Women's rights

In China, being a feminist can land you in jail

An interview with Chinese activist Li Maizi
Toula Drimonis

In the spring of 2015, Li Tingting was detained for 37 days in the People’s Republic of China for planning “public acts of feminism.” The young women’s rights campaigner and lesbian activist, who goes by the pseudonym Li Maizi, was going to distribute stickers and flyers decrying sexual harassment on public transportation when she was arrested along with a few other feminist campaigners. Largely because of public pressure by foreign politicians and activists, including U.S. presidential contender Hillary Clinton, she was finally released.

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As one of the “feminist five,” Li’s efforts to draw attention to issues of domestic violence, a lack of public toilets for women, LGBTQ rights, and sexual harassment in a country that has taken an increasingly tough line against freedom of expression have put her into the international spotlight.

China is no exception to the rampant violence against women that occurs around the world. According to a 2013 UN study, nearly half of male respondents across the wider region reported perpetrating physical violence against a partner in their lifetime. As an authoritarian state, China systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly, and religion, according to Human Rights Watch. Li has been on the state’s radar for a number of years. In 2012, her phone was tapped, and her family has been harassed.

A few weeks ago, Li was at Concordia University in Montreal to provide an account of her imprisonment and her ongoing efforts to realize gender and sexual justice and to talk with activists working on the ground in Quebec today.

Women like Li and Homa Hoodfar, a Montreal-based university professor, currently being held in an Iranian jail for “dabbling in feminism and security matters,” remind us here in North America that we should never take our freedoms and hard-earned rights for granted. We owe it to others to be allies in the global fight for human rights.

Ricochet interviewed Li while she was in Montreal.

When did you first become interested in women's rights and feminism?

Li Maizi: When I was in college, I joined a sexual education association in my university and learned what gender is all about. At the same time, the association was very friendly to LGBT people, so I accepted my sexual orientation step by step. During my time at college I read books associated with feminism, queer and same-sex marriage issues, and I started to identify as a feminist.

Were you surprised by your arrest last year? Did you think the government would take it this far?

I was quite surprised about the detention. During that time they insulted my sexual orientation and threatened that I could be sentenced to more than five years. I think the government finally put an end to our detention because it was the wrong decision to arrest and detain five feminist activists for 37 days. I think the government is worried that our actions will be copied by others, leading to greater instability and having a bad impact on a harmonious society, when in fact, these actions have not been replicated on a large scale.

Are you more cautious in your personal life and as an activist, or has it made you bolder in fighting for justice?

It’s become more and more difficult to be an activist in China. Yes, I have to be careful in my daily life. I have no choice but to obey all kinds of laws and regulations in China, and I know that our WeChat messaging and phone calls are usually monitored.

Have things improved for the LGBTQ community in China?

The LGBTQ community remains invisible in official reports and the government agenda. However, local LGBTQ activists have never given up. Several impactful litigation cases have taken place so far in China, for example, the first case of sexual orientation discrimination in teaching materials, the first case of transgender discrimination at the workplace, and the first case on local gay marriage rights, which has drawn attention from both home and abroad.

What are your thoughts on the events in Orlando? Does it scare you?

I treat the events in Orlando as an act of terrorism. However, I don’t think it scares me or the LGBTQ community. What it does is force us to reflect… to ask ourselves where all the hatred comes from, and how we can be more inclusive, respect all diversity, and join forces against terrorism, homophobia and transphobia.

You are a woman fighting for gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and the right to freedom of expression. These are three major social justice issues. Which one is your main priority at the moment?

As a fighter for gender equality and a feminist, I feel that all these issues are impossible to separate from one another. I chose to be both an LGBT activist and gender equality advocate as my career [Li plans to study law], and I also continuously focus on human rights in China. In my mind, the most important thing in social advocacy is to have hope. With hope, step by step, we shall overcome.

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