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A woman in China

Published Apr 19, 2017 06:56am


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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


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Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (27) Closed

Jimmy rocks Apr 19, 2017 07:48am

Extremely sad reality of all times. Nice article.

wellwisher Apr 19, 2017 08:25am

thank you for eye opener

Deepak Arora Apr 19, 2017 09:42am

Nicely put. When it comes to plight of women, Asia is way behind the Western countries.

sujit Apr 19, 2017 09:55am

Always wondered that how news papers of even tin pot countries have so many domestic and social issues put up in media. But run through the dailies of a nation with 1.35 billion population, there is precious little on such subjects. How is it possible that there are no social issues in such a big nation. This article is first of its kind I am reading about marginalised sections in China.

Samad Chaudhry London Apr 19, 2017 10:20am

Manto had raised this issue in many of his great stories at the time of independence and was arrested and humiliated. Sad!

Alka Apr 19, 2017 10:40am

One more thing you can add to the list of things about women as general that the women all over the world are more sensible and compassionate than men. More power to women.

vin Apr 19, 2017 11:33am

Brilliant. The author has been consistently choosing good subjects. However, lack of in-depth subject research and analysis is always missing from her write ups. Interesting to read nonetheless.

kuNAL MAJUMDAR Apr 19, 2017 12:03pm

Great story. Congrats for writing about it. It's there on YouTube.

Humza Baig Apr 19, 2017 12:16pm

You have raised a very pertinent issue. I hope any government read this column and reach this to their bosses also.

nellore,Vijay Apr 19, 2017 01:43pm

This is an eye opener. This has to be true because this is coming from a country that is friendly to China. 80-90 years of communism could not bring about equality in their citizenry and now how can a state controlled capitalism bring out equality. Shame on China. My respect for China has nose dived no matter how glossy Shanghai looks! This clearly shows that however imperfect Democracy is, it is exceedingly better than any other system for there are checks and balances,free press and for that latter reason alone countries like USA, UK, India etc needs to celebrated and cherished.



Aisha Apr 19, 2017 01:57pm

You are talking about China I was surprised when last year i saw the statistics about Scottish women who suffer from domestic abuse and the sex slavery in England. I think these things exist pretty much everywhere :(.

AND Deepa Apr 19, 2017 02:35pm

Excellent expose', Ms Zakaria!But speaking up against horrific abuses virtually sanctioned by the state is dangerous activism in Pakistan and China. Best Wishes!

Nasir London Apr 19, 2017 03:14pm

@vin: How wrong you are Vin. Asia writes whatever and where ever there is an issue to be exposed and discussed. What do you write about yourself, I would like to read that and your indepth reseach on the topic.

Muhammad zahid Apr 19, 2017 03:19pm

thank you for this wonderful article, i just came to know about china involved in this business. Film maker is a brave women.

MG Apr 19, 2017 03:39pm

With radicalization spreading (specially in educated community) the things are going to be worst. Be ready mentally.

Pathanay Khan Apr 19, 2017 03:46pm

@AND Deepa Sorry ma'am but your holier than thou attitude towards China and Pakistan is a little misplaced.

abubakar Apr 19, 2017 03:50pm

well said

Ron Apr 19, 2017 04:42pm

I don't think light beating is leagal in China

Mudassar Apr 19, 2017 06:06pm

excellent article by Rafia.

Qutub Uddin Apr 19, 2017 06:53pm


DIL Apr 19, 2017 08:28pm

@nellore,Vijay its not about only China being a communist state it is pretty much the condition of democratic states including Pakistan and India . so this article should be read as a eye opener and stand for the right of women wherever they are victim of domestic violence .

True Apr 19, 2017 10:51pm

Wow madam, superb article. Kudos.

schali Apr 20, 2017 05:59am

@Aisha I agree that these problems exist everywhere. However, the magnitude is different and so is the societal acceptance.

riz1 Apr 20, 2017 06:28am

@Aisha "Scottish women who suffer from domestic abuse and the sex slavery in England. I think these things exist pretty much everywhere " Its all about proportion, my friend. Western women get justice and a big voice due to democracy. Eastern women can never gain such societal acceptance and empathy, thanks to closed systems or the sham nature of their democracies.

Monjit Bora Apr 20, 2017 04:22pm

Good Article.

gogo Apr 21, 2017 01:27pm

Chinese people needs permit to move from one city to another.

nikus Apr 21, 2017 10:18pm

i am staying in bangalore. situation is quite good here.