SOMETIMES it takes a single person with courage to awaken a society. So it may be in the case of Ye Haiyan, a women’s rights activist in China who has sacrificed nearly everything to bring to attention the condition of sex workers in her country.
Ye Haiyan, born to poverty in a tiny village in rural China, began working as a sex worker just so she could highlight the abuse and suffering of the many thousands of such women in China. One of the cases she protested against involved a school principal using young female students enrolled in his school for this purpose. She wanted him to be arrested and punished. For raising her voice on this controversial issue, Ye Haiyan lost her home and was chased from city to city until she took refuge in her childhood village.
Ye Haiyan’s story is the subject of a documentary titled Hooligan Sparrow, produced by filmmaker Nanfu Wang. Wang followed Haiyan and her fellow activists as they protested outside the school and engaged in other peaceful demonstrations that highlight the plight of women in the sex trade in China. Wang herself had to contend again and again with people trying to take away the film footage. Often she could only record audio by hiding the mic inside her clothes. In several cases, even people posing as fellow activists tried to obtain access to the footage, saying that they would keep it safe and return it to Wang later, when the Chinese government or the bosses of the Chinese sex trade were not looking.
Like Haiyan herself, Wang did not fall for the false promises of people posturing as activists or the Chinese authorities. The result: this documentary is a rare and riveting look at an aspect of Chinese life and society that is otherwise unknown. Many (including myself) would assume that a strong state would also mean equal protections for women.
Animosity towards women can now be added to the list of things that the Pakistani and Chinese states appear to have in common.
It is well known that one of the cornerstones of the Cultural Revolution was to bring Chinese women into the workforce and free them of the traditional bondage imposed by gender inequality. Consequently, one assumes that women having options other than sex work would not have to engage in it in order to survive.
As the movie reveals, this is not the case; not only are young women trafficked and misused by men such as the school principal, they are later blackmailed by their male bosses who threaten to hand them over to the authorities if they do not comply. They remain stuck and abused by the men who pay for their services and by the men who enslave them in the profession. The Chinese state seems to care little or not at all about their welfare; the well-being of these women or even of the young girls who are forced into the profession appears to be a seemingly low priority for the Chinese state.
In Pakistan, as in the rest of the world, this face of China is rarely seen. The friendship between the countries has long been celebrated. Even before there were plans to build an economic corridor, schoolchildren like myself were taught to sing songs praising the brotherhood between the two countries. With China poised against India, the simple calculations of common enemies meant an adulation of the Chinese.
Chinese goods flood Pakistani markets and Pakistani newspapers and television anchors have routinely sung the praises of their always-present-in-times-of-need neighbour.
Animosity towards women can now be added to the list of things that Pakistan and China appear to have in common. Just like Pakistan, it seems that China too wants to use the veneer of respectability and pretend that abused women, particularly those forced to work in the sex trade, simply do not exist. This faulty morality impacts the women who are pushed and forced into the profession; it threatens them with arrest and punishment if they are found out. This dynamic forces the women to stay silent and invisible so that they are available to be abused by men. No one knows how they live and no one cares when they die. Both societies are completely comfortable with this.
For all of these reasons, Hooligan Sparrow, the brave chronicling of how one woman stands up to the silence and shame of society, is a film worth watching. It is harrowing to see how landlords throw everything that Haiyan owns on the street. It is inspiring to see how she refuses to be cowed, wanders from city to city with her daughter, and never once complains about the consequences of raising her voice.
In one moving scene, particularly pertinent to Pakistan, Haiyan talks of how the women in her village sacrifice everything for their families, their lives and futures hacked to pieces for slight improvements in those conditions. The fate of Pakistani women, of all classes, is much the same, their desires and wishes and dreams placed on the chopping block, by men for whom they are pawns in some other game.
Women’s activists in Pakistan, particularly those who raise their voices without the protection of wealth and family, can find in this story a different basis for Pakistan-Chinese solidarity. With so much effort being made in developing stronger linkages between Pakistan and China, perhaps this link could also be forged. Ye Haiyan and many of her fellow activists had to serve prison terms for their activism; the lawyer who defended her continues to remain in prison without trial. Their courage, one hopes, could forge a different sort of bond between Pakistan and China.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2017