another skit, a man was so excited to hear his wife had given birth to a son that he gave a taxi driver 200 yuan ($29).

"It's unbelievable that on such a big platform they still uphold those clichés and archaic values which say a woman's only role is to give birth to a boy," a feminist wrote in one WeChat group.

All the feminists in the group then had a heated discussion and eventually started a campaign to encourage people to boycott the Spring Festival gala. 

They also took to more public social media platforms to air their discontent. Several days later, the State-run All China Women's Federation released an article condemning the values expressed in the sketches.

This isn't the first time that feminist groups have tried to make a stand and help the public notice the discrimination and unfair treatment from which women suffer.

Their efforts seem to have had a positive impact on society. One of my surprising findings this year is that, while years ago I only saw women making such comments, now many male friends in my WeChat comments echoed these feminist sentiments. 

"When people begin to see the problem, changes will be brought about eventually," said one female friend.

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Changing history

After Chairman Mao proposed that women should "hold up half the sky," Chinese women were encourage to liberate themselves from domestic chores and work as men do.

For many feminists, the period after the founding of the People's Republic of China was regarded as one of the most important times for the feminist movement in China.

But at that time, beliefs that women should be subordinate to men still prevailed, especially in rural areas - still a stronghold of misogyny to this day.

While these official pronouncements may have had a limited impact, another government policy has hugely contributed to changing gender roles.

While the "one-child policy" has long been criticized by feminists for depriving women of their fertility rights, it has had its merits. Because of it, girls have been given greater parental attention and opportunities, especially in education.

This had lead to a great increase in the number of female college students. There have even been reports that some professions are desperate to find male graduates as female students far outnumber them.

Having a good education broadens their minds and enables women like me to both get a good job and achieve financial independence, which gives us more say in family matters.

But still, these advances are not enough. For one thing, the mentality that discriminates against women still remains in large swathes of China. Skits that present ridiculous values and portray women unjustly being included in the annual gala show demonstrate this sexist holdover.

On the Internet, misogynistic comments are not uncommon, which women have nicknamed "straight man cancer." Men looking online for a wife that will devote herself to domestic work are ubiquitous.

One trend that shows the persistence of sexism in society is that when celebrity infidelity is exposed, female cheaters are met with name-calling and slut-shaming, but famous men are met with greater tolerance, with many saying they have just made a mistake.

Researchers have found that suicide rates among Chinese women are alarmingly higher than among men, and many of these women are from the countryside. Starting from 2007, a group from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology conducted a research in villages across China and found that from 1970 to 2009, women were on average 2.74 times more likely to kill themselves than men were.

You can see from how we celebrate Spring Festival that the cause of gender equality is advancing, albeit unevenly. In the future, it's important to empower not only female urbanites, but also those in the villages.

Xie Wenting contributed to this story


Newspaper headline: Spring sexism


Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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