Can’t stand the heat? Want to make a statement and wear something revealing? You may wish to avoid Shanghai’s subway.
It’s a bizarre incident that showcases just how far women’s rights still have to go in China. On June 20, tweeting from its official account on Sina Weibo, China’s twitter, Shanghai’s Number 2 Subway Line published a snapshot of a female passenger in a semi-transparent outfit and commented: “If that’s what you wear on a subway, then no wonder you will be sexually harassed! There are too many perverts riding the subway every day, and we can’t catch them all. Girl, you’ve got to respect yourself!”
A tiny victory for women’s rights
It’s strange enough that a subway line has its own official Weibo account; stranger still that it would voluntarily call out one of its own passengers and effectively invite sexual harassment. While the tweet is disturbing, at least it caused uproar among netizens who subscribed to the subway line’s feed. While the woman’s translucent dress was far from common Chinese couture, most passengers were disgusted by the commentary.
@贺瑜-小鱼儿 exclaimed, “Even if she’s wearing a bikini, she should still be free from harassment! What is wrong with this subway line?” @指间_谁de旋律 blames the subway line for its inappropriate comment as well: “It is disgusting to hear this from an official Weibo! How does her outfit make her deserving of sexual harassment? Why should any outfit be considered as an invitation?”
The official account of Women’s Voice, an NGO for gender equality in China (@女权之声), was also outraged: “Sexual harassment is a crime! The subway line should try harder to be responsible for passenger safety instead of finding excuses for these criminals and blaming the crime on the victims!”
Crossing an invisible line
Things got even more heated from there. On June 24, two young women organized a small-scale demonstration in a Shanghai subway station to drive their displeasure home. Two young females, each wearing a black veil over their face, stepped into a crowded subway station with signs that read, “I want my coolness under the sun, but not the pervert in the subway,” and “I can reveal myself, and you cannot bother me.”
But instead of showing the expected support, netizens turned on these two females. @王若翰Kitty complains: “We can always get rid of perverts through law or moral regulation, but you can’t ask everyone to pretend to ignore you when you wear really revealing clothes! This is an impossibly high bar.” @快乐小陶子 had a more unique take: “ I think a woman who wears revealing clothes in public is actually sexually harassing the men there. Regardless of your gender, you should not use the hot weather as an excuse to dress indecently. Public places aren’t your locker room; regardless of your gender, if you want to be respected by others, you have to learn to respect other people first.”
It’s certainly possible that the group of netizens reacting to the counter-demonstration were a different crowd than those who initially critiqued the subway’s shocking over-reach. Nonetheless, the sharp contrast in reaction suggests that the female demonstrators crossed an invisible line. Netizens took issue with the invasive, blame-the-victim mentality behind the subway line’s initial critique. But they showed very little sympathy for the two young women who took it upon themselves to raise more awareness for female autonomy.
Perhaps netizens will find it easier to accept creative demonstrations if they become more common in the future. Although Chinese women still have a long road to walk before true autonomy and equality is theirs, netizens’ defense of the female passenger is at least reassuring to some of us–especially females who might want to don a short skirt on a subway.
[Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to @三块花期末有好运. We're sorry for the error.]