#MonaTalksTo: Zheng Churan and Liang Xiaowen
It’s an incredible privilege to be invited to speak in so many places around the world. Whether it’s literary festivals or conferences on human rights, my goal is always to meet as many feminists and LGBTQ activists as possible. The work of those activists around the world to dismantle patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and all kinds of bigotry is inspiring and a reminder that feminism and LGBTQ activism are global. The goal of #MonaTalksTo is to share the words and work of activists who are pushing feminism forward. I am honoured to share their ideas with you.
Zheng Churan and Liang Xiaowen are Chinese feminist activists. I met them in New York City through author Leta Hong Fincher whose forthcoming book Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China will be published by Verso Books in September 2018.
Zheng Churan – who goes by the nickname Datu (Big Rabbit) is one of the Chinese Feminist Five, who were detained for 37 days in the run up to International Women’s Day in 2015 for planning to hand out stickers against sexual harassment on public transport. I first read about them soon after their arrests in 2015. During my book tour that year, I always mentioned their activism and arrest as examples of feminist movements around the world that we must pay attention to. There are feminists all over the world fighting against patriarchy.
One of my first experiences of that global feminism came in 1995 when I went to China for the UN Women’s Conference. First at the NGO gathering that preceded the UN conference and then at the UN meeting itself, I was in feminist heaven, meeting sister activists from all over the world. So what an absolute delight to meet Datu and Xiaowen. I was 27 years old when I went to China in 1995. Zheng Churan is 28 and Xiaowen is 25. They are both from Guangzhou.
Mona Eltahawy [ME]: When was the first time you called yourself a feminist?
Zheng Churan [ZC]: In 2011, I was minoring in Sociology and I couldn’t relate to any of the other theories like Communism or Socialism but then I read a book about anti-domestic violence and I finally realized that I was related to the word “feminism.” There are two translations of “feminism” in China – one is related to rights and power because it’s got the word power in it and the other is more like “female studies.” So the two translations are very different, they have different contexts….Then I met Lu Pin and the other (activists who would become known as the) Feminist Five in 2012 at a workshop where I realized I prefer feminist as meaning women’s power and rights.
Liang Xiaowen [LX]: At the same workshop. I didn’t know about the word before. I was just a person who was interested in LGBT rights but then I went to this workshop with her and I realized that there is gender inequality in this world. I hadn’t realized that before. But then I know about this and I think yeah I don’t agree with gender inequality and I want equality. I didn’t call myself a feminist because I thought it was very aggressive so I called myself a gender equality advocate. Da Tu launched a lot of campaigns since 2012 and I was with her and participated and initiated some of the campaigns myself. Our pictures, campaigns and activities are online. A lot of newspapers reported on our campaigns which went viral. There’s a picture of me online of doing an activity on the street for a campaign that was against sexual harassment and a lot of people commented saying that I’m so ugly that no one would sexually harass me. That’s when I realized that no matter what I do even though I don’t call myself a feminist, even though I’m just advocating for gender equality, everyone is going to insult me as a feminist so yeah I’m just going to admit that I’m a feminist.
ME: That’s such a common thing – to be told you’re too ugly to be harassed or raped or whatever. How old were you when you took that workshop?
ZC: I’ll be 29 this year! So at the time I was 24.
LX: I’m three years younger than her.
ME: That workshop was a turning point for you. You decided to use the word feminist as meaning women’s power and rights and you decided “fuck it they’re going to call me a feminist anyway.” How do you know each other?
LX – In 2011, we were both volunteers for a LGBT youth organization.
ZC – I wanted to apply for grad school. I was a sociology student doing my field study and I chose LGBT.
ME: Did you identify as queer?
ZC: I was reading a lot of books on queerology and I spent a lot of time with lesbians – cute lesbians – as I was doing my research I felt I could be queer too. And I changed my nickname from Small Rabbit to Big Rabbit to impress the lesbians.
LX: When I was in high school I didn’t spend a lot of time studying, I spent a lot of time reading novels. There’s a subculture we got from Japan where a lot of women – it’s like fan fiction but the main characters are gay men. So in Sherlock we fantasized Sherlock and Watson being together. I fell in love with this fan fiction where the main characters were gay. I wanted to know what gay people were like in real life. So I googled gay and the name of my university just popped out. This organization was on the same island where my university is. It was a group of people who had rented a house and they started this association.
ME: I have a queer Indian friend who told me about that fan fiction – I had no idea that this existed. When did you begin to identify as a lesbian?
LX – When I was a volunteer there I fell in love with this girl and I decided to give it a try. In 2012.
ZC – I banged her ex girlfriend! I’m so sorry to say that.
LX – Actually she banged my ex-girlfriend first and then I banged my ex-girlfriend and then we shared and she didn’t know that we know.
ZC – But we tell each other everything.
ME- You should’ve all just had a threesome
LX – I don’t think she – not Da Tu – my ex girlfriend – is capable of that.
(lots of laughter)
ME – This is more fun than I’d expected. Tell me about your activism as feminists that got you known in China.
ZC – Li Maizi (also known as Li Tingting) launched an activity called Occupy the Men’s Room. I launched that activity too (in Guangzhou). That activity changed all of our lives. Men’s room and women’s rooms are the same size and some of them have the same number of stalls but men also have urinals. A lot of the time women are standing in a long line to get into the restroom but men don’t need to. Even though they’re the same size, it’s not substantial equality. It’s just a facade or a form of equality. After that campaign which went viral a lot of global journalists reported on the campaign. It was started in Guangzhou and a lot of other people in other cities did the same. I became a part-time employee of the Gender Equality Work Group.
LX– I was a volunteer.
ZC – We also had campaigns against sexual harassment in the workplace, against domestic violence, for equal employment and education. We used different methods that no one had used before. There were women’s organizations but they were mostly in the academic world. We decided to use a different approach. We went on the streets. We used creative performance arts to advocate for topics and the topic is usually related to what’s going on in the news.
ME – How do you connect lesbian activism and feminism?
LX – When we were in the Gender Equality Working group a lot of the volunteers from different cities around the country were lesbians, lesbian college students. A lot of people would say lesbians are feminists and feminists are lesbians but that’s not really true. A lot of lesbian college students take part in the feminist movement because a lot of young people including college lesbian students feel that there’s something wrong in society and they want to be part of the change. When we started to do feminist campaigns on the street and we started to make change which got really popular and influential, a lot of people wanted to be a part of them, part of the change, including lesbian college students. Also the identity lesbian got them to join LGBT organizations which knew about us already and introduced them to us and our activities. A lot of young people want to do something in the country.
ZC – A lot of lesbian activists feel like a lot of LGBT organizations, even though they don’t agree with a heterosexual norm, are patriarchal inside the organization. I wasn’t satisfied with how the organization was run and that it never talked about gender equality. I was angry and left the organization and started my own organization.
LX– I was a co-founder of that new organization which we called SinnerB Feminist and Lesbian group. Sinner because we admit we’re sinners because we decided to be non-conforming women.
ZC – B for Bitch.
ME -The first group for lesbian, bisexual and trans women in the Middle East was founded in Lebanon in 2007, called Meem, also broke away from an already existing LGBTQ group – the first in the Middle East – because they said that first group was too patriarchal and dominated by men. This is global. Is SinnerB still working?
ZC – We tried to keep it up but then we all focused on the feminist movement. It was around between 2012-2014. We are exhausted to just be in the feminist movement so I don’t have a lot of energy to do more. And I haven’t built up my system to figure out what is the difference between lesbian feminist and heterosexual feminist. So I just do my feminist activism.
ME- As a lesbian feminist activist, what do you think makes you more vulnerable to government violence: being a lesbian or being a feminist?
LX – I would say that they are very good at using that kind of strategy. Being a lesbian definitely makes me more vulnerable if the government or my school try to make my parents know that I’m lesbian. A lot of lesbian activists when they took part in campaigns with us, their schools, their universities will talk to their parents and tell them your daughter is a lesbian and she has taken part in public campaigns that are dangerous. Identity is definitely a tool that the government will use against us. But straight women are vulnerable too – the government will also tell their parents that they are part of these activities.
ME – Does the concept of “sinful” exist when it comes to being lesbian or queer in China?
ZC – We felt this word is so cool and it is a non-conventional thing to do – to be a lesbian and a feminist – so we chose the world “sin” but it’s not for any religious reason.
ME – So it’s more of a provocative term that draws attention.
ZC – At the time we really rebelled.
ME – What are you rebelling against?
ZC – Patriarchy. Straight man cancer – it’s a phrase now right? And gay man cancer. At that time, I didn’t agree with how the LGBT organization was run so the founding of SinnerB was a way to tell them we don’t like the way you are run. The leader of the organization was not only patriarchal but also totalitarian.
ME – What was happening in the run up to your arrest in 2015?
ZC – In 2015, before International Women’s Day we thought we have to do something and I thought about a very lame idea – I wanted to hand out stickers outside bus stations and rail stations and I posted an announcement and said I’ve decided about what kind of stickers I will have and if you want to join this action you can join me, you can add my WeChat and I will send you the information. Volunteers contacted me from I forgot how many cities – five or six cities. They wanted to do this together. It was supposed to take place in Beijing on March 6. Police went to Li Maizi’s house and threatened her not to do this action. They called me to tell me that too. I went out to have tea with Xiaowen and we thought as always they don’t want us to do it even though it was a lame thing – just stickers. We thought it would be ok. I went home and I talked with Li Maizi and told her take a picture and we will tell the press that we have this dea. At night at 9:00 or 10:00 pm, a lot of men, very strong men wearing casual clothes, eight or 10, knocked on my door very loudly. I opened the door and they said they wanted to talk to me.
ME – Had you ever been arrested before?
ZC – No. They said they wanted to come in and check things out and I said you are not going to come in because my parents live with me and I didn’t want them to get into my home – they are disgusting. And we argued for a very long time. I said I can go to police station with you. So they took me to the station and asked me a lot of questions about the events. And then I admitted I was going to launch this kind of event and they asked me how did I make money – who paid my salary – and after a really long night of questioning they brought me home two or three times to search my phone and documents and asked me to give them some documents. And then really early March 7, they said “OK we finished our questioning but we can’t let you go home, you can go to a hotel, you can get some rest there.” I refused to do that and said I want to go back to my home but they denied my request. They grabbed me to a hotel and I slept there for one night and they said they would set me free before dinner but they didn’t. After dinner they sent me to a bigger police station and announced I was arrested and they put handcuffs on me and they had some paperwork and they searched everything, all my phones, my computer, USBs but they were quite polite and they didn’t search my parents stuff and they weren’t really violent, unlike Beijing police, who just broke the door and searched her (Li Maizi’s) home without paperwork. I think Beijing police and Guangzhou police had some negotiations or something. When they arrest you they must have one witness so they invited one of my neighbours to my home to see me being arrested and that was very humiliating and then they sent me back to the hotel and then on the morning of Women’s Day they took to me Beijing where I was jailed. I never saw the other activists they had also detained.
ME – Why do you think that after Bloody Brides and the other campaigns you did, that this was the one thing that made them think “That’s it, we’re going to arrest them now” because like you said, compared to the other campaigns, this was quite a minor thing – it was just stickers. Did they ever tell you why?
ZC – When they were interrogating me the police told me “We’ve known you for a long time and we have known what you have been doing for so long but we didn’t do anything but now you’re doing this event during the two sessions.”
[An annual series of meetings in Beijing to approve new laws and amendments and confirm leadership positions, that comprises two major gatherings: the National People’s Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference].
LX – I wasn’t with her when she got arrested. I was on the phone with her. She called me on that night when the eight men knocked on her door. I couldn’t even hear her voice. I heard a lot of men negotiating with her. The men were saying you need to come to the police station with us and Da Tu was saying “You don’t have a warrant so you are not allowed to come into my house and I don’t have to come with you.” And then it went on for a while and she decided to go back to the police station and see what’s going on. I sent out the information that she was being harassed by the police. I sent word out on We-Chat and I told my other colleagues that she was being apprehended.
During those two days I was at home with my parents. A month before, the Guangzhou police had talked to my parents and told my parents that I was involved in some politically sensitive activities and that I was involved with “western hostile forces” so they wanted my parents to keep an eye on me. So when she was apprehended by the police I told my parents that I need to leave Guangzhou. They didn’t let me at first but I escaped when they weren’t paying attention. I kind of lied to them that I needed to go back to the place I live – I rent a place of my own – to go grab some stuff and then return and I never returned. I went to some other smaller cities around Guangzhou.
ME – Because you understood you were in danger?
LX – At the time I thought i was in danger. Along with three other colleagues of mine who were not detained, we were afraid the police would come and get us to so we left to avoid being arrested. But now thinking back we know that we wouldn’t have been detained because they (the Feminist Five) already were so the reason we left was to avoid being interrogated by the police, the police might have got evidence from us.
ME – Why did they keep just five and not all of you?
LX – On that day, 20-30 volunteers were being interrogated by the police. They were called into a police station and the police asked them what did you plan to do and who asked you to do it? A lot of them were just students and volunteers but they didn’t work for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). But the five who were detained they were all NGO employees. And they were directly participating in this campaign. They worked for different NGOs.
ME – So they were directly targeting NGOs?
LX – That’s what I think.
ME – I ask because in Egypt over the past few years the regime has been deliberately targeting NGOs – feminist NGOs, NGOs for human rights, prisoner rights, whatever. They wanted to go after the pillars of civil society. Can NGOs function openly in China?
LX– Before 2015, a lot of NGOs were registered as companies, for profit companies, but then it was not allowed because of 2015. The government enacted a law asking NGOs to register.
ME- That’s the same as in Egypt, where NGOs had to register under very strict conditions that made it impossible to get a license and then the regime started accusing them of getting funding from abroad.
LX – Yes it’s exactly the same.
ME – They were accused of being spies who were being funded from abroad to overthrow the regime.
LX – It’s like the two following laws – you need to register as a non-profit but you have to be supervised by a government departent but it’s impossible for NGOs to do that and then the second law came out that said you can’t get foreign funding.
ME – It’s like all our dictators talk on the phone “So what are you going to do next week? Ok, all register. Ok.”
LX – Also I heard that it’s the same year – in Russia in 2013 and then Egypt and then us.
ME – It’s incredible. It fascinates me as an Egyptian and as a feminist and as someone who for a very long time wrote just about politics – the Mubarak regime, human rights violations, no freedom of speech, censorship. torture, etc. and who more recently writes more and more on feminism and some people say to me “You won’t get into trouble with the regime now because you just write about feminism. They don’t worry about you because you just write about women and they only worry if you write about politics.” I wanted to ask you about what’s more dangerous to the regime right now – “just politics” or “just feminism” or is feminism in China politics?
ZC – I think the last one because the one reason we get arrested is because the NGO thing and the other reason because feminist movements are going to destroy the foundation of patriarchy. All of our work is not just gender equality, it’s that we have to expose the whole system, to let people be free and to have equality. That is the inner idea of feminism so the government will be really afraid and hate feminism. So I think that’s the other reason they arrest feminists and want to give us a warning that now you are under my watch. And then after we were released, public opinion changed rapidly – more and more people hate feminism. One of the reasons is because women are supposed to go back home and the other is we we’re accused of accepting American money and they said that we accepted Saudi Arabian money
ME – They accuse you of taking money from Saudi Arabia?! Saudi Arabia is the least feminist country in the world!
ZC – It’s because they hate Muslims. Public opinion was led into this kind of direction. Earlier they attacked us by saying that feminism was wrong and this year they are accusing us of being “fake feminists: for supporting Muslims and America.” We are not Chinese feminists, they say, like the state-sanctioned All China Women’s Federation.
ME – That is the official state-backed feminism. We have state-backed feminism in Egypt too. In the past they were saying to you that you’re not real feminists?
ZC – In the past they said feminism is wrong and now they accuse us of being “fake feminists” so it’s a really interesting turning point.
ME – What is the connection between you and Feminist Voices.
ZC – We are really supportive readers and there are a lot of activities that we planned and did together.
ME – So Feminist Voices is an ideological and intellectual source? Lu Pin is like the ideological godmother of your movement.
ZC – Yeah I think so.
LX – A mentor.
ME – I want to talk about feminism that would frighten a Communist Party that has ruled for more than 60 years. I am sorry that you spent 37 days in detention and I am sure it was terrible and I told you about what happened to me. I wasn’t in prison for 37 days but the State attacks us in different ways. Now that you’re safe, I can say this: it’s very exciting for me that a regime that has been in power for more than 60 years is so terrified of feminists that they send you to prison for 37 days. I don’t know when was the last time a feminist was jailed simply for being a feminist in the US. It says to me they’re not scared enough of feminists. It says to me that feminism has not shaken the government enough here. And even if this country is more democratic blah blah blah, if they want to get you, they will get you. There were protesters during the inauguration of Donald Trump last year who were arrested and put on trial because they considered those people dangerous. I can’t remember the last time a feminist was arrested in the the US simply for being a feminist and that says to me that feminism in the US is not as dangerous to patriarchy as feminism is in China.
ZC – Why do you think the US government isn’t afraid of feminism?
ME – Because it’s not challenging them. When I asked you why do you think they arrested you, you said it’s because feminism wants to destroy patriarchy and the Chinese government understands. I don’t think the US government understands this and I don’t think the feminist movement in the US is clear enough in its goals. I don’t hear enough feminists in the US – and this angers me very much – I don’t hear them directly challenging patriarchy in this way. I want to see more feminists on TV and on the streets saying we are here to destroy patriarchy. There are very few intersections, little about LGBTQ people, people who are not white, about the undocumented, about the poor, about class dismantling, about the working woman. For me, honestly, western feminism, specifically US feminism, is failing. This is why I am so excited to meet you.
Talk to me about being a feminist in China now. Are you excited about what you’re doing? Do you feel that you are the biggest challenge to the regime right now or do you still feel that they could crush you?
ZC – Both. I feel even though the core idea is to destroy patriarchy, what we’re doing every day is working on specific, detailed topics, like anti-sexual harassment and things like that. But we do focus a lot on holding government departments accountable for inaction or action.
ME – Where do you think your activism will go now to continue this momentum? Becasue now every one knows about you in China, whether they like you or not, what are you doing now with your activism for the future?
ZC – First thing in my mind is that anti-Muslim thing because I think those people who are trying to use the anti-Muslim sentiment and who accuse us of supporting Muslims who are hurting women, those people are not thinking, because our education has become more and more naive. They will never teach us critical thinking. People trust a lot of fake information and they will hear rumours and think they’re true. A lot of feminists will believe that kind of stuff too. Now, I am doing some critical thinking learning. I want more people, especially young feminists, to be able to use critical thinking. I’m also offering training for female leadership because it’s popular and it’s not dangerous and it can keep me safe and that kind of work will not endanger me.
And I want to write too. I have a humorous writing style that people like to read. We are going to figure out how to carry out our action again but not in the street because we can’t. But we will figure out some new kind of action.
ME – They will arrest you anytime you try to do something on the street?
ZC – I think so
ME – What did they charge you with?
LX – Causing public disorder. Literally “crime of picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”
ME – Are these charges still against you?
LX – She was not convicted. There wasn’t enough evidence. They were released on bail.
ZC– After one year the charges were dropped but the case is not closed.
LX – The charge was dropped after one year but whenever one of them tried to get a visa to somewhere the local police prevents her saying the case is not closed.
My plans are that I am going to sit for my bar this February. I’m so nervous.
ME – Why did you study law?
LX – I just picked that major randomly. I talk a lot and I think I’m good at talking. And when I got to know them I thought this major is very convenient. So I’m happy that I picked this. And I used it when we were working together in the Gender Equality Working Group as a full time employee – I was legal project manager.
I want to be a movement lawyer. I don’t know if movement lawyer is a real thing in China because it’s so dangerous to be a movement lawyer in China.
I’m very confused right now because before I came here I just wanted to spend two years here and then go back but I met my girlfriend here – she’s Chinese American – and I don’t know now.
I can also work here with the Chinese Feminist Collective – the organization here. A lot of us we’re in our mid-20s. We just graduated and we don’t know what we want to do. We don’t really know if there’s a future, a career, if this current NGO work can really support us that long and how we’re going to develop ourselves. There are a lot of things to be explored. I think I’m kind of in that situation right now. And being in the US can help for example when she needs a chance to leave the country because she was being evicted, when she needs us we can invite her here to take a break.
ZC – I came here to take a break.
ME – A few days ago, we talked about taking a break and the importance of taking care of yourself.
ZC – I watched a lot of silly TV over the past few days.
LX – She actually did that every day.
ME – I’m glad to hear that. You’re taking good care of yourself. What’s the silly TV you watch?
ZC – How I Met Your Mother and Friends. (Much laughter)
ME – Am I right in understanding that women who work in factories in China have become more organized over the past few years? What do you imagine you could do for factory workers?
ZC – Our connection with female workers has a long history. In 2012, some of our female worker friends launched an Occupy Men’s Room too. Usually they support our work really hard. And for me now, I will write some articles about gender and class and female workers and what is the difference between female workers and office women and to talk about menstruation leave. We are not advocating that we must have menstruation leave, we are not going to say that all companies should have this kind of leave, but we want to use that topic to help people see the working conditions of female worker in factories. Like in the factories where every iPhone was made, in winter and in summer the air conditioner is really really cold because they want to protect the products – Foxconn factories. iPhone is really expensive but the workers are paid very little. And we want to use that topic to let people know how the female workers fare in that environment and we want people to support female workers when they need support and to get their rights.
ME – Across the world as feminists we’re often accused of being upper middle or middle class women who are out of touch with working class women and that we have a lot of privilege and that feminism in anD of itself is a form of privilege. What do you think of that?
ZC – We are college graduates…But I am glad that I have come across labour NGOs and comrades from labour NGOs and they talked a lot about exploiting workers, and taught me female workers’ rights and Marxism. And before that Lu Pin used to say we have to pay attention to the situation of rural women, factory workers. I think as feminists we have to see them all. We are good at organizing college students. I think I will do my best to support female factory workers and rural women but what I am good at is to organize young people. I will focus on what I am good at but I will not stop supporting the other movements.
ME – I was in Sarajevo last year. Bosnia used to be in the former Yugoslavia which was part of the Non-Aligned Movement. It was Socialist country and very influenced by Communist ideas. Women there told me that on the surface of it, there was official equality between men and women, officially, but at home there was no equality.
LX– Exactly. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, what I heard was that men and women all needed to go to work to help to construct the Socialist country but when they went back home women still had to do whatever a woman was supposed to do. So in that period of time it’s like the country needed women to give her all and the home needs women to give her all and she had a struggle between the man in the household and the country. It’s never a woman’s decision, what a woman really wants.
M – More recently you see that in China where you’ve moved from one child policy to two child policy. So women’s bodies again are being dictated to by the government. What has changed from the19 50s and 1960s that makes feminism even more important?
ZC – I will go back to neoliberalism. Before I knew the work of Wang Zheng, professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan – I would think that in China, Chairman Mao made women more equal with men but after I read her theory I found there were a lot of feminist communities back in the 1920s and 1930s.
I’ve learned from that history that those feminists worked hard to promote gender equality in China. Gender equality is very important in China not because men thought “Oh we should give women liberation.” No, it’s because feminists fought against straight man cancer in the Communist Party. In the 1980s neoliberalism came to China with Open Door Policy and women had to go back home and be very beautiful and not have to do a lot of work because their husband can take care of them. But the regime is not any more democratic than it was in the 1950s. So on one hand the country is exploiting women on the other hand the capitalist society is exploiting women too – two hard forces. At this time it is critical to not only criticize totalitarianism it is also very important to criticize capitalism because also it’s very important to see how those two forces work together and to become very strong suppressors of women.
ME – Neither of them is a friend to women.
ZC – I see that problem from a global perspective. It’s happening all over the world and everything is entangled together. I feel feminism is a method to solve this problem.
ME – I totally agree
LX– Whether women are highly educated or didn’t go to college, they realize there’s gender inequality because when they try to go for a job they cannot have it because they’re women, because there’s now the two child policy and the employers are not that friendly to women, and women are swamped with housework, men are not as responsible as women. That’s what women are facing in China.
The feminist idea is actually starting, people are starting to have feminist ideas which is a good thing. But the bad ting is the totalitarian country is suppressing civil society and all kinds of organizations so it’s very difficult to organize offline – to organize people in person, meetings, associations – so even though you have this idea it’s very hard to practise it because people cannot come together.
ME – Does the internet help?
ZC – Of course
LX – It helps a lot. As a matter of fact, a PhD graduate from a university stood out and said she had been sexually harassed by her mentor and that she was inspired by #MeToo so she started our version of #MeToo in China. She used #MeToo
ME – Are many people responding to her?
LX – A lot. Mostly on WeChat.
ME – I want to discuss sex with you. One of the ways that I resist and subvert and use my feminism and you’ll see that in my book and in future books is sex and sexuality. For me as an Egyptian and as a Muslim, there is a control of women’s bodies. They always control our bodies. One of the ways that I fight back is talking very openly about sex and sexuality and saying one of the ways to fight the patriarchy for me as a woman is talking openly about being sexual, enjoyment, pleasure, lust, desire, all of that. I talk openly about sexual violence and what happened to me when I was sexually assaulted by Egyptian riot police but I don’t stop there. I go on to talk about desire and sex and the right to sexual pleasure whether it’s with a man or a woman. I increasingly identify as queer and I am not monogamous. Does sex and sexuality in this way play a role in your movement?
LX – It’s the same case in China. Women are not allowed to talk about sex in public because it’s considered ill mannered. In 2013 a group of young feminists initiated a group called BCome (B is for Vagina in Chinese). They created a grassroots play called Our Vaginas Ourselves it was inspired by Vagina Monologues but all the stories are new. I was not involved in that group but I was part of the show staging in Guangzhou and New York. When I came here in 2016 I put on this play in a theatre near Times Square in Chinese. The tickets were sold out in two weeks. The reaction in Guangzhou was good too.
When it first came out, a lot of university students wanted to put the play on at their universities. At one Beijing-based university, when the women wanted to promote it, they used a piece of paper and wrote on it saying “My vagina wants…” so all the sentences begin with “My vagina wants” like “My vagina wants freedom” and “My vagina wants whatever I want and you cannot come in if i tell you not to.” So after this campaign, the women in that university received tons and tons of insults. People called them sluts and humiliated them and a lot of them could not bear it but it shows what the public thought when women stood out and spoke for their own sexuality.
ME – In Egypt they put my on the front page of a newspaper and called me a Sex Activist. It’s supposed to be an insult, they’re calling me a slut. And I say yes I am a slut! Last month, I had a NYT column that had nothing to do with sex, it was about the attack on a mosque in Sinai by armed militants and I wrote that the regime was failing against the insurgency in Sinai and that bombing doesn’t help. A few days later a well known TV presenter called me a prostitute and said that a dog has more honour than I do. So they always use sex against us. That’s why for me sex is a very important weapon and tool in my feminism because I know they want us to be “good girls” and we can use it in a subversive way.
Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked that you think is important for people to know
ZC – Recently some of us are talking about the global backlash against not only the feminist movement but against civil society so my question is: is it really possible that feminists all over the world unite? Because before I was detained people didn’t work together and they had conflicts. But when I was detained a lot of human rights activists came together to support us and a lot of feminist activist all over the world came together to support us. But after I was released people just got back to conflict.
ME – It makes me sad when feminists fight because we’re not each other’s enemy. Patriarchy is the enemy. And when feminists fight, patriarchy wins.
ZC – I really want to know if feminists around the world can unite. Ask your readers to share what they think.