Twenty-six-year old Xiao Meini shaved her hair in August 2012 to protest against gender discrimination in university admission rates, which impose higher scores for female applicants. Xiao and her friends are at the helm of a Guangzhou-based organisation called “Bald Girls”, one of the busiest feminist activist groups in the country. A day later, three other activists shaved their heads and staged the same protest in Beijing. Several days later, a number anonymous men and women also followed their lead, shaved their heads and posted their photos online in a show of support.
"Hair has symbolic meaning for women, so a bald head represents a complete break with the traditional social female image of a woman," Xiao told Chinese media. Xiao and her friends fulfilled their goal of grabbing attention and were surprised atthe result. "We didn't expect so many strangers to support us. And the media exposure is also beyond our imagination," Xiao noted. "Shaving my head was totally worth it."
Xiao and her friends go public regularly in defence of female rights. Sexual harassment, domestic violence, and inappropriate gender ratios in public restrooms have all been on their agenda. Activities like "Bloody Wedding Gowns", "Occupy the Men's Room" and "Just Because I'm Slutty," have been equally meaningful because they generated an interesting discussion, contradictory and dramatic, Xiao told the media.
Xiao’s actions were echoed in Beijing. At the headquarters of the Media Monitor for Women Network, an NGO based in Beijing, Xiong Jing organised similar protests with people shaving their heads and at public restrooms. “We are in contact with other feminist organisations, we share the same belief that public action is an important way to get people’s attention,” said the 25-year-old project manager.
Xiong estimates there are about 100 active feminists in Beijing and other cells are popping up in China’s provincial capitals like Xi'an, Wuhan and Chengdu.
China Development Brief, an online and print publication reporting on China's growing nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, estimates there are about 70 registered NGOs in Beijing specializing in gender equality and women's rights. Most of these associations have no more than 10 full-time staff and struggle for financial support.
Female centres for psychological and legal counselling, and those who advocate for migrant workers' rights are also on this list, with representatives in other cities such as Shenzhen and Kunming.
The Internet has opened up a new, low-budget platform to disseminate their message. “We write articles and reports, prepare lectures and workshops, and we also provide psychological consultation. Much of our tasks are now focused on new media, we run two websites [www.genderwatch.cn and www.china-gad.org], microblogs and e-paper," Xiong said. "Then we take to the streets to get people’s attention. More people have been joining us lately because they find us online. More people become aware of feminism and female plights when they see our actions in the public sphere,” Xiong noted.