A Merry Band of Rights Pranksters

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BEIJING -- They call themselves the Volunteers -- a growing band of young Chinese who stage playful, but pointed, public protests for greater rights for women.

They dance and sing on the street wearing oversize "underpants" to assail invasive gynecological examinations for female civil servants, stroll through shopping precincts in bridal gowns spattered with red paint to combat domestic violence and shave off their hair in protest at higher university admissions standards for women.

And while their style is somewhat more subtle than that of Pussy Riot, Russia's feminist punk collective, it hits home in a country where politics is conducted behind closed doors by men in look-alike dark suits. Against the secrecy and uniformity, the Volunteers' "happenings" are a flash of color.

"We choose this wild and happy style because if we dance and sing, people pay attention," said one Volunteer who asked that she be identified by the name she uses widely online, Zhu Xixi, because the group's actions are risky in a country where the authorities are quick to crack down on public protests.

"We want to be spirited and positive. And it works," said Ms. Zhu, who plans to take up postgraduate studies. "We want to show we are not victims. If we were too serious, we would scare people off."

The women, and a few men, are mostly well educated, in their early or mid-20s. While Ms. Zhu wasn't sure how many Volunteers there were, she said they were in every major city.

"And I think people are watching in every area of the country," she said. "I think the movement will grow."

There are certainly scores -- perhaps hundreds. Many are students, often specializing in law or sociology, Ms. Zhu said. They are not highly organized, instead relying on social media and word of mouth to stage an event.

They are goaded on by entrenched gender discrimination, long visible in politics and elsewhere, several said in interviews over the last few months.

That discrimination just got worse. When the 18th National Congress of the ruling Communist Party appointed the country's new leaders last month, the number of women in top positions not only failed to grow, but actually shrank.

The number of women on the party's new, 205-person Central Committee fell to 10 from 13, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency. Women now make up just 4.9 percent of members.

On the new Politburo, the 25-member body above the Central Committee, there are two women -- one more than before. But the only woman with any chance of moving onto the most powerful body, the Politburo's seven-member Standing Committee, Liu Yandong, failed to make the final selection.

She remains on the Politburo, joined by Sun Chunlan, the only female party leader for any of China's 33 provinces and administrative districts, who has been appointed party secretary of Tianjin.

Ms. Liu, despite her solid credentials, was never going to make it into the inner circle of power, said a researcher at a central government institute with professional and personal ties to her. He requested that his name not be used for fear of the impact on his career.

"The Politburo is as high as a woman gets," he said.

The Volunteers say they were struck by the contrast between the situation of women here and the gains women made in elections last month in the United States, where there will be more women than before in Congress -- 20 of 100 in the Senate, and 78 of 435 in the House of Representatives.

So expect more protests in 2013, probably involving costumes, singing and synchronized dancing.

Days after a protest in which Ms. Zhu took part in the city of Wuhan, against requirements that women applying for civil service jobs undergo rigorous gynecological examinations and answer detailed questions about their menstrual cycles, another set of protests were staged in five other cities.

On Dec. 2, in Dongguan, Guangzhou, Xian, Hangzhou and Shanghai, women reprised the "Injured Brides" protest of Beijing last February, donning bridal gowns spattered with "blood" and holding up placards saying: "Love is not an excuse for violence," part of a campaign for a law against domestic violence that has been debated for years but is not making visible progress.

Earlier this year, too, Volunteers attracted widespread media attention with their protests at public toilets in Guangzhou and other cities, saying women needed more facilities.

In August, Volunteers danced to a song they wrote, "Violence Is Intolerable," in front of a Beijing courtroom where Kim Lee, a U.S. citizen, was seeking to divorce her Chinese husband, who had admitted physically abusing her. They carried a letter with 1,000 signatures calling for justice for Ms. Lee. The lyrics weren't Pussy Riot punk, but in China their appeal to Confucian-style moral rectitude resonated:

Crazy violence reverberates through the country. Public apology has no sincerity at all. Repeated violence forces Kim to leave. Domestic violence should be severely punished.

Dad, why are you beating Mom? Is it really all right to hurt her? Mom gets hurt, and we are so scared. We just want a happy and lovely home.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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