Woman astronaut can inspire China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2012, 12:00am

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The idea of a woman going into space lost its novelty when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova made the journey 49 years ago. She has since been joined by 53 others, from the US, Russia, Japan, Canada and Britain. With so many predecessors, China's ascending to the elite club is, in global terms, not a big deal. For almost half of the nation's population, though, female participation in the nation's premier scientific and technological endeavour is a symbol of a bright new era.

When Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed more than four decades ago that 'women hold up half the sky', he was affirming laws and policies put in place after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 that promised gender equality. Doors to economic opportunity and protection were opened, but as women know only too well, China is still a man's world. Regardless of what has been stated or pledged, they are still expected to adhere to traditional Confucian values of obedience and putting their energy towards caring for the family and home. A woman astronaut symbolically blasts away the cobwebs of such thinking.

The woman in the Shenzhou-IX craft will not be there as mere decoration. She will have to share duties equally with her two male counterparts and has important research to do during her stay on the Tiangong-I lab module. It is work that requires skill, tenacity and bravery - attributes that Chinese women constantly display, yet are rarely given credit for by their fathers, husbands or employers. This time, with the nation and world watching, there is no chance of them being ignored or disregarded; rather, there can only be admiration.

In private business, many of the world's wealthiest self-made women are Chinese, but among state-run enterprises and in politics, they have always been sorely under-represented. Just one of the 120 state companies is headed by a woman. In the past 63 years, only five have been full members of the Communist Party's Politburo, and even then, three were wives or widows of senior leaders. One woman presently sits among the Politburo's 25 members. Despite intense speculation, there would only seem to be a slim chance that the party's next Politburo Standing Committee, the nation's highest decision-making body, will have a woman member.

It takes time to change bigoted male attitudes and break the mould of centuries-old practices; few countries can claim to have attained the goal of genuine equality. But the mainland is changing quickly and women are better educated and travelled. In urban areas, they are seeking greater independence and expect careers and better opportunities. In the woman astronaut, there is inspiration and someone to be looked up to.