July 5, 2012, by China Policy Institute
Mind the (gender) gap: what the Shanghai Metro dress code tells us about Chinese attitudes towards women
All Metro systems have their share of perverts, and some (I’m looking at you, Tokyo) have more than their share. One of the first words I learned when I moved to Japan was ‘skebe’, as those of us in the target demographic (foreigners, uniformed Japanese schoolgirls) were trained to grab the groper’s arm (no mean feat in a rush-hour crush), hold it aloft, and loudly proclaim the owner’s ‘skebe’ or pervert status to the whole carriage. My older and somewhat more cynical self wonders if some of the men didn’t enjoy this public humiliation almost as much as the original groping, but still.
The Shanghai Metro has a different, much more conventional way of approaching the problem of perverts preying on women in flimsy summer clothes – urging the women to ‘have some self-respect, ladies’ and refrain from wearing see-through dresses, short skirts and the like. The photograph which accompanied the Metro’s tweet – most news outlets haven’t reprinted it, but you can always rely on the Daily Mail for a full-colour reproduction to demonstrate just how disgusting a picture is – must have got the commuting week off to a flying start for the perverts of Shanghai. Perhaps if they just sent out a different picture each day of a young woman displaying her underwear in a public place, the gropers could enjoy them at home and leave the city’s female travellers in peace.
As foreign students in Taiwan in the late 1980s, we were similarly told by our well-meaning teachers that we should expect to be harassed in the street if we wore sleeveless tops. We were sceptical of this warning – bare arms? Really? – but we should have remembered our Lu Xun, who once remarked on the effect of short sleeves on the male Chinese observer: ‘The sight of women’s short sleeves at once makes them think of bare arms, of the naked body, the genitals, copulation, promiscuity, and bastards. This is the sole respect in which the Chinese have a lively imagination.’
Lu Xun was all too familiar with Chinese culture’s double standards for male and female sexual behaviour, and his era’s exaggerated expectations of female chastity haven’t entirely gone away, not least among Chinese women themselves. A survey earlier this year found that acceptance of premarital sex had increased in China, but that twice as many women as men in the 20-39 age group still disapproved of it in all circumstances.
Remember, too, that given the growing gap between average onset of puberty and the minimum age for marriage in China (20 for women and 22 for men), growing acceptance of premarital sex between couples in long-term relationships doesn’t mean Chinese society has finally relaxed about women’s sexuality in general. Alongside a sex industry so obvious and public that first-time visitors often assume it is legal, Chinese society still harbours deeply conservative attitudes and misogynist myths such as ‘a woman can successfully resist rape if she tries hard enough’, a statement believed by a majority of female doctors in a recent survey in Hong Kong.
Of course, it’s not only Chinese institutions which run repeated campaigns telling women how not to get harassed, assaulted or raped, apparently without ever thinking of trying the more direct approach of publicly reminding men not to harass, assault or rape; the west is just the same. Perhaps Shanghai could come up with a suitable slogan to pioneer the alternative approach: how about ‘have some self-control, gentlemen’?
Jackie Sheehan is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.