Fighting sexism on campus

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-4-2 20:23:01


After shaving their heads, four girls stage a protest on August 30, 2012 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province against universities allegedly setting higher standards in recruiting female students. The signs also question the <a href=Ministry of Education about its vague reply. Photo: CFP" src="">
After shaving their heads, four girls stage a protest on August 30, 2012 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province against universities allegedly setting higher standards in recruiting female students. The signs also question the Ministry of Education about its vague reply. Photo: CFP

 "It's cruel that girls have to come to class at 8:30 am. They should have more time to put on their makeup and enter the classroom elegantly. That way, encouraged and moved by their beauty, boys would have the drive to work hard," said He Guangshun, an associate professor of literature at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies.

He made this remark in class and later posted it to Weibo in late March, triggering criticism from feminist scholars who slammed him as a sexist. However, He's remarks didn't seem to trigger as much outcry offline as they did online. Some students, both male and female, showed their support for him. While others may have found the professor's "suggestion" unnecessary, his supporters didn't see it as particularly offensive.

On campus and in society at large, people have become so used to sexism that they sometimes don't realize it is a problem, experts say. Some schools have been addressing the issue by promoting awareness among students. Over the years more and more students have taken a stand but it will still be a long time before the concept of gender equality fully takes hold.

Professor He wrote on Weibo, perhaps half in jest, that women already take on too much at home and that it is cruel that they have to work and study like men. He also claimed that men can work in every field while women can only work in certain areas. 

Feminist scholars criticized He for his objectification of women but instead of retiring chastened, He went on the offensive, attacking feminists on Weibo.

But offline, things are much calmer. A freshman who gave her name as Candy said that not every woman may want to wear makeup, but she doesn't think the comment was sexist.

Stereotypes persist

Many students have no problem recognizing a recruitment ad that specifically asks only for men as discriminatory, but they might not recognize other more prevalent forms of sexism around them.

Over the years, many educators have raised the "boy crisis," concerned that boys today "lack masculinity" and are falling behind in school. They blame the "problem" on desegregated education and proposed that schools create all-male classes. In the meantime, there have been to also ensure that women grow up to be more ladylike.

"Both teachers and students lack basic gender awareness and some of them don't realize that certain comments are sexist," said Xia Zengmin, a teacher of gender studies at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Hubei Province.

"Our understanding of equality is that everyone, man or woman, can grow and make choices freely, without being restricted or discriminated against by gender," said Xia. "Gender equality doesn't mean men and women have to become the same, but rather that they have equal rights, obligations and opportunities."

Guo Wenjun, a senior at Sun Yat-sen University, has been taking a course on gender studies, which she says has exposed her to gender concepts that have made her see things in a more critical light. 

"I almost got into a fight with my roommates when we discussed He Guangshun's remarks," said Guo, 23. "They simply don't think it matters or that it's only natural for women to wear makeup."

Talking to college students, it's obvious that many cling to stereotypes defining a man or a woman's behavior.

"The concept of gender equality is not promoted as part of our basic education or as part of the common sense that every citizen should have," said Ke Qianting, an associate professor at Sun Yat-sen Unviersity in Guangdong who leads the Sex/Gender Education Forum.

Established in 2003, the forum brings together teachers from various backgrounds who share an interest in promoting gender equality through education and academic research.

Sun Yat-Sen University is among many universities that have elective courses focusing on gender issues, but the number of students these courses reach remains small compared to the overall student population. Just over 100 students take the classes but the university has over 30,000 undergraduates.

Ke's forum also supports student activities such as lectures, campaigns against domestic violence and gay pride month. Last year over 2,000 people joined the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign, she said.

Since 2008, the gender study center at Huazhong University of Science and Technology has opened a course on gender that introduces the basic concepts of gender issues in different aspects.

With over 180 students, the course is one of the most popular at the university. Students are encouraged to explore gender issues in their own way such as through sociological research or short plays.

Despite this popularity and media attention, Xia said that the results of the course are not ideal due to strong cultural influences. "Many students still hold on to traditional concepts of gender, and some come to class out of sheer novelty value," he explained.

When introducing male participation in gender equality through such public policies as maternity leave for men, many male students simply couldn't wrap their minds around the concept. It is also proving hard for students to challenge conventional gender roles of men as breadwinners and women as housewives.

Leading from the front

Some universities have student groups that focus on gender issues. Zhihe Association in Fudan University is one of the few student groups in Shanghai dedicated to gender studies. Founded in 2005, the group is now run by a team of over 20 people and has around 200 to 300 members.

Zhou Yanan, a junior advertising major at the school, was the president of the club last year.

This year she is directing The Vagina Monologues that will be put on during Feminism Week at the end of May. Students in Fudan have been performing the show since 2004, but it wasn't until 2010 that they began to grab a lot of attention, said Zhou.

Each year the students come up with a different version of The Vagina Monologues, taking into consideration hot issues of the year or important matters to students such as sexual harassment and losing one's virginity, said Zhou.

Last year, the show packed out a 1,000-seater auditorium and was invited to perform in other schools.

But running such clubs has proven challenging in the past. Back in 2005, students at Hebei University founded a group called Young Ladies. Their intention was to promote gender equality and feminism concepts, but due to a lack of academic guidance, the club struggled to attract students. It later changed directions and started hosting lectures on skin care, makeup and etiquette.

Guo from Sun Yat-sen University launched a "rainbow group" last year aiming to promote gender and sexual orientation equality. With about a dozen students, the group holds educational campaigns and regular movie screenings.

In universities, feminist and LGBT (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender) issues often go hand in hand. Liang Xiaomen, 20, loved to read gay literature when she was in high school. She joined a student group on LGBT issues in college and gradually realized some of the inequalities women face.

A junior law student at the South China University of Technology in Guangdong, Liang was prompted to take action.

Last August, Liang and several other students in Guangzhou shaved off their hair in public to protest discriminatory college enrollment requirements for male and female students. In China, some universities that can enroll students in advance accept male students with lower scores over academically superior female students.

The Ministry of Education explained, after the students requested information disclosure as to why this was taking place, that the discrepancy in admission requirements is to "protect women" or due to the needs of certain sectors.

In March, prior to the annual legislative meetings in Beijing, Liang and others wrote a letter asking education authorities to stop requiring higher marks for female students to attend certain universities. They managed to get some deputies to support their suggestion but didn't collect enough signatures for their motion to become a tabled proposal.

Ritualized sexism

Growing up, none of these college students received gender education in school. While they've all experienced sexism in one way or another, they, like most people, didn't read too much into it or tried to do something to change it.

"Many of us heard teachers in middle school say things like 'girls do better than boys now, but as soon as you enter high school, girls won't be as good,'" said Liang. "We felt offended, but we couldn't do anything about it."

There are more and more students like Liang who are willing to step up, especially in Guangdong. Last week, it was reported that Zhenguang Middle School is about to launch two all-girls classes where girls would wear cheongsam, or qipao, to school and learn cooking and sewing. Liang and other college students protested in front of the school. A male protester wore a skirt and knitted to lampoon gender-based education.

"It's probably going to be a slow process toward policy or legal changes, but more people, especially women, are realizing the importance of gender issues and are joining the discussion as a result of our actions," said Liang.

The past three decades since reform and opening-up began have brought mixed results. The gender equality movement is now mostly championed by the academia and NGOs, and remains marginalized, said Xia.

Ke believes that gender education should become part of the basic education system. "I see in this generation of students a strong desire for equality, and a willingness to fight for that equality, so I am optimistic about the future," she concluded.



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