China

Naked Courage In China

Both for the consequences they face from Chinese authorities and for their radical forms of protest, these women's rights activists can make Femen seem tame by comparison.

Ai Xiaoming's unflinching activism
Ai Xiaoming's unflinching activism
Brice Pedroletti

GUANGZHOU - Her topless body turned sideways, her left hand resting on her hip, a pair of scissors in her right hand: Ai Xiaoming shows off her "sagging" breasts – her word – to the camera. Her body is covered with Chinese ideograms.

For the past ten years, this 60-year-old semi-retired university professor has been making documentaries to record the struggles of China’s civil society – her films are banned in China. Now she has decided to turn her body into a billboard.

The message written across her chest reads: “Get a room with me, let Ye Haiyan go.” She is referring to 37-year-old women and children’s rights advocate Ye Haiyan, who was the first to protest against the rape of six schoolgirls aged between 11 and 14 by their school principal and a local official in a hotel room in Hainan Province.

After the scandal broke, Ye stood outside the principal’s school, holding a sign saying: “Principals: If you want to get a room, get one with me. Leave the schoolchildren alone.” Her campaign went viral, and since then hundreds of Internet users have published pictures of themselves with the same message.

After going home, Ye was attacked by thugs, who had been paid off by the local government. When she tried to defend herself against the intruders who had gotten into her apartment, she was sent to jail for 13 days for assaulting her attackers with a knife. She is now hiding out at a safe place where she is waiting, as she told us on the phone, for the "situation to stabilize.”

Naked on the net

In the text that accompanies the photo she posted on her blog, Ai Xiaoming explains that she got the inspiration to take off her clothes from dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who in 2010 had published photos of himself naked, his genitals hidden by symbolic objects – to protest against censorship in China.

“He sent a strong message, using his body as art – his ordinary body, like all imperfect bodies,” says Ai (no relation). She decided to show off her “body, the body of a mother, of an ageing women, with these breasts that are evidence I am a mother.”

Her aim, she says, is to "show that a female body is not only flesh that someone can consume, it is also the proof of our own existence, which needs respect. Everybody comes from women, even rapists.” The pair of scissors, she explains, is there to show “that women are allowed to fight against violence.” That it is “necessary.”

Ai has never heard of the women from FEMEN. In China, every public protest is considered a disturbance of the social order and often leads to reeducation camp. But on the Internet, Chinese women are becoming bolder. In January, three students filed a petition asking the National People’s Congress for transparency in the drafting of a law against domestic violence. More than 12,000 people signed the petition, with some posting photos of themselves topless on the Internet, their bodies covered in slogans or bloody handprints.

Late 2011, thousands men and women, had taken over the Internet with naked self-portraits, the genitals hidden to show their support for Ai Weiwei. The authorities had investigated the artist on charges of spreading pornography after a group photo called “One Tiger Eight Breasts,” which was considered subversive.

Ye Haiyan was one of the women on the photo. The young feminist's fight against the pedophile school principal was not her first protest. She is a well-known gender rights and sex worker activist. In 2010, she was expelled from the central Chinese city of Wuhan after she organized a petition in support of legalizing prostitution. In 2012 she spent a day as a sex worker in a $1.50 brothel to get a first-hand feel for the lives of the women she’s been defending. She tweeted about her experience on Sina Weibo.

The women of Femen have nothing on these Chinese activists.

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Kremlin.ru
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