Many of you have asked me in my blog post, Being a Woman in China, what we can do to change the situation for women and girls in China. It seemed that my post touched many (as well as others’ contempt and evoked disbelief… by men). It’s an extremely important and relevant issue that not everybody will understand nor witness. With China, we are dealing with a fundamentally patriarchal culture that once widely practiced very sexist religions (Confucianism, Daoism) where both women and men are taught to prefer men. This is actually the situation with many countries around the world, but China has a particularly long history and tradition of cultural sexism.
However, let’s not underestimate the power and ability of Chinese women to help themselves. Many women are changing their destinies by themselves, since other women and men aren’t helping them. Ever since China allowed women to work publicly 50 years ago, Chinese women have flocked to factories and other industrial jobs. Since it is exactly the rural poor of China who are most vulnerable, this is an important socio-economic demographic shift. Simply put, Chinese women are now more able than ever before to have some sort of measure of control over their own lives and decisions by working – no matter how badly paid at first.
And it’s happening very early – most of the fresh migrant workers in China’s industrial cities are teenage girls.
Factory Girls, a book that I recently read, delves into this phenomenon. Girls from poor families in the countryside, who would otherwise be condemned to a life of early marriage and living patrilocally with her husband’s families, escape to make their own living in factories. Whether they are not supported by their families to go to school (the families will often send the son instead) or they leave the countryside of their own initiative (understanding their repressive realities and equally repressive future opportunities), they go out by the droves to factory cities such as Guangzhou, Dongguan, and Shenzhen, just to name a few. There, they start out at the bottom rank, earning meager wages and sending most of the money home to their families. But these girls are strong and resourceful. They soon learn how to find better-paying jobs, how to climb the factory ranks, and how to conduct business. Factory Girls focuses on several girls’ journeys to become financially independent, without any help from their families, society, or women who have already made it. In a way, industrialization has been a great gender equalizer in China. Factories looking for cheap labor do not discriminate against hiring young girls, and in turn, girls learn early how to support themselves and their families and many become successful and are no longer prey to the cultural expectations/discriminations against them. Money is their ticket out.
This is obviously not a perfect picture. Women have the purchasing power in America, and it is clear that money has not bought us gender equality, respect, nor political representation. What we need, in America as much as in China, is a cultural paradigm shift. Culture creates media as much as media creates culture. Culture informs politics as much as politics informs culture. So what can we do to change a culture? The good news is that culture changes all the time. These days, we have more tools than ever to raise social awareness, create dialogues, and challenge status quo thinking.
My ideas, specifically for China:
1. Use social media to bring awareness to this issue. Talk to your friends about girls’ and women’s rights in China and other developing countries. Share important articles, reports, and statistics with everybody that you know. Write op-eds, blog posts, facebook statuses about the situation for women in China. Knowledge is power.
2. Tell the Chinese government that women’s rights are human rights. Women deserve equal employment opportunities, sexual rights, political representation, and increased safety. Write the Communist Party letters. Create videos. Protest is the only social movement that has ever accomplished change from the bottom.
3. Talk to Chinese girls and women. Ask them for their stories of what it is like to be a girl or woman in China. Ask them what they would like to change. Encourage them to do something about it.
4. Create resources and forums for Chinese girls, where they can meet and connect with successful Chinese women.
5. Encourage Chinese women to politically represent themselves.
6. Remind women everywhere, of all ethnicities, of all classes, that beauty is not power. Media portrays beautiful women as having social power, but that is simply not true. Education is power. A career is power. Passion and intellect are sources of power. Chinese women are just as susceptible as American women and women everywhere around the world to believe that their value lies within their looks and that they will be “happy” when they meet the “right” (aka wealthy) man. That is a myth. Chinese women are prey to media, self-objectification, and cultural acceptance of dependence on men.
Males have dominated Chinese society from its early conception. Currently, with sex-selective abortion, males receiving higher salaries, and a dearth of marriageable women, sex trafficking, prostitution and mail-order brides have all boomed. This situation will only worsen as the male population in China increases. I know Chinese women who have stood up for themselves and are trying to live and succeed independently. They have done this through education, developing their careers, and speaking openly and freely. Interestingly, there is a trend of Asian women in general avoiding marriage, because once they are married, their cultures’ traditional values of women are particularly imposed and enforced upon them: The Flight From Marriage
Do you think that industrialization is providing poor Chinese girls with a way out from their repressive culture? What do you think it will take to make the Chinese government see that women’s rights are human rights? How will Chinese women ever be politically represented? What have you seen in the Chinese media that promotes the objectification of women? What do you think are the implications of a heavily male demographic in China? Let the discussion begin.