The sky collapses on Chinese women

I look forward to when Chinese women can hold up half the sky with a straight back.

Women hold up half the sky,” the famous Chinese slogan goes. Since the Communist Party took over in 1949, this phrase has been the slogan of female liberation. Indeed, under Chinese law, gender equality has triumphed. But when one holds up a magnifying glass and combs through residential Beijing, another story unfolds.

As a volunteer at the Beijing University Women’s Law Studies and Legal Aid Center, I have been privileged enough to glimpse into the lives of several women who were victims of domestic violence.

Contrary to popular perception, domestic violence cuts across class boundaries. It is very common among the so-called “white collar” class. Ms. X, a petite woman with fine hair, is a magazine editor. Her husband is a high ranking senior Communist Party officer.

In the course of a few years, he strangled her with a telephone cord, broke her finger and threatened to kill her. He did not think he was committing a crime, nor did his work unit. This “slapping around” was a domestic affair. No one wanted to talk about it publicly. As an educated woman, Ms. X turned to the local bookstore first. She found a book on domestic violence in China published by our center.

On one occasion, when her husband broke her finger, she called police. The police came but did not enter the apartment building and did not investigate the crime scene.

They offered to take her husband away, but she did not agree to it, because she wanted to protect his political career.

In China, a woman has to go to the police to get permission for a forensic evaluation. The police would not give it to her until, after numerous trips, she showed them the book she found and began to educate them about the 2001 amendments to the Chinese Marriage Law addressing domestic violence. Because the police didn’t gather any evidence, once he found out he had committed a crime, the husband started to deny any beatings.

Ms. X did not give up. She filed a for divorce in a district court and wrote numerous letters to the judge explaining her situation. “I need to regain my human dignity,” she said.

Although the divorce suit was successful, Ms. X suffered under the critical eyes of her work community, neighbors, friends and even family members. Other women rebuked her for making a fuss out of a few slaps. All of the pressure caused Ms. X a great deal of emotional and psychological damage. Yet, she will not get psychological compensation. The most she can hope for is financial compensation. Ms. X has a 9-year-old son.

When Ms. X told her story, I had a flashback to a few weeks earlier. I was eating lunch with a male Chinese judge and a few law students from China’s most prestigious law school. The judge said, “Some women like to be beaten. They feel that a man who doesn’t hit is not a man.” I wonder how he would react to Ms. X’s story, as a man and as a judge.

Thankfully, in recent years, Chinese media seem to be giving some coverage to these issues. Some reporters from the China Central Television Station interviewed Ms. X. Also, the Chinese government seems to give silent support to the work of the Legal Aid Center.

But the crux of the problem lies in everyday people’s lack of gender awareness. A woman should be encouraged to fight for her rights. A man should realize that he is committing a crime when he beats his wife. The police should recognize that domestic violence is not just a domestic affair. Ms. X’s story is only a microcosm of the injustices that Chinese women bear. She is also not alone. I look forward to a day when Chinese women can hold up half the sky with a straight back.

Diana Fu is a University student studying in China for the year. She welcomes comments at [email protected]