Chinese feminists detained for ‘picking quarrels’

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Originally published by The Telegraph on April 12, 2015

The families of five Chinese feminists detained by authorities for “picking quarrels” have called for their immediate release.

The young women were detained on the eve of International Women’s Day on March 8, which they had planned to mark by distributing leaflets and stickers to raise awareness of sexual harassment.

The women, aged between 25 and 32, were taken into custody before they had carried out their planned activism.

Lawyers said the unusual charge, which carries a prison term of up to five years, was added because it would have been difficult to make a criminal case against the women.

The charge may also refer to a 2012 campaign by the women called “Occupy the Men’s Toilets”, which led to four cities pledging to increase the ratio of lavatories for women.

In 2013 they dressed in blood-splattered bridal gowns to draw attention to the issue of domestic violence.

On Saturday, 10 of their relatives wrote a letter to Beijing prosecutors saying that the women are “young, kind-hearted, and full of a sense of responsibility to society”.

Prosecutors have until Monday to formally approve their arrest or release the women.

The detention of Wu Rongrong, Li Tingting, Wei Tingting, Zhen Churan and Wang Man has been condemned by the UK, the US and human rights advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Since president Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 he has overseen a campaign to silence government critics including activists, journalists and academics.

Authorities detained nearly 1,000 dissenters in 2014, according to a report by China Human Rights Defenders, or nearly double the figure of the previous two years combined.

Yet the detention of the young feminists for their relatively innocuous activism came as a surprise.

Women played an important role in the Communist Party’s rise to power – Mao Zedong famously declared “women hold up half the sky”.

Last November the State Council released a draft of China’s first anti-domestic violence law. In the country’s first gender discrimination lawsuit last year a woman sued a tutoring firm that rejected her job application because she was a woman.

Yet overall the picture for women’s rights in China is grim.

Women are under great pressure to marry as single women over the age of 27 are branded as “leftover”. According to the All-China Women’s Federation, a state-controlled NGO, nearly 40% of women who are married or have a boyfriend have experienced physical or sexual violence.

The stickers the five feminists had planned to distribute read: “Stop sexual harassment, let us stay safe.”

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