“When I was 14, my family could not afford to send me to middle-school. Going to a wealthy relative, my father asked them for money but my grandmother, who was present, intervened saying it was fruitless to waste money on a girl’s education.
“I will remember this forever. So I worked hard to prove myself and show my father that his greatest success was me, his daughter.”
Now a law student at Beijing University, China’s bastion of academic excellence, Wang Kai has fought the prejudices of her village – and her grandmother – to achieve success.
Her story exemplifies the changes and challenges that Chinese women are facing in a country that is rapidly, but by no means evenly, in the throes of widespread social and economic reforms.
“China has made much progress in the issue of equality for women,” UN development programme (UNDP) gender officer Wang Xiaojun tells Aljazeera.net. “But in a huge country with a long history of gender imbalance there is still a way to go.”
Once proclaimed by Mao Zedong as “holding up half the sky”, women only 70 years ago could be seen with bound feet or in concubinage.
Although the egalitarian ideals of communism put paid to much of what is now colloquially known as “feudal practices”, experiences such as Wang Kai’s illustrate that long-held ideas that females have a limited potential for achievement in society still exist.
“In life, a woman has three obligations, to her father, husband and son”
“There is an old saying that I feel is still sometimes relevant. In life, a woman has three obligations, to her father, husband and son,” says Liu Jia.
While in rural areas this can translate into a limited education, arranged marriages and the double burden of both household and agricultural chores, more educated urbanites complain of discrimination in the workplace and unsightly practices by their male colleagues.
“It is a common occurrence for men to be promoted over women,” complains female property lawyer Wang Dan. “It is expected because the assumption is that a woman will get married before 30, have a baby and take several years off work.”
In 2002, despite making up nearly 38% of the workforce (according to government figures), the status quo regarding such practices is rarely challenged, even if chauvinistic behaviour appears to break the law.
“One friend was offered a salary increase from $375 to $1250 a month if she would sleep with her boss,” says Wang Dan matter of factly.
“Such events are common place; I have several friends who have had this experience. Sometimes people say yes, other times they quit but no one ever complains,” she says.
Women are expected to work
Pointing at a variety of statistics, Wang Xiaojun highlights areas where she believes the government should direct its attention.
“A male-first preference in the workplace and household, the addressing of lower female educational and health levels, and the double burden concept of house duties, which men are often unwilling to involve themselves in – in effect women should be encouraged to empower themselves,” she says.
A series of studies by the Chinese Network for Combating Domestic Violence found that between 3%8 and 47% of those who responded (response rates varied from 67% to 94%) had suffered from domestic abuse.
One negative effect of such stresses is that China is one of only a few countries to have a higher female than male suicide rate.
However, the notion of female empowerment that gained credence in the West with the rise of feminism in the 1960s has yet to gain official backing in China.
“Western style feminism is a little too radical for China,” says a member of the All-China Women’s Federation.
Essentially the main voice for women, the government-affiliated federation has a network of staff that goes right down to village level.
The idea that it might mimic its Western sisters in espousing street protests or radical thinktanks aimed at liberating women’s minds is at present unlikely.
“So much progress has been made since I first started my show in the late 1980s,” recalls former radio presenter and writer, Xue Xinran.
“When I left China in 1997 I remember women were just starting to talk about ‘self’ and ‘love’, they were just starting to think about themselves and what they wanted,” she says.
Presenter of a then groundbreaking live phone-in that allowed women a forum to air their feelings, Xue Xinran believes proactive measures are still needed “to further the female cause.
“More educational and cultural changes are needed. Women should be encouraged and helped in a positive way to speak out while men should share responsibilities – the home is not just the domain of the woman nor the workplace that of the man.”
“Women that can work and interact on an equal footing are of far more benefit to a household than an obedient wife”
Certainly, reforms under the Communist party have done much to address that image by encouraging women into the workplace. Yet, detractors suggest further changes could be made.
A clear definition on workplace harassment is one oft-cited example of where women feel the burden of a seemingly male dominated way of thinking.
This is an attitude that was encapsulated in one recent survey by the All-China Women’s Federation in which nearly half of those polled thought it reasonable for men to hit their wives.
“What China is starting to see is a stressing of a gender balance,” concludes Wang Xiaojun, “not just through the idea of projects that aim to empower women, but also through teaching men that a subservient woman is of no help to them.
“Women that can work and interact on an equal footing are of far more benefit to a household than an obedient wife.”