Resist, Insist, Persist: Women’s Activism in East Asia
By Olivia Ou and Leila Koohi
In 2017, on former US President Donald Trump’s first day in office, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington D.C., wearing pink hats, along with 3 million people across the country to resist the Trump administration and its leaders’ threat on women’s rights, especially reproductive rights. The 2017 Women’s march coincided with the rise of the #MeToo movement — launched by American activist Tarana Burke who began the hashtag after her own experience with sexual violence — and both of these events were generational markers for fourth-wave feminism. However, the rise of the fourth wave was not exclusive to the United States or even to the Western world. In East Asia today, specifically in China, Japan, and South Korea, women’s rights advocacy work is being spearheaded by young women who are seeking to overturn the status quo’s impunity and willful ignorance of the sexual assault and systemic disadvantages for women. Each woman that will be presented — from Zhou Xiaoxuan and Shiori Ito to Jiang Jinjing, Momoko Nojo, and Joyce Peng — highlights the advancement of feminism, solidarity, and collegiality for all women.
A parallel #MeToo movement to the one in the West has taken on a life of its own in East Asia a decade after Tarana Burke began the hashtag. Two particular women, Zhou Xiaoxuan and Shiori Ito, were instrumental in challenging the status quo of impunity in cases of sexual assault in China and Japan, and brought women in East Asia together to stand in solidarity for their untold experiences. In 2014, Zhou Xiaoxuan was sexually harassed by prominent Chinese media host Zhu Jun while serving as an intern for the broadcasting network CCTV. Xiaoxuan was reluctant to speak on her experience because Zhu was known for his “positive impact” on society. However, in seeing the rise of the #MeToo movement in the United States, Xiaoxuan penned a 3,000-word essay recounting her experience. Yale Law School research scholar Darius Longarino stated that Xiaoxuan’s hesitancy is representative of a greater issue within the judicial system to investigate such crimes and prosecute perpetrators:
“To date, there have only been a small number of sexual-harassment-related cases that have gone to Chinese courts. And often what you see is that if a workplace has punished the alleged perpetrator, the alleged perpetrator would then sue the company for violating their labour contract…Or the alleged perpetrator would sue the firm or the complainant for damaging their reputation.”
In fact, the term ‘sexual harassment’ was not present in Chinese national law until 2005. China has only recently developed a working definition for sexual harassment as “carried out against the will of another by means such as speech, text, images, or physical conduct.” The lack of support for victims of sexual assault made Xiaoxuan’s case significant. Very few cases of sexual assault reached court and the fact that her case held a hearing was a sign that the needle of progress was being pushed forward. As a supporter of Xiaoxuan remarked: “The verdict isn’t important. What was important for our movement was the moment, the process, the involvement of people who gathered physically from across the country, and the foundation we’ve laid.” At the end of December 2020, the Beijing court closed Xiaoxuan’s case, but she had set a precedent for those to follow. In March of this year, a Shanghai office worker named Wang Li won her case of sexual harassment against her colleague Xu Qiang for sending her inappropriate messages and accosting her at work, which contributed to her diagnosis of depression and severe anxiety. Such a decision was the first of its kind for the city as it ordered Xu to pay Wang Li $15,000 USD in compensation for medical bills, lost wages, transportation expenses, legal fees, and mental distress.
In Japan, Shiori Ito gained a similar victory in 2019. Shiori came forward with her claim that former Washington bureau chief for the American TBS network Noriyuki Yamaguchi had raped her after she had passed out while they were dining at a meeting discussing work opportunities in 2017. Much like Xiaoxuan, Shiori credited the #MeToo movement for finding solidarity in her experience.
“I thought ‘It wasn’t only me!’ and I believe there were others who thought so, too,” she said. “I saw women in Europe or the United States actively discussing it and standing up together but I didn’t think that happened in Japan at the same time.”
Shiori’s experience was not an outlier, but the lack of reporting on cases of sexual assault created a vacuum of shared experiences in Japanese society as a 2017 survey found that only four percent of women in Japan report an experience of sexual assault. However, with the success of her case, Shiori has begun to create a space for dialogue about the way rape and sexual assault are seen in Japanese society.
While Xiaoxuan and Shiori are notable figures in the East Asian #MeToo movement in recent years, the challenges and successes they face are a small microcosm of the growing number of individuals speaking up and filling the vacuum of silence they previously endured in regards to sexism and other injustices. Momoko Nojo — a 22-year-old Japanese university student — started the #DontBeSilent online campaign with other activists against misogynist remarks of Japan’s former Olympic Minister Yoshiro Mori about women talking too much in meetings. Their petition eventually collected more than 150,000 signatures, compelling Japan to replace Mori with Seiko Hashimoto, a woman athlete of seven Olympic games. This milestone exemplified the power of social media and the solidarity between women asking for change. In South Korea, women university students publicly protested corruption and subverted the subservient East Asian stereotype of women. In summer 2016, alumnus and current students of Ewha Womans University protested the establishment of a new program that favored certain elite applicants on campus. Alumnus carried signs proclaiming “We sisters are here to stand beside you,” while students raised their morale with upbeat K-pop songs. Their protests terminated the favoritism program and led to the downfall of the university president and the former President of South Korea Park Geun-hye, who abused her power and secured a place in the program for her confidant’s daughter. However, the young women protesters were harshly criticized for their identity by the public and the media before the political scandal unfolded. Some critics assumed that the students desired to maintain their exclusive elite community and denounced that these women protesters ventured into political discourse — which women supposedly “did not care about.”
Xiaoxuan, Shiori, Momoko, and the Ewha Womans University protestors exemplify a new generation of individuals taking part in the fourth-wave feminist movement who are stepping outside of mainstream politics, subverting conventional binary gender norms, and challenging patriarchal narratives of the status quo.
Solidarity and the notion of collegiality have bound inclusive, socially conscious, young individuals to enter activism with like-minded peers and to form grass-roots organizations that lift people up. Menstruation movements in China have drawn people’s attention since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as the health crisis exposed menstruating frontline medical workers’ lack of access to sanitary products. As of 2020, no sanitary product dispensers were installed in washrooms in China. With the influx of mobilized health professionals from other provinces to treat coronavirus-infected patients in Wuhan, local officials and hospital directors prioritized personal protective equipment supplies and neglected menstrual product supplies. They perceived sanitary products as of secondary importance despite that women comprised the majority of mobilized medical workers and 90% of nurses.
When Jiang Jinjing — a university student — learned about the challenges medical workers face to put on and change protective gowns in January 2020, she immediately thought about menstruating medical workers’ hardship to wear and change sanitary products under these gowns. Out of feelings of empathy and care between menstruators, Jiang posted on social media asking if frontline medical workers had adequate access to safe and comfortable sanitary products. Within hours, messages from menstruating medical workers in distress and volunteers willing to help flooded Jiang’s inbox. These messages prompted Jiang to start Coronavirus Sister Support — a project connecting courier companies and volunteer drivers to deliver menstrual products to medical workers in coronavirus epicenters — that laid the foundation for her founding of the women’s rights organization Stand by Her. In 40 days, Jiang supported over 80,000 menstruating frontline workers with over one million sanitary products. In February 2021, Stand by Her published an extensive organizational handbook reflecting on their one year into activism for the benefit of future activists.
The menstruation crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Jiang’s activism have sparked discussions that extended into the prevalence of menstruation poverty and menstruation shaming in China and feminists’ activism to counter these issues. The basic monthly expense of $13 USD on sanitary products places heavy financial burdens on more than 600 million Chinese whose monthly income is below $140 USD. Expensive sanitary products compel impoverished menstruators to resort to toilet papers and even notebook sheets to absorb blood or skip school because they cannot afford proper menstrual products and cannot cover blood leakage. When Joyce Peng — a 17-year-old secondary school student — learned about these situations, she founded Stand TogetHer to raise money to send sanitary products for low-income girls in rural areas. In August 2020, Stand TogetHer raised $17,500 USD for 700 low-income girls in a Liangshan primary school through an online campaign. Moreover, young activists aimed for ending menstruation shaming — the root of the denial of menstruators’ physical needs and the neglect of their monthly expenses that lead to menstruation poverty. Jiang, the founder of Stand by Her, endorsed sanitary product mutual aid boxes set up by university students across Chinese university campuses on social media platforms. These mutual aid boxes exemplified the notion of collegiality and support network by encouraging menstruators to use sanitary products in need and contribute individual pads in return. To end deep-rooted menstruation stigmas, organizers insisted to put menstrual product boxes outside women’s washrooms.
Each woman presented — from Zhou Xiaoxuan and Shiori Ito, to Jiang Jinjing, Momoko Nojo, and Joyce Peng — highlights the advancement of feminism, solidarity, and collegiality. They are trailblazers and their activism exemplifies a new age of feminism in East Asia. Through their trials and tribulations, they have pushed the needle of progress upward, and the precedent that they have set will allow for their societies to continue down the path that they have set for them until everyone feels supported to share their experiences — all because they chose to stand and say “Me too.”