The bitter battle against COVID-19 in China has allowed women’s needs to be understood by the public. This has provoked a wide range of reflections towards the awarded masculinity and stigmatised femininity in the face of national security.
Chinese feminism is evolving. For a long time, “state feminism” was the theoretical point of reference conditioning the Chinese government’s approach to Chinese women, as well as the gender equality practice in China by the West. State feminism entailed China’s adoption of a top-down gender equality policy recognising women’s equal right to participate in politics and employment in the public sphere. In conjunction, Mao Zedong famously remarked, “women can hold up half of the sky,” which profoundly influenced women’s empowerment and gender equality processes across the world.
However, something is changing. Women in China are stilling holding up half of the sky for the country, but they are beginning to demand merited rights and respect that has been long written off as female. The movement began with the attempt to fight against the stigma towards menstruation and the desire to draw attention to period poverty. It marks a big step in the arousal of grassroots women’s consciousness in a society that has a profound tradition of misogyny.
The first breakthrough was accomplished by the urgent demand for sanitary products for female medical staff and care-workers during the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan. This marked the beginning of a period where women’s needs during menstruation were discussed publicly in society without a feeling of shame. At the beginning of this battle, the officials urgently mobilised, calling for essential anti-pandemic supplies all over the society, including facial masks, protective suits and ventilators.
However, female products, such as sanitary pads, tampons and maternal products, which are critically needed by more than 60 percent of the health care workers who were mobilized throughout the state to support Wuhan, were initially listed as non-essential items by the officials. Some feminist activists were offended by the situation observing the neglect of female health workers’ essential needs while they were praised as beautiful female warriors for brave self-sacrifice. There was a widespread movement where women posted their appeals calling for donation of female products online, which went viral and triggered a public discussion of the shortage of personal care and the pandemic’s negative impact on women.
The second breakthrough originated from an initiative from a group of female college students. They were informed that the critical period poverty in China was still severe, and that many young girls could not afford sanitary pads during menstruation. Their movement started with placement of a single box with free pads in women’s restrooms on their university campus. This practice was quickly copied by many other universities in China. Female students in need could take a pad and put one in the box later to help “stop period shaming” and period poverty. This spontaneous initiative informed university students that menstruation should no longer be a forbidden topic, and female’s rightful needs, not just their social responsibility, are as equal as those of male. It helped fulfil the gap between realising and appreciating the differences between genders which the national gender equality policy has failed to do.
As well, to understand women’s growing consciousness of their rights, the one-child policy has to be addressed. Growing up under the national advocacy of the one-child policy, the young generation in China who was born from the 1980s to the 2010s were raised and educated under the notion that “boys and girls are the same.” This practice can be appreciated for its promotion of the elimination of the son preference tradition in Chinese society, and for its ability to increase female empowerment by offering opportunities for girls to be educated and employed.
As well, this practice has contributed to the planting of a seed of gender justice and equality for when these generations become the mainstay of Chinese society. More and more women have felt empowered to ask for the rights and respect that they deserve, to call attention to the gendered inequality that they have faced in their life, as well as the insecurity and violence against women in both public and private sphere. They appreciate female features, women’s power and girls’ potential and have become significantly bolder in terms of the body, sex and gender.
Although these seem like small steps, they signal the arousal of Chinese women’s attitudes towards stopping period shaming. More importantly, the Chinese women who have been expected and constructed to be obedient and silent according to Chinese traditions are becoming brave enough to break the stigma towards female bodies by bringing them up to the public sphere. It does make a difference if you try to defend your deserved rights and respects. As educated by the top-down gender equality policy, the women themselves have realised not only female empowerment but also women’s rightful needs and ability to ask for gender justice when there is none.
At such a critical moment in the history of national security, presented by COVID-19, more women in China are tired of the appreciation of masculinity and the advocacy for being a strong and selfless socialist female warrior. However, they still demand recognition of women’s contribution and respect for their personal needs. A grassroots level of Chinese feminism is awakening, and as more unequal treatment or practices on gender and sex are being realized and disclosed, the reluctance of appreciating femininity in state feminism will hopefully be offset to some degree.
Lijun Yao is a postgraduate student in International Relations at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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