The Chinese feminist movement has been making impressive waves over the past few years. Largely made up of young women, Chinese feminist activists have been using their fiercely creative social media skills and performance art to bring their campaigns for gender equality to a broader audience. An important part of this work has been the question of intersectionality.
Intersectionality, first coined by American professor Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, sought to challenge the monopolization of US feminist discourse by white, middle-class women. It is a theory that works to highlight the immense diversity of women’s experiences across gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity, class, disability, and other forms of social group membership. To take an intersectional approach, then, is to analyse the ways in which these various structures of power intersect to produce systems of interlocking oppressions and privileges.
In the Chinese feminist movement, intersectionality manifests itself in a number of ways. As well as navigating between local and global feminist concepts and practices, the ways in which class, sexuality, disability, age, and other categories of identity intersect with gender equality are regularly highlighted in Chinese feminist practice.
A quick scan through Feminist Voices, a hugely popular Chinese feminist social media outlet that just last month caught the attention of authorities, turns up many posts that draw attention to women’s experiences across a variety of categories of identity, most prominently of which is how gender and sexuality intersect in the lives of queer women. Yet, a glaring absence in the Chinese feminist movement’s intersectionality to date has been the question of ethnicity.
China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. The Han, making up more than 90% of the overall population, dominate politically and culturally. The superiority of Han culture is a long-standing narrative constantly being reproduced in official propaganda and popular media. Working to naturalize and legitimize Han hegemony across the country, the Han are regularly depicted as the selfless ‘big brother’, bringing modernity to the backward and exotic ethnic ‘Other’.
Beyond the politics of representation, ethnic minorities have often been subject to various levels of political, economic and cultural marginalization. For Tibetan and Uyghur communities this has been particularly acute in recent years, as heavy-handed assimilationist policies, religious and ethnic discrimination, and gross human rights violations have become mainstays in the state’s crackdown on dissent, secessionist movements and “terrorist” activities.
For Tibetan and Uyghur women, living under a state that is both Han centric and patriarchal can mean a double burden, and their bodies have often become an important locus in the state’s push for social regulation and control across Tibet and Xinjiang.
One example is the state’s family planning laws, most notably of which was the one-child policy. For many Tibetan women, language barriers, as well as cultural insensitivity and blatant disrespect from Han medical teams often resulted in a lack of proper explanation and poor understanding around issues of contraception, abortion, and even sterilization. More broadly, a reproductive health care system built up around Han socio-cultural norms often proved difficult for women adhering to traditional Tibetan medicine and values, running up against concepts of karma, rebirth, and general notions of wellbeing. Tibetan nuns have played an active and visible role in political protest as well as the revival and preservation of Tibetan culture. Yet they pay a high price for their activism, being subject to heavy surveillance and restrictions on their movement, often facing severe and gendered forms of torture in prison.
In Xinjiang, home to the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghurs, the bodies of Uyghur women have become particularly subject to heightened state scrutiny as ethnic tensions mount across the region. Against a backdrop of increasing Islamophobia across China, wearing a veil has become a symbol of “Muslim extremism” and a key battleground in the state’s aggressive “counter-terror” crackdown. As part of this, 2011 saw the launch of “Project Beauty”, a five-year campaign encouraging Uyghur women to remove their veils in an effort to look “modern”, while in 2015, laws were introduced to prohibit women from wearing the veil in public places in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Stories of women being detained for wearing clothes that look “too Islamic”, veils being confiscated, and women’s clothing shops raided across the region are also not uncommon.
Tibetan and Uyghur-run women’s empowerment groups operating in Tibet and Xinjiang not only navigate state surveillance, crackdowns and restrictions on civil society, but also wider calls from within their own communities to strengthen ethnic unity. Amidst a deep sense of cultural crisis under rapid modernization, Han migration, and restrictions on religious and cultural practice, these groups walk a tightrope between advocating for the improvement of women’s status without being perceived as undermining calls for social cohesion and the preservation of traditional cultures within their respective communities.
The experiences of gender and ethnicity overlap for Tibetan and Uyghur women in diverse and complex ways, and it is important to think about the specific structures of oppression this produces as well as the kind of work necessary to tackle them. Yet, talking with some Chinese feminist friends, I learned that conversations about the ways in which gender and ethnicity collide are rarely, if ever, discussed within their own movement.
How might we account for the absence of attention for ethnicity in an otherwise highly intersectional Chinese feminism? Might it be that delving into the question of ethnicity could simply have been considered too politically sensitive given the Party-state’s heavy crackdowns across Tibet and Xinjiang in the past decade? Could it be that Han feminists were practicing a strategic silence of sorts, making occasional mention of racial injustices in the US and elsewhere, but avoiding a more detailed examination of the domestic situation for fear of attracting more negative attention from authorities than they already have?
When put to some Chinese feminist friends, I was told quite explicitly that this was not the case. The problem, they noted, was that Han feminists lack knowledge about the situation Uyghurs and Tibetans face.
Given the heavy censorship and distorted media coverage about protests in Tibet and Xinjiang, the punishments faced by Tibetans and Uyghurs for dissent, the constant stream of propaganda about the Han state so generously developing both regions and dishing out subsidies to help ethnic minorities, it is perhaps not surprising that the issues of Tibetan and Uyghur women could easily become a blind spot in intersectional practice among Chinese feminists. The absence of engagement with specific issues faced by Tibetan and Uyghur women in many ways simply reflects the wider culture of Han normativity that pervades Chinese officialdom, education, and media.
So what would it mean to rethink feminist activism in China from the perspective of ethnicity? What opportunities might there be for Han, Uyghur, and Tibetan women to come together, improve understanding and start a dialogue? How might a non-Han hegemonic and non-hierarchical cross-cultural feminist solidarity be crafted, and what work might this involve? An important question is also whether any of this would be seen as desirable or even productive, particularly for Tibetan and Uyghur women’s groups. Would working with Han feminists destabilize an already delicate balance between working for improvement in women’s lives and strengthening unity within their own communities? It is another question as to what degree the current climate in China even offers a space for carrying out work that brings the two sensitive issues of gender equality and ethnic justice together.
Séagh Kehoe is a PhD student in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham, tweeting @seaghkehoe. Image credit: CC by Colegota/Flickr.