China's empowered women deliver a slap in the face to gender equality

Alice Wu says the road to gender equality is not easy, especially when empowered women are the ones throwing up obstacles

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 3:00am

I'm dedicating this April Fool's Day column to women like Yu Ruiyu, a deputy to the National People's Congress, and Wang Wenya, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The women of the world owe the likes of them a standing ovation for so thoroughly botching up this year's International Women's Day, held each March 8, and for trampling on the efforts of generations of women in fighting gender bias.

While we should be proud that the current, 12th, NPC actually met the goal set by the 10th NPC to have at least 22 per cent women members, we now have to fight a new battle of prejudice.

Yu and Wang "celebrated" Women's Day last month at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing with a huge leap backwards for women. Yu was quoted as saying that having more female colleagues was an "impracticality", "because men were tougher, physically and mentally". Wang disempowered women by calling the gender power imbalance "not the result of traditional ideological shackles, but the nature of a mother".

As we ponder what happened to the Chinese adage of women holding up half the sky, Yu and Wang need to be reminded that, even today, countless women live in fear because of views of social and cultural construct.

What both women did - to attribute gender inequality, a complex issue in itself, to the very biases and stereotypes that have kept women down, and in a lot of cases, the excuses used to subject women to unconscionable acts of violence - is simply contemptible.

Malala Yousafzai and Jyoti Singh Pandey are the world's reminders that many girls and women still cannot go to school or enjoy an evening out at the movies simply because of what others believe women are supposed to do and not do.

Empowered women trumpeting that fellow women cannot be empowered is the new nemesis in gender equality. Is this a sort of misplaced pride - believing that they're more male than female - so that Yu and Wang can make themselves the exceptions to their rules of power? To borrow the words of former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, if "there's a special hell for women who don't help other women", what happens to women who stand in the way of gender equality?

And, on this point, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg is absolutely right. In her book, Lean In, she writes: "It is a painful truth that one of the obstacles to more women gaining power has sometimes been women already in power." Sandberg is also right to point out that inspiring more women to positions of power isn't enough. Women hold women back, and it is up to us to challenge them.

Pride need not be the seed of new - or old - prejudices. I take pride in the fact that, in this city, we have an unprecedented number of women at the helm of political parties, and Hong Kong women have some of the highest political batting averages in the world. They can, by leading change at the political level, inspire change not only for women in public life, but also across professions.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA