During Hong Kong’s Occupy protests in 2014, Aria listened to Lady Gaga, put on makeup and wore cute outfits, embracing the ubiquitous “Goddess of Democracy” moniker at a time when online polls asked whether the city’s few female leaders were wife or girlfriend material.
Over months of recent pro-democracy demonstrations, however, the 25-year-old Hong Konger marched to the front lines cloaked in black with her hair tucked into a helmet while wielding a wrench and a Swiss Army knife. She regularly joined a team of 30 people for physical training drills, and listens to aggressive Cantonese rapcore music.
During the financial hub’s last major protests, in 2014, Aria said women like her came out in force but were relegated to cheerleader-like support roles, such as giving out water and food. The movement failed to achieve its major goal — universal sufferage — teaching her that pro-democracy activists must take drastic action to be heard, and that women need a larger role.
“This is very different from the past — the mentality has totally changed,” said Aria, who declined to give her last name because she fears getting arrested. “Now women have gone extra miles to go to the front of the protests, regardless of consequences.”
While Aria says the current protests have ebbed in recent weeks due to the spread of a deadly coronavirus that originated in mainland China, they’re far from over. She’s among a slew of female activists in Hong Kong now taking center stage, both on the streets and in organizing unions — including hospital workers who are striking this week seeking stricter measures to stop the virus.
While women number about half of all protesters in Hong Kong — similar to 2014 — police say they account for a third of the 7,000 arrests related to the demonstrations, which kicked off in June over since-scrapped legislation allowing extraditions to China.
A similar trend can be found elsewhere in the world. From Sudan’s uprising against former President Omar al-Bashir to India’s campaign to block a controversial citizenship bill, women are at the forefront of a global protest wave, said Marie Berry, who studies the issue at the University of Denver.
“There’s a growing recognition that we are no longer gaining rights or liberties, and it’s something we have to actively fight for,” Berry said.
Globally, relatively high female participation in protests correlates with success in overthrowing a government or achieving territorial independence because it suggests widespread support and an openness to different strategies, according to Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard Kennedy School researcher who studied 338 anti-government and other resistence campaigns from 1945 to 2014.
Chenoweth’s research shows women made up more than 25 percent of front-line protesters in Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan movement, which led to the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovych, and also comprised more than 50 percent of Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution, which helped disband the pro-Syrian government.
The actions of Hong Kong’s women on the streets are having an impact in elections as well. Women claimed a fifth of 452 seats as pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in Hong Kong’s November District Council elections, up slightly from the last vote in 2015.
Edith Leung, one of the winners, said the protests have smashed female stereotypes in the city. She highlighted derogatory posts on popular online message board LIHKG, which used to call women “Kong girls,” slang for self-centered princesses. Now, she said, women are called “sau zuk,” or comrade.
As the protests unfolded, “making fun of women vanished because netizens know that this time, women have sacrificed so much,” said Leung, who got five stitches in her head after police hit her with a baton at a November protest.
Women also figure prominently in artwork that has defined the Hong Kong protests, including a medic who became an icon for the movement after losing an eye from a beanbag round in August. Leung said these images, including a video of her own police attack, have changed stereotypes of Hong Kong women.
Activists are now turning their attention to September elections for Hong Kong’s 70-person Legislative Council, which has never had more than 12 female members. Just more than half the council is elected by popular vote, with remaining seats selected by professional constituencies that tend to favor men. Hong Kong’s female chief executive Carrie Lam, as well as eight out of the 11 women currently on the legislative council, are in the pro-Beijing camp.
Emily Lau, the first woman directly elected to the Legislative Council in 1991, said the fact that 40 percent of the 220 female candidates who ran for local District Council seats were victorious suggests the biggest hurdle facing women is failing to run in the first place.
NOT ALL POSITIVE
Yet not everyone sees the development of women embracing more aggressive tactics as positive. Hong Kong University gender studies professor Petula Ho, who tracked female activists during and after the 2014 Umbrella protests, said she received death threats and online attacks — many of which focused on her gender and appearance — after openly questioning the use of violence this time around.
The current protest movement lionizes violent activists who display “traditional male qualities of aggression, which devalues other forms of participation and makes women conform to patriarchal norms,” Ho said.
She also criticized the movement for drawing support from other initiatives that would benefit women. For example, she pointed to a bill to extend the city’s statutory maternity leave by four weeks, which was held up in the Legislative Council after pro-democracy lawmakers tried to stop pro-Beijing lawmakers from bypassing committee hearings. The pro-democracy camp argues the move could set a precedent to fast track more contentious legislation.
“The excuse is, let’s wait until after the revolution, otherwise you’ll distract people,” Ho said. “But if we truly want to build a democracy in Hong Kong in the future, it should include gender equity.”
‘WE JUST GO’
Besides arrest and jail time, female protesters also face added risks of sexual assault. A survey by nonprofit Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women found 67 cases of sexual violence by police, as well as fellow protesters. But only a handful were reported to authorities in part due to fears of getting arrested for other offenses.
In response to emailed questions, Hong Kong police said they didn’t comment on individual cases while urging anyone who was violated during detention to file complaints. Authorities “respect the privacy, dignity and rights of persons under police custody and have a set of standard procedures in handling such persons,” they said.
Yet compared with countries where women live in regular fear for their personal safety, it’s typically safe for women in Hong Kong to travel alone or ride on public transportation. Some protesters say the movement’s choice to resist leadership structures strips away gender bias and prevents the loudest voices from drowning out others.
“Hong Kong women today are brave and they are not afraid to fight against the police, so we don’t even think about gender, we just go,” said Eric, a 19-year-old protester, explaining why gender feels irrelevant to his generation.
Hong Kong’s teenagers have largely experienced a city moving toward gender equality, even if it has room for improvement. While women comprise the majority of university graduates, only 55 percent of them join the workforce, according to Hong Kong Women’s Foundation.
Aria said fighting on the front lines of the protests has made her more confident. Still, as she stared at the tabby cat scampering across the cramped apartment she shared with her parents and brother, she struggled to envision the future despite saying she’d continue her fight for democracy.
“I used to think of being an artist, or of being someone’s wife, or mom,” she said. “Now all of this seems very far away.”
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