When will Hong Kong women speak up about sexism?

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It’s the lot of Hongkongers that, barring the odd peaceful protest, they’re accustomed to staying quiet about the hand they’ve been dealt. Hong Kong is not, on the whole, a complaining society.

I would contend, however, that within this overlying culture of keeping calm and carrying on, there is something else at play, something more pernicious: namely a patriarchal system that expects women to stay silent, and often to suffer in their silence.

In my own life, I’ve seen women in Hong Kong staying quiet about injustices in the workplace, about unfair treatment from others in positions of authority, and from family members or loved ones.

Perhaps it’s because in traditional Chinese culture, and in many other cultures in East Asia, women are expected to be seen and not heard. However you trace it back, though, the reality is that, all too often, women have to worry about their careers, or becoming the subject of gossip, or victim-blaming, in a way that men simply do not.

From a young age, girls in Hong Kong are taught to be obedient, passive and quiet. I went to a very strict local primary school that had a long list of rules zeroing in on female pupils. The goal, on reflection, must have been to suppress all attempts at self-expression in girls.

For example, at the time of my attendance, girls were required to style their hair in double French braids every day. And we were forbidden from having ear piercings (a prohibition I attempted to bypass, undetected, by wearing the thin, delicate ends of chicken feathers in mine to stop them from closing up).

A woman and her daughter cross the street in front of a high-rise building in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Philippe Lopez

A woman and her daughter cross the street in front of a high-rise building in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Philippe Lopez

I remember getting into trouble all the time, because I liked chatting (probably a little too much), and, probably worse, voicing my opinions. There were always girls in my class who never, ever said anything, who won prizes for “obedience” at end-of-year ceremonies the school organized to show parents they were being helped to raise mute young ladies.

I was constantly being told I just wasn’t gwai: a ubiquitous Cantonese compliment that means well-behaved and obedient; docile, basically. In adulthood, it takes on new meaning: if you are not too outspoken or assertive, you are commended for being gwai.

Back then I always felt guilty. Why couldn’t I be a bit more gwai? Again, on reflection, however, it was all about instilling in us from a young age an aversion to asserting ourselves or voicing our opinions. Being shut down, subtly or otherwise, as a girl, extends into who you are as a woman.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen women disrespected by men, or being subjected to blatant sexism, and no one really saying anything at all

As recent revelations about high-profile figures in the West demonstrate, women remain afraid of their professional progress being stunted if they speak up about misdeeds in the workplace. Such revelations also show that it’s a global problem. What’s unclear, though, is when, if ever, Hong Kong women will feel able to speak up about these kinds of injustices.

According to a study from Lingnan University, more than 80% of Hong Kong women aged 18-25 have experienced stranger harassment. Their responses are almost as worrying, however. According to the authors, “despite being victims of harassment and its harms, women seemingly are not fighting back.”

Most people of my parents’ generation in Hong Kong grew up with the notion that girls are simply not as good as boys, full stop. And in contemporary Hong Kong, I have lost count of the number of times I have seen women disrespected by men, or being subjected to blatant sexism, and no one really saying anything at all. It’s as if we’re just programmed to take whatever comes our way without reacting – because that’s what we were always told to do.

What, though, of those who don’t conform – those of us who are strong, independent and not afraid to voice our opinions? Apparently, we are kong girls – aggressive, demanding and self-centered. Yes, even when we come of age, we’re still judged for speaking what’s on our minds. That’s an affront. Hong Kong women must stop suffering in silence and force the city to get with the times.

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