Fighting for the fairer sex

By Yin Lu Source:Global Times Published: 2014-5-12 17:33:01

Tingting is part of a growing army of young feminists in Beijing participating in racy campaigns advocating gender equality. Despite garnering publicity for their activities, enacting real change in society has proven to be more difficult. Photo: Courtesy of Li Tingting

Xiao Yue isn't your stereotypical feminist. The 25-year-old Sichuan native looks and dresses like most other young women, but stands out as a passionate advocate of women's rights in a society that she claims casts feminists as "either lesbians or scorned women."

"We're usually defined as makeup-free, crazy 'leftover women' (single women over 30) with no desire for sex or children," said Xiao, who is better known by her online name Xiao Meili.

Xiao has organized and participated in a series of activities that combine performance art with a strong social message. Despite a well-known Chinese maxim expounding that women "hold up half the sky," feminism has largely been an underground movement in the country. Xiao and her cohorts' mission is to change that by taking up the cause in public, even if it means going to extreme and controversial lengths.

Li Tingting holds signs denouncing Crazy English founder Li Yang outside Chaoyang district court on February 3, 2014. Li Yang was found guilty of spousal abuse during his high-profile divorce case with American Kim Lee. Photo: Courtesy of Li Tingting

To the street, comrades

One of the first examples of performance-art feminism in Beijing occurred on Valentine's Day in 2012, when Xiao and two other young women wore wedding dresses spattered in fake blood to raise awareness about domestic violence.

Encouraged by their reception, further displays of performance art were organized by Xiao and her peers. Their placards became a focal point of their gatherings, with slogans including "Just because I'm flirty doesn't mean you can be dirty," "Let's occupy the men's room" and "My vagina says, 'Don't be ashamed.'"

They chanted and sang popular songs with adapted lyrics to deliver their message, but also lobbied authorities to voice their grievances and urge greater protection of women's rights.

"The older generation might think our approach is too radical, but it is very useful," said Xiao.

Among her more radical efforts was a 2,150-kilometer walk she led with supporters from Beijing to Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

The walk, between September 2013 and March 2014, aimed to raise awareness about the handling of sexual abuse cases, especially those involving underage girls. 

Xiao sent letters to local officials during her march, and was invited to speak at multiple universities after it. Since returning to Beijing, she has been booked with interview requests and speaking engagements until July. Nevertheless, she said the march didn't generate as much interest as previous activities.

"Being controversial is how feminists get publicity, even if it means being condemned and scolded," said Xiao, citing stunts involving nudity and colorful language as examples.

"What we need to do is find the point where our message can both be delivered and appealing to mainstream audience. For example, our 'Just because I'm flirty doesn't mean you can be dirty' campaign was very to the point," she added, referring to the slogan used by activists in Shanghai in June 2012 to denounce a microblog post by the city's subway operating calling on female passengers to "dress appropriately" to avoid sexual harassment.

"The goal of our movement is to attract attention, sensationalism," Xiao laughed.

"We try every means to work with the media because we lack sufficient resources."

Xiao Meili and her supporters show a letter urging tougher measures to counter sexual abuse involving minors presented to the Department of Education of Guangdong Province.Photo: Courtesy of Xiao Meili

Change through awareness

Xiao sometimes uses her parents to gauge how well publicized her activities have been after they wrap up. "They had heard about the 'bald sisters' on TV," she said, referring to a 2012 event that involved shaving her head to raise awareness about discriminatory admission rates at universities. The Beijing-Guangzhou march was less of a hit, however. "They still don't know about it yet," Xiao admitted.

One of Xiao's most publicized displays of performance art involved posing topless in November 2012 to bear the slogan, "Domestic violence is shameful, but flat chests are proud."

Xiao felt comfortable sharing her bare-chested photos online, especially after her supporters showed solidarity by posing in similar photos circulated online. They also filed a petition advocating for tougher domestic violence laws.

Before becoming a feminist, Xiao would never have dared expose her body in public. She used to be insecure about her body, wearing padded bras for years. Although she doesn't burn bras like American feminists famously did in the 1960s, she refuses to wear one as a sign of comfort with her own body.

"Your body is a battleground," Xiao said, quoting American artist and feminist Barbara Kruger.

Xiao admits drawing attention has become more difficult for her and fellow campaigners, who have found even stripping off for the camera is no guarantee for coverage. "People get tired more easily now, so we must constantly come up with new ideas. But I think we have already tried everything since 2012," Xiao said.

Shoes worn by Xiao during her 2,150-kilometer march from Beijing to Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, along with receipts for letters she handed to local government departments. Photo: Courtesy of Xiao Meili

Leaving the circle

Xiao doesn't like the concept of quanzi (circle), and wasn't bothered when friend Li Tingting announced she was quitting the "feminist circle" earlier this year.

"I'll continue with my own feminist campaign, but if anybody asks whether I am part of the 'feminist circle' I'll tell them I've been out since March 31," said Li, who describes herself as a "person of action, performance artist and feminist" on her Sina Weibo profile.

One of the reasons Li, 25, turned her back on organized feminism was the "identity politics" of being labeled a feminist. "People have multiple identities, like a daughter at home, employee at work, actor on stage, and so on. But when you become a feminist, people assume you're an autocratic, overbearing lesbian," said Li.

"If you actually are gay, people ask you whether you were born that way or turned gay after becoming a feminist."

As a participant in several feminist campaigns including "Occupy the men's room," which called for a more balanced male-female toilet ratio across the country, Li has unwittingly become a public figure in Chinese feminism.

However, she opposes any hierarchy or leadership structure within the movement in Beijing despite acknowledging that senior feminists are often "well-learned and incisive."

Li Tingting (third from left) poses with straight and gay feminists to demonstrate respect within the movement for people of all sexualities.Photo: Courtesy of Li Tingting

Coming under scrutiny

Xiao describes her own passage into feminism as "very boring," brought about by reading books about its ideology that resonated with her. "Many people assume you must have been raped or at least discriminated against to become a feminist, but few feminists I know have had such experience," she said. 

Guo Lei might be over 30 and still single, but he isn't a stereotypical feminist. After all, he's a man.

"As long as one acknowledges the facts, one can find constructional unfairness in gender culture. Becoming a feminist was almost an instinctive choice," he explained. 

Shortly after joining Sina Weibo in 2012, Guo connected with many other active feminists online. It marked the beginning of his journey as a feminist activist. 

Guo plays the role of a transgender character in the Chinese version of The Vagina Monologues, a play coordinated by Xiao aimed at raising awareness about women's rights.

Like many activists who have come under closer suspicion by authorities in the lead up to next month's anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, Xiao has felt the heat lately. She was urged by police to cancel a feminist gathering planned at a local cafe on April 8. Similarly, Guo said a May 10 show of The Vagina Monologues was canceled by host venue Renmin University of China due to the sensitive period.  

"Society needs us to prevent lifelessness. We can make society more active in our own fun way," said Li.

Newspaper headline: Activists stir public’s social conscious by courting controversy with campaigns

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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