Gender Equity

How the Feminist Movement is Challenging Authoritarianism

June 11, 2019  • Leta Hong Fincher

Leta Hong Fincher is a scholar and journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. Her second book, “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China,” was named one of the best books of 2018 by Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Bitch Media, among others. Hong Fincher will speak in the 2019 program track Next World Order.

We talked to her about the oppression of women abroad and in the US, and the role gender equality plays in a healthy democracy.

Your most recent book, Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, explores the detention and treatment of feminist activists in China, and ultimately suggests that the feminist movement is one of the most powerful tools with which to challenge China’s authoritarian regime. Which parts of feminism are most useful when challenging such huge patriarchal structures?

The oppression of women is a central feature of all authoritarian forms of control around the world, yet far too little attention is paid to the unique promise of women’s uprisings against autocratic governments. I write about feminist resistance in the world’s largest authoritarian regime — China — but all across the world, we are seeing democracies come under assault by misogynistic autocrats like Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and other “strongman” rulers who are rolling back women’s rights as an integral part of their authoritarian repression. Right here in the United States, we have a misogynistic president who is corrupting our democratic institutions and attacking women’s rights. Just look at the 23 women who have publicly accused him of sexual harassment or assault, and his promotion of punitive, anti-abortion policies.

As we search for effective ways to fight the global rise of authoritarianism, I believe the key lies in supporting women’s rights and grassroots feminist activism. One of the core demands of feminism — that women must be free to control our own bodies and lives — is in direct conflict with the coercive, often pro-natalist, ethno-nationalist policies of authoritarian states, which regard falling birth rates as an existential crisis. When feminist activists organize effectively around issues that directly affect the personal lives of millions of ordinary women — such as sexual violence, reproductive justice, and systemic gender discrimination — even the all-powerful, male-dominated Chinese Communist Party struggles to quash the movement.

In an article for The Washington Post, you write, “I believe that China’s all-male rulers have decided that the systematic subjugation of women is essential to maintaining Communist Party survival. As this battle for party survival becomes even more intense, the crackdown on feminism and women’s rights — indeed, on all of civil society — is likely to intensify.” What strategies are feminists in China adopting in the face of censorship and surveillance?

China is an autocracy with no press freedom, no internet freedom or freedom of assembly, and effectively no rule of law. Yet even though the government persecutes feminist activists, shuts down women’s rights centers, bans feminist social media accounts, censors #MeToo accounts of sexual harassment, and tightens controls on gender studies programs at universities, China’s feminist networks have actually grown in recent years instead of being wiped out.

Various forms of women’s rights hashtag campaigns (like the recent #NotYourPerfectVictim discussion of rape culture) continue to spring up and go viral on China’s internet, with millions of views before they’re extinguished by censors. In 2018, the #MeToo hashtag on sexual harassment was one of the top 10 censored topics on China’s popular messaging app, WeChat, according to the University of Hong Kong’s WeChatScope.

Last year, China’s most influential feminist media platform, Feminist Voices, was banned on Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) and WeChat. Many individual feminist social media accounts are getting deleted, but activists are still finding ways to circulate messages about feminist and LGBTQ topics considered “politically sensitive,” constantly playing a cat-and-mouse game to try to get around the censors. One of the best-known examples of the feminists’ creative strategies to evade censorship was the idea of using emojis for “rice” 🍚 (mi) and “rabbit” 🐰(tu) to make the hashtag #RiceBunny 🍚 🐰 “mitu,” which sounds like “Me Too” in Chinese.

The force of internalized sexism can be hard to see. What do you suggest for calling out and disrupting everyday instances of patriarchy and misogyny?

Unlike autocratic countries like China, where open protests are banned, the US guarantees rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and we must exercise those rights. The extreme abortion bans passed in several state legislatures recently are an unprecedented attack on American women’s rights, and particularly the rights of Black women, who have the highest maternal mortality rates. But women are rising up and fighting back, from protesting in the streets to volunteering or donating to organizations that are doing effective work on reproductive justice. We can speak out freely on social media without being constantly censored. We can vote in local, state, and midterm elections.

At the same time, it is essential that we care for ourselves and cultivate our sense of joy in living as we engage in the difficult, long struggle for justice and equality. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news every day, but I am heartened by the fact that women of color were elected to the US House of Representatives in record numbers in the 2018 midterms and that there are several amazing, pro-choice women running for president in 2020. I am learning so much from Black feminists in the US, who have been fighting racism and sexism for decades. I am always inspired by the extraordinary commitment and resilience of feminists in China, who are extremely unlikely to realize their dreams of justice in their own lifetimes, yet they persevere against seemingly impossible odds.

How can women and girls across the world better tap into global feminist networks?

The first step is to pay attention to the condition of women and girls beyond our own borders. We have to remember that threats to our own democracy and rights as women are connected to a rising threat to democracies and women’s rights worldwide. As we fight for our own rights, we should also learn from feminist activists in other countries.

One of the women I write about in Betraying Big Brother is Lü Pin, founding editor of the prominent Feminist Voices. Since the jailing of China’s Feminist Five activists in 2015, Lü Pin has lived in self-exile in the US and started a new organization, the Chinese Feminist Collective, which has created a space for Chinese feminists to communicate more freely and sustain the momentum of the movement back home. Chinese feminists have built a networked, global community of supporters numbering into the thousands. Although they live in different parts of China and the world, many of these women have formed close bonds of solidarity. Core activists in the movement look out for each other’s safety and keep track of when police are harassing their fellow activists.

One of the things we should do as a country is to have a more open immigration policy, which welcomes the world’s most original, transformative thinkers — like Lü Pin and others in the Chinese feminist community — and provides a refuge for people fleeing persecution elsewhere.

What do you say to people who don’t see gender inequality as a pressing issue of our time?

Gender is not just a marginal issue. It should be central to our analysis of why democracies around the world are now in crisis and how we can find a way out of this crisis.

Young feminist activists are posing a unique challenge not only to China’s Communist Party; they are beginning to confront patriarchal authoritarianism in many other countries. These young women all want similar things: freedom to make their own decisions about their bodies and their lives; freedom to work, travel and live without being sexually assaulted, beaten, or killed. Often, women’s rights activists spread their message through viral hashtags, demonstrating the continued importance of social media, even in countries such as China, with the world’s most invasive, sophisticated system of internet censorship and surveillance.

I believe that in the long run, women’s rights movements — if given the proper support — can triumph and lead to more open societies in the future. The best way to fight global authoritarianism is to double-down on feminism, not retreat from it, by actively supporting the increased participation of feminist women in politics and by supporting intersectional women’s rights activists everywhere.

The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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