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In male-ruled China, women are quietly finding a powerful voice

In hidden alley bars and in salons and bookstores around Shanghai, women debate their place in a country where men make the laws.

Some wore wedding dresses to publicly commit themselves. Others gathered to watch films made by women about women. Book lovers flocked to women’s bookstores to read titles like “The Woman Destroyed” and “Living a Feminist Life.”

Women in Shanghai and some of China’s other largest cities are negotiating the fragile conditions of public expression at a politically precarious moment. China’s ruling Communist Party has identified feminism as a threat to its authority. were women’s rights activists locked. Concerns about harassment and violence against women are ignored or ignored entirely silenced.

China’s leader Xi Jinping did reduced The role of women in work and in Public office. There are no female members in Mr. Xi’s inner circle or in the Politburo, the executive policymaking body. He has drawn on more traditional roles for women as caregivers and mothers when planning a new project.Childbearing culture” to address a shrinkage Population.

But groups of women across China are quietly reclaiming their own identities. Many come from a generation that grew up with more freedom than their mothers. Women in Shanghai, deeply devastated by a two-month Covid lockdown in 2022, are driven by the need to build community.

“I think everyone who lives in this city seems to have come to the point where they want to learn more about the power of women,” said Du Wen, the founder of Her, a bar that hosts salon conversations.

Frustrated by the public’s increasingly narrow understanding of women, Nong He, a film and theater student, hosted a screening of three documentaries about women by Chinese female directors.

“I think we should have more freedom for women,” Ms. He said. “We hope to organize an event like this to let people know what our lives and the lives of other women are like, and with this understanding we can connect and help each other.”

At quietly announced events, women question misogynistic motives in Chinese culture. “Why are lonely ghosts always female?” a woman asked recently, referring to the portrayal of homeless women after death in Chinese literature. They give tips for beginners in feminism. Start with the story, said Tang Shuang, the owner of Paper Moon, which sells books by female authors. “It’s like the basement of the building.”

There are few reliable statistics on gender-based violence and sexual harassment in China, but incidents of violence against women are more common, according to researchers and social workers. Stories about women engaging in physical behavior are common on the internet mutilated or brutal murdered because they tried to leave their husbands or because they were brutally beaten to offer resistance unwanted attention from men. The discovery of a woman chained in a doorless hut in the eastern province of Jiangsu became one of the events most discussed Topics online in years.

In every single case, the reactions were extremely controversial. Many people condemned the attackers and called out sexism in society. Many others blamed the victims.

The way these discussions polarize society unsettles Ms. Tang, an entrepreneur and former deputy editor of Vogue China. Events in her own life also unsettled her. While friends expressed their feelings of shame and worthlessness for not getting married, Ms. Tang looked for a framework to express her feelings.

“Then I found out that even I don’t have clear thoughts about these things,” she said. “People want to talk, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.” Ms. Tang decided to open Paper Moon, a store for intellectually curious readers like herself.

The bookstore is divided into an academic section that includes feminist history and social studies as well as literature and poetry. There is a section for biographies. “You need real stories to encourage women,” Ms. Tang said.

The fear of attracting the wrong kind of attention is always present.

When Ms. Tang opened her store, she put a sign on the door saying it was a feminist bookstore that welcomed all genders, including pets. “But my friend warned me to take it out because, you know, I might cause trouble if I used the word feminism.”

Wang Xia, the owner of Xin Chao Bookstore, has decided to avoid the “F” word altogether. Instead, she described her bookstore as “women-focused.” When she opened it in 2020, the store was a sprawling space with niches for private conversations and six study rooms named after famous authors like Simone de Beauvoir.

Xin Chao Bookstore has served more than 50,000 people through events, workshops and online lectures, Ms. Wang said. There were more than 20,000 books on art, literature and self-development – books about women and books for women. The store became so well known that state media wrote about it and the Shanghai government publicized the store Article on his website.

Still, Ms. Wang was careful not to make a political statement. “My goal is not to develop feminism,” she said.

For Ms. Du, the founder of Her, empowering women is at the core of her motivation. The isolation of the pandemic drove them into action: Shanghai ordered its residents to stay in their homes and lock down their world for two months, and their world was confined to the walls of their apartment.

For years, she dreamed of opening a space where she could elevate women’s voices, and now it seemed more urgent than ever. After lockdown, she opened Her, a place where women could make friends and discuss the societal expectations that society had placed on them.

On International Women’s Day in March, Her hosted an event called “Marry Me” where women tied the knot. The bar also had a salon where women played the roles of mothers and daughters. Many younger women described a dislike of their mothers’ treatment and said they didn’t know how to talk to them, Ms. Du said.

Authorities met with Ms. Du and advised that there was a place for it in Shanghai as long as the events at Her didn’t become too popular, she said.

But in China there is always the possibility that the authorities will crack down. “They never tell you clearly what is forbidden,” said Paper Moon’s Ms. Tang.

Ms. Wang recently moved the Xin Chao Bookstore to Shanghai Book City, a famous store with large atriums and long columns of bookshelves. A four-volume collection of Mr. Xi’s writings is prominently displayed in several languages.

Book City is huge. The space for the Xin Chao bookstore, according to Ms. Wang, does not consist of multiple shelves in and around a small room that could ultimately only hold about 3,000 books.

“It is a small cell of the city, a cultural cell,” Ms. Wang said.

Still, it stands out in China.

“Not every town has a women’s bookstore,” she said. “There are many cities that do not have such cultural soil.”

Li Du contributed to research.

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