Princesses of Democracy

Not just sitting pretty. (Quartz/Lily Kuo/Heather Timmons) (original: Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

Royal titles and Democracy don’t mix. The title makes no sense. I am sorry, but that’s beside the point.

It’s time to take and redefine the term “Princess”. Self-absorbed? Yeah, self-absorbed in their passion for political, economic, and social equality and rights. Demanding? Of course! Women have been demanding and deserving of recognition in history, politics, everything. Materialistic? If materialistic means purchasing experiential products, which may enrich their lives, then by all means.

For most young women in Hong Kong, the princess syndrome was always unfair, until the Umbrella Movement has thoroughly upended the insult.

In a light blouse, shorts and flip flops, [Willis Ho (23)] has her hair pulled back in a neat bun and is wearing circle contact lenses that give her a doe-eyed look. “I don’t care how people see me, or about my crime record,” Ho told Quartz. “If we are doing civil disobedience, it is something correct.”

[T]housands of young women are a core part of the protests, organizing everything from food and water distribution to communications—and also appearing on the front lines.

In fact, young women are playing a greater role in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests than any other political event since the city’s return to China from British control in 1997, according to social scientists, former student activists, and academics studying the demonstrations. These include stay-at-home mothers ferrying in supplies, secondary students spearheading art projects, environmentalists running the massive recycling efforts, medical students staffing the first aid tents, and goggles-wearing agitators.

The confidence of these women have is mind-blowing. Clearly they are taking a proactive position in this movement, even more so than the menfolk.

“Women are often more passionate supporters of the cause. ‘Some of these women are willing to fight with their last breath, and I have not heard the guys say the same thing.’ said W.W., a 30-year-old man wearing a plastic rain poncho who seemed to be the informal leader of a group of protesters guarding a makeshift blockade outside the government headquarters. “They’re the first to step up and help out.”

Seventeen-year-old Agnes Chow, a former spokesperson for Scholarism, one of the main student groups organizing the protests, told Quartz she believes that one consequence of the Umbrella Movement is that more women will take up leadership roles in Hong Kong’s male-dominated political sphere.

“Everyone is kind of equal here. So many females have already taken a role in the protests,” she said, speaking outside of government offices where protesters had camped out. “Definitely. I think women can have higher participation.”

Unfortunately, there are still instances of sexism. However, that will not turn these ladies away from the protests. In fact, there are many who battle it by promoting awareness of sexism and sexual violence.

In some cases, it is difficult for the young women involved in the democracy movement to be seen as more than symbols of femininity. Photos circulate that compare Chow and Leung, the student negotiator, in terms of their potential as a wife or girlfriend, and one article on the male-dominated web forum Hong Kong Golden asks readers to vote in the “democracy goddess election,” writing “First on the list is Agnes Chow, who is not only brave and a leader, but also really adorable.” (Chow also has a Facebook page dedicated to her that calls her the “goddess of democracy.”)

“Solidarity has not emerged at the protests beside that of class,” Cheng Sealing, an expert on gender and activism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Quartz. “The focus on women as sex objects and to incorporate that into political language and everyday speech is quite common…you have to ask how women can be properly seen as leaders and not always associated as a sexualized symbol.”

Gender has become an issue for those protesting against the umbrella movement as well. Female protesters have been sexually assaulted by anti-occupy residents; one video of a woman being violently grabbed by an older man went viral. “It suddenly exposed that level of hostility to girls and young women, ” said Maya Wong, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. “The undercurrent is there, the gender expectation that for women their role belongs at home. If they stand up in public, they should stand back.”

There are women at the protests that are pushing back against these images. Last month, the Hong Kong chapter of Slutwalk held an event to raise awareness of rape culture and also protest against the assault on protesters. In Mong Kok, the site of most of these attacks, demonstrators set up an area for female protesters to practice self defense.

But how does this all tie into the overturn of princess syndrome? Most young women, especially students, have proven that they are capable of caring for themselves and others. They are using their priviledges and resources to address important issues and fight for the greater good. They risk their clean records and education, because they believe in freedom and democracy and equal rights. The demographic that has been poked fun at for being self-obsessed and shallow is emerging from the protests more critical, and in some ways more cynical, than when they arrived—asking more questions about how a society should be run, thinking about concepts of right and wrong, and questioning the police and government’s actions throughout the protests.

A friend of mine on Facebook shared this article and wrote:

[G]ender still a problem within political and class-based protests about democracy–should they focus on one thing at a time?

To which I replied:

That’s almost saying as though some problem are less important than others. Understandable because priorites are important. However, gender issues have been pushed aside too often. The number of women are demanding to be acknowledged for their part in history has grown. They deserve a moment of recognition and more. Also, Hong Kong wants universal suffrage and economic equality (or at least less economic inequality), so women – students and workers – have to have their voices and ideas heard. Women have a stake in this as much as men.
With that being said…
Thank you—sisters and aunties and grandmothers for expanding womankind’s place in history, in politics, in the economy, and in society.
Occupy Central
26 September 2014 – 15 December 2014
87 days

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