Just one day before International Women’s Day on March 8, 2015, a group of young female activists were arrested in China. Their crime was planning an action to raise awareness for victims of domestic abuse by handing out stickers on the street. Following 37 days in detention and a huge outcry from the international community, the ‘Feminist Five‘ were finally released. However, the the incident would prove to be a prelude for an extremely turbulent year for the women’s rights movement in China. Ironically, the year 2015 also marked the 20th anniversary of the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing, which was a jumping-off point for many subsequent women’s rights victories in China. However, nowadays, numbers of women activists are low, said Li Dan, director of CWFF. CWFF is China’s first and only film festival that focuses on women and the issues they face in modern Chinese society. One of their biggest obstacles is lack of public awareness, Li added.
‘Since gender equality is better than in countries like India, Japan, etc., and there’s no extreme suppression of women’s rights, ordinary men and women don’t see gender discrimination around them. The government’s official policy since 1945 is that ‘women hold half the sky,’ so almost everybody believes that China has equality between the sexes in every aspect.’
Even though the Chinese government formally supports gender equality, the statistics do not paint a rosy picture – the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index ranks China 91st out of 145 countries. During the last 20 years, Chinese women have seen progress in levels of education but have lagged in other areas, such as labor force participation, where pay gaps continue to widen. Since the beginning of economic reforms in the 1980s, China has also witnessed a resurgence of traditional Confucian values, which are promoted in order to keep its rapidly changing society ‘harmonized.’ Many women are now expected to put marriage and children first and are often dismissed as ‘leftover women’ – a derogatory term denoting women who have not married – if they choose to do otherwise. ‘The biggest problem is that the field of mass media and culture caters more and more to men, and belittles the work of women. This is completely different from the 1980s, and now women’s rights have suffered a big setback in creative industries,’ Li explains. ‘When we talk about specific problems, it’s discrimination against women when it comes to hiring.’
‘Our audience becomes aware of the many issues facing women society. Previously, some of them thought that there was no gender inequality in China, or that women already had a good position that didn’t need change,’ said Cyrielle Nifle, the CWFF’s international coordinator. ‘Sometimes they also didn’t really think about the issues before seeing a film or attending a discussion.’ The festival is now organized by Beijing-based Crossroads Centre, which has been raising awareness on AIDS-related issues, women’s, and LGBTQ rights since its establishment in 2003.
The event serves as a platform for discussion, opening a window through which Chinese men and women can peek into a different kind of reality. Audience members get to share their own experiences of discrimination at work and examine gender roles in contemporary China. ‘We discuss feminism, activism, queer women, domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape, trafficking, prostitution, in China and worldwide, and the place of women in Muslim countries,’ said Nifle. CWFF also aims to give a voice to China’s female filmmakers, who are currently in scarce supply. Since it’s still hard to find films that deal with women’s issues, most of the stories are told from a man’s point of view, Nifle explained.
The arrest of the Feminist Five has helped highlight the challenges that women’s rights organizations and other NGOs face in China. Although the CWFF hasn’t had problems so far, not all events such as these are welcomed by Chinese authorities. The Beijing Queer Film Festival, which was co-organized by Crossroads Centre, has been dealing with cancellations and shutdowns ever since its launch in 2001. Beijing Independent Film Festival was also forcibly cancelled in 2014 and is unlikely to return in the near future. The crackdown that began with the Feminist Five in the spring of 2015 continued throughout the year with multiple arrests of prominent activists and lawyers and forced cancellation of events dealing with sensitive issues. Women’s rights organizations received a further blow after the government’s decision to shut down Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center in early 2016. The center was lobbying to change a legal loophole that allowed perpetrators of sex crimes against children to be charged with ‘engaging in sex with underage prostitutes’ instead of rape.
Despite the events, Cyrielle Nifle still believes that film and art are one of the best ways to promote feminism in China. ‘It is not a form of activism that is too direct and that could trigger negative attention, but it is rather a circumvented way to convey a message.’ And that may well be true. Chinese filmmaker Fan Popo, whose documentary on gay rights, Mama Rainbow, was removed from Chinese video streaming websites, has recently won a lawsuit over government censorship. Although many believe it’s better for NGOs in China to keep a low profile, the victory has given some hope that these kinds of windows will continue to open.
‘It takes many years to create a real impact on the society – more than three or four years, which is the age of our festival. However, it is important to continue raising awareness on these issues, and it is possible to create an impact on individuals on a short term period,’ said Nifle. ‘We also hope that the impact created will encourage some people to be involved with women’s rights related projects.’
The 4th China Women’s Film Festival will be held in September 2016 in Beijing. The festival will show around 30 feature and documentary films from abroad and in China, mostly made by women, followed by discussions with filmmakers, feminists, and other guests. CWFF will also be held in Shenyang (October), Nanning (November), Guangzhou and Shenzhen (December), Xiamen (March 2017), Chengdu (April 2017), Xi’an (May 2017), Nanjing (June 2017), and Wuhan (July 2017).