Behind SWET: Memories and Reflections
My earliest experience of gender discrimination was when a men-only-feast was held at my grandparents’ house many years ago. (At that time I hadn’t received any education about ‘equality’ or ‘equity’, and was very young). Upon the Chinese New Year, my parents took me from the city to visit my mothers’ parents, who lived in a traditional courtyard house in rural Huai’an, a city in Jiangsu Province. As the New Year was approaching, my grandparents held a feast in the reception hall with a bunch of important guests. But the ‘rule’ in rural Jiangsu (as well as rural parts of many other provinces) is, only men are allowed on the ‘main table’ in the hall, and women and children have to eat outside of guests’ sight. The only exception to the rule is exceptional capability or fame among the local people. In this case, only one of my aunts, who’s intelligent enough to graduate from college in an age when college students are rare in poor areas and good at dealing with the complicated interpersonal relationships in that small town, sat with my grandfather, my uncles, and my eldest male cousins. They talked among themselves, laughed, ate, drank, smoked, and accompanied the guests, while the rest of the family was excluded from this joyful and harmonious picture, busy with cooking and cleaning in the kitchen.
Finally finishing serving the ‘main table’ and cleaning up the mess in the kitchen, my grandmother, my other aunts, and my mother gathered all the children to the small kitchen and ate: leftover food that couldn’t fit in the plates for the ‘main table’, about five or six dishes, which was one-fourth of the number of the dishes served at the ‘main table’. There were only four stools in the kitchen; everyone was too polite to sit and just stood crowded one next to another, with the bowl in hands. Even that, us children didn’t stay under the rooftop for long. As my grandmother decided to cook more dishes and needed the space, all the children were sent to the courtyard to stay out of their way.
I felt so offended and disappointed, not only because of the stupid ‘tradition’ or the ‘rule’, that female family members were not allowed on the table, but also because my mother, someone who I had always looked up to as a tough and independent woman, put up no resistance. She just stayed silent for a really long time when I questioned her later about why she couldn’t make it to the ‘main table’.
Growing up observing my mothers’ relatives and acquaintances’ lives, I started to notice more and more disappointing and annoying facts about men’s and women’s duties and rights in that small rural town. I gradually understood my mother’s choices of marrying in a completely strange and distant city from where she grew up, but not fighting when she was there: it was too strong of a cultural power and too many people living in accordance without questioning, both men and women, old and young. They have not a single clue of ‘equality’ but only deep-rooted patriarchal ‘traditions’ that an individual could never defeat.
My mother has five older sisters and a younger sister-in-law. When I was younger, I saw all of them as ‘diligent, hardworking, and kind women’ and was taught to treat them as role models. As I grew up, I realized this is a cunning strategy of the patriarchal system to put women in charge of most of the housework and childcare in their families. On top of all that, they all still need to go to work. My uncle would never lay a hand on the dishes or the laundry or the pots and pans unless it was really urgent. If there’s a dirty bowl in the sink but my aunt is not home, it will just sit there forever and perhaps hatch a hundred baby dirty bowls before my aunt gets home. ‘It’s simply women’s business,’ according to some of my uncles and aunts.
Anger towards the Chinese systems and traditions that I gradually learnt to be “patriarchal”, empathy for those women who are suffering silently and living under oppression, and concern over their future as well as my mine, have driven me to learn more about gender equality, and feminist theories.
The situation varies a lot in different areas in China. My father who grew up in Taizhou, Zhejiang, despite his role as the main decision maker of my family, is a family man who is almost equally sharing the housework with my mother. In his hometown, men seem to be more okay doing housework than those in my mother’s, at least cooking and getting groceries. Right next to Zhejiang Province is Shanghai City, where men are known for doing more housework than their wives.
It is true that women’s status, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, has drastically improved after a long history of living with low status and suffering from patriarchal oppression. The government made a commitment to guarantee the equality between women and men. During the crucial period of resuming industrial production and economic development after over a decade of war back in the 1950s, Chinese leadership announced the famous slogan, ‘Women can hold up half of the sky’ to encourage women to participate in the labor force.
The controversial One Child Policy announced in 1979, while it has drawn criticism for many reasons, coincidentally changed many little girls’ fate for the better. As many more families had no sons, girls started to be the center of attention and treasured just the same as parents would treat their sons. More money and attention that was traditionally intended for the sons were now spent on the daughters, intending for their girls to be as competitive as the boy next door, or even better.
Now China has one of the highest female labor participation rates and percentage of GDP contributed by female workers. But social norms continue to burden working women and put them in a disadvantage. Women are still seen as primary caregivers of their families. Since there is very limited access to childcare and elder care, women are still expected to quit the job market when their families need them.
As I broadened my scope to the whole world, intuitively knowing that women in almost all countries are still doing much of housework and childcare for free, even at the price of giving up their paid jobs, the actual reality really shocked me. My intuition only imagined the tip of the iceberg of women unpaid labor and their economic contributions to the world. The world needs to acknowledge women’s gigantic contribution to the economy and the world, and reckon with the fact that most women do it all without any credit, paychecks, or being treated respectfully as hard workers who are equally contributing to the prosperity of the world as men.