Weeks after China drew global condemnation for detaining five feminists who planned to protest against sexual harassment, activists have launched a fresh campaign for gender equality – by asking women to photograph their armpits and post the pictures online.
Xiao Meili, a prominent women’s rights activist, said her online “armpit hair contest” was designed to fuel discussion of “the definition of feminine beauty”.
“I hope to raise the issue of the ownership of female body and to dispel the belief that it is wrong for girls to keep their armpit hair,” Xiao, 25, told the Guardian. “Keeping armpit hair should not be seen as uncivilised or dirty – it is nothing of the sort.”
Organisers of the competition, which ends on Thursday, have invited Chinese women to publish photos of their armpits on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Prizes will be awarded to the top three entries. So far there have been around 40 submissions.
“The greater message here is about discussing the ownership of female body and challenging the stereotyping of femininity,” said Xiao.
Liu Hongqiao, a 25-year-old NGO worker who was among those to upload an image of her underarm, said: “My understanding is that the contest seeks to challenge people’s misconceptions about beauty and their hatred of armpit hair.
“My message is that it should be the girls themselves rather than anyone else who decides whether to shave their armpit hair or whether their bodies are beautiful.”
For all its humour, the armpit contest comes at a troubling time for feminist activists and civil society groups as a whole in China. Xi Jinping, the Communist party’s leader since 2012, has presided over a wide-ranging crackdown against groups and individuals seen as potential opponents.
Activists, academics and journalists have been targeted as have human rights lawyers such as Pu Zhiqiang, who is currently awaiting trial.
In March, on the eve of International Women’s Day, China’s feminists found themselves in the crosshairs of Xi Jinping’s clampdown when police detained five activists who had planned to protest against domestic violence and sexual harassment.
The women were released on bail after more than a month in detention but still face the threat of criminal charges.
NGOs that were once tolerated or even supported by authorities now appear to be facing increasing pressure from public security officials. The Beijing offices of Yirenping, a public health group, were raided after its members called for the release of the feminists.
There are fears that proposals for new legislation regarding the management of foreign NGOs could force many such groups out of the country or into extinction.
“Things are getting worse. The repression will continue and will expand,” said Eva Pils, a legal scholar and human rights expert from King’s College London.
Three of the five feminists who were detained in March have sent photographs to the armpit contest.
Xiao, who made headlines last year after trekking 1 200 miles across China to raise awareness of sexual violence, said activists were still reeling from recent events.
The detentions had underlined “the changes in government’s attitude towards feminism”, she said. “We need time to recover and to adjust ourselves to the new situation.” — By Tom Phillips, additional reporting by Luna Lin
Image – Xiao Meili