A Struggle for Autonomy: Women during Coronavirus

women panel
Mar 13 2020

There’s a popular saying that in China, “women hold up half the sky.” Today, amid China’s fight against the COVID-19 epidemic, women are holding up much more than half, argued several speakers March 8 at NYU Shanghai Diversity Initiatives’ online panel, “Women in the Time of Coronavirus: Action, Contribution & Media Representation.”  

Organized in honor of International Women’s Day, the panel brought together Jing Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at NYU Shanghai who created the website “Sinophobia Tracker” to document instances of anti-Chinese discrimination during the coronavirus outbreak; Sakura Chan, a freelance designer who founded the women’s professional network GirlsUp, and Alex Li, the editor-in-chief of BiedeGirls, an online that explores topics through the lens of gender. Joyce Tan of NYU Shanghai’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, moderated the panel.

Panelists noted that in Hubei province, the center of the outbreak, more than 90% of nurses are women, forming the backbone of the fight against a virus that has halted normal life throughout the country and infected more than 80,000 people. But while women make up the vast majority of the medical professionals on the frontlines of the epidemic, their own care has been repeatedly dismissed.  Women in Hubei have criticized the province’s infrastructure for a lack of not only necessary medical supplies, but female health products including pads and tampons.

To many observers, the issue is an exacerbated example of the sexism that persists throughout China.  

 Together, panelists Li and Chan created the Firefly Plan this year to send needed products to frontline female medical workers. Chan said she was inspired to start the Firefly Plan during the Lunar New Year holiday while with her family, who asked what the crisis meant to her. Chan realized she could make a difference during the outbreak to help the needs of women.  

 “In our culture and in the whole system, we are not used to this kind of big, social health issue. So people are not ready for it,” she said. “The normal needs of women are not seen, are not being focused on.”

To Li, while the neglect of women’s needs is “nothing new,” she said the current crisis has created a “breakthrough” for greater calls to action online. Those calls reached new heights last month, when many netizens took to the internet to proclaim their outrage over a propaganda video that showed traumatized nurses having their heads shaved in the name of “public health” as they fought the virus.

 While meant to be hailed as heroes fighting for the country’s cause, Li said the video exposed the lack of autonomy these women, like so many others in China, have over their choices.

 “It really struck a chord because it reminds people of the pattern where women’s bodies are used and manipulated for a bigger cause, and it comes down to a male-dominated social structure,” Li said. “In our current gender culture, women are always put on this pedestal for being the guardians of morality or honor. So, it’s like being a statue, a statue is to be worshipped, but when you think about what a statue does, it doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t get to decide what’s being done to it.”

 Li referenced the concept of the “eternal feminine,” from the classic drama “Faust,” in which women are narrowly shown as the archetype that is honorable, graceful and virtuous.

 “On one hand these female medical workers, their work is sensationalized as self-sacrificing, but on the other hand their physical needs are overlooked,” she said. “I think that’s because the real female body doesn’t do what the eternal feminine is expected to do, which is to lift up men, so there’s no reason to pay attention to it. These feminine entities, they’re almost like goddesses, but they're not real. It’s not a realistic portrayal of real women’s bodies because they don’t leak, they don’t’ bleed. So this holiness of the female body itself is propaganda.” 

 The public perception of women as female warriors has evolved in recent decades, Wang said. During the Cultural Revolution women were described as warriors holding up half the sky within the working class economy; in more recent years, however, Wang said that ideal has changed as the rise of the female consumer has become increasingly perceived as more classically feminine.

 “It’s always a conflict of different ways of imagining women in our society, and sometimes they can be in conflict with each other. But they all coexist in our public sphere,” Wang said.

 While much attention has been paid to the struggles impacting female medical workers during the coronavirus outbreak, the panelists noted the lack of focus on more blue-collar workers. Gender issues must be intersectional, said Tan, and take into account class as well. When it comes to what stories and narratives make it into the media and onto our screens, Tan said it often leaves behind people such as sanitation and construction workers who are also an integral part of the fight in Hubei province.

 “Every screen is also a panel. While we see what’s shown on the screen, the screen is a panel that locks what’s behind it,” Tan said. “We always have to question what narratives are presented and what are underrepresented. What other voices are under-heard during the outbreak?”

 Looking forward into the longer-term impacts of the epidemic, the panelists had mixed optimism over whether the crisis would create long lasting change in civil society. While panelists were somewhat pessimistic about shorter-term changes in civil society from the outbreak, they agreed that it was possible it could help the evolution of public consciousness to appreciate activism more.

“It’s highly unlikely there will be organized movements, but I still believe through the education due to these tragedies that we can start to realize that if we don’t act as ordinary people, as citizens, this will come to us, this will happen to us as well,” Wang said. “So, I would say don’t lose hope, but be careful of the context that we live in.”

 The panel finished with questions from the online audience, including a question about whether it was reasonable for officials to choose single women to serve in Hubei rather than wives or mothers because they seemingly have fewer “responsibilities.” 

“When women's choices, or what could have been their choices, becomes material for propaganda it’s not only unfair that they may be forced [into work], but their agency and pride is taken away from them,” Li said. “That agency is taken away from her. She doesn’t get to decide her own worth, it’s determined by her superiors because of her marital status.”

Before closing for the night however, Wang mentioned another issue that has gone unnoticed by much of the public during the outbreak-- the rise in domestic violence rates, something she urged listeners to educate themselves about. Local sources in Hubei province say that the number of domestic violence cases reported to a police station in the city of Jingzhou tripled in February compared to the year before.

 Throughout the conversation, the panelists came back to the underlying necessity that women have autonomy and freedom over their bodies and choices.

“The underlying reason for the underrepresentation is that it comes down to this consistent unwillingness to see women’s bodies and to respect their needs as equal to men,” Li said.