Three generations of Chinese women, her grandmother, mother and herself used author Zhang Lijia to illustrate the changing position of women in China. “We benefited from the revolution led by Mao,” she said in a speech, published at her weblog.
My grandmother was a prostitute-turned concubine, my mother a frustrated factory worker and myself a rocket factory girl turned-international writer. Today I am going to tell you the stories of these three women in my family, to illustrate the changing role of women in Chinese society. I am always hugely interested in women’s issues and have written many stories on the subject because I believe women’s position and the attitude towards them, tell you a lot about a society.
As in many parts of the world, Chinese women have not reached the same status as men, even though Chairman Mao famously declared that “Chinese women can hold up half of the sky.” I think the statement is as elusive as the sky itself. But I have to point out that the Chinese Communist Party has done a great deal for women, probably more than what has been acknowledged. I believe all three women in my family have, to a greater or lesser degree, benefited from the revolution led by Mao….
The income gap between men and women has been widening in the past three decades. Prostitution has made a spectacular return and the rich and powerful men once again boast to have ernai – the modern version of concubines. Women workers are always among the first to be laid off in the ailing state-owned enterprises. And female graduates have a much harder time in finding employment.
The government has retreated some of its responsibilities to the market. Yet the market doesn’t always treat women kindly.
China lags behind the world in terms of female political participation, especially in the grassroots and top governmental level. These days, the head of the village is brought about through direct election. Currently about 2% of the village heads are women. Some still hold the belief that decent women shouldn’t take an interest in public affairs and women are bad decision makers. We have a saying: women have long hair but short wisdom.
Now look at the senior government level. Women account for about 22% of people’s representatives in National People’s Congress, China’s parliament; only 15% in the standing committee. In the next level, there are only two women in the politburo and no women in the standing committee.
Unlike in the political field, Chinese women are faring better in the business. Half of the world’s self-made richest women come from the mainland China. Business is the area where women can fully explore their potentials.
Despite all the problems, I feel hopeful about women’s future in China, because Chinese women have started to take the matter into their own hands and are putting up a fight. They’ve set up NGOs, dealing with the issue of domestic violence, providing legal aid to women and helping sex workers. In recent years, I’ve noticed increased activism. Women have bravely gone to the street, to protest against domestic violence, against discrimination in employment and against lack of female toilets. Early this year, I marched for a week in central China with a young feminist friend. She walked all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou, in protest against child sex abuse.
There’s still a long way to go before women can truly hold up half of the sky. The good thing is that we are not sitting here, waiting for the miracle to happen. We are taking action.