Mon, Feb 10, 2020 - Page 8 News List

Women Hong Kong protesters upend gender roles

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

By Shelly Banjo and Josie Wong  /  Bloomberg

A woman writes a message in December to remember the deaths and injuries during the months of protests, in Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong, China.

Photo: Reuters

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.

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