The Alarming Coercion of Chinese Women into Risky Unions with Dr Leta Hong Fincher
In this episode, Rihanot and Tiaraoluwa speak with Dr Leta Hong Fincher, the acclaimed author of “Leftover Women”. Despite China's staggering gender imbalance, with millions more men than women, societal pressure and media narratives often push women to conform to traditional expectations of marriage.
They unravel the myths surrounding "Leftover Women" and explore the complex dynamics shaping the lives of women in China and by extension, Nigeria.
Read and listen to the full episode below;
Welcome back to The Counter-Narrative, where we explore stories that challenge the norm and inspire change. I am Rihanot Ojo-Oba, and with me is the incredible Tiaraoluwa Oluwabukunmi Fadeyi
Hello everyone. Today, we're excited to have an incredible guest, Leta Hong Fincher, an American journalist, feminist, and author known for her impactful works on gender issues in China.
Rihanot Dr. Leta is the author of Betraying Big Brother, The Feminist Awakening in China, and Leftover Women, the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Leta's first book, Leftover Women, was named one of the top five books of 2014 by the Asia Society's China File.
and the release of the 10th anniversary edition of Leftover Women, LA review of books described the book as powerful and provocative. New York Times Book Review says Leta Hong Fincher's Leftover Women offers a chilling account of the pressure on Chinese strivers. One hopes that Leftover Women will soon be translated into Chinese, as it is likely to resonate deeply with urban educated women. It seems the party has forgotten the male era dictum, women hold up half the sky.
Rihanot Ojo-Oba: Welcome to The Counter-Narrative. Dr. Leta Hong Fincher. Good to have you here.
Dr. Leta Hong Fincher: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. We're going to jump right into it. Our audience is very curious.
Rihanot Ojo-Oba: In your research and experience, what are the two myths perpetrated by incels and misogynists that aren't supported by data?
Dr. Leta Hong Fincher: Are you talking about the misogynists and incels in China? Well, I mean, pretty much everything that they say. And this has been going on for many years. I would say that in my book, Leftover Women, The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, it focuses on this propaganda campaign that was started by the Chinese government in 2007 and they were pushing the term sheng ni or leftover woman to define a single educated woman who was 27 years old or older and there's a lot of propaganda that is widely spread across China's social media, all of its state media, state newspapers, television.
But it's extremely insulting and misogynistic, shaming these women for staying single and saying that they need to hurry up and get married or no man is going to want them. And so I mean...basically what I've found in the research that I did years ago and then and also I did a full update of the book and this book is going to come out in just a few days for the 10th anniversary edition of leftover women and it shows that the Chinese government is really behind a lot of this misogyny.
It's not just natural in Chinese society, just this notion that women have an expiration date and the expiration date is actually in their mid-twenties or by the time they're 30 and I can get into all of the reasons lying behind that misogynistic propaganda but I mean there are just so many myths around it that some of which are kind of universal but but some of them are related to unique things in China. Like for example, the sex ratio imbalance where you have around 30 million more men than women in China because of a decades-long policy. A one-child policy where a lot of parents and this was government policy as well committed abortion of female children female fetuses or even female infanticide and so all of those really egregious violations of women's reproductive rights have resulted in this huge gender imbalance and that creates a huge new demographic crisis for the government.
But we could talk more about that but misogyny is really everywhere.
Tiaraoluwa Fadeyi: Thank you for that answer, so your preface in the leftover women, you mentioned how the Chinese government refused us to issue you a journalist visa inspired the book can you share more about that
Dr. Leta Hong Fincher: well it wasn't so much that the denial of a journalist visa inspired the book it was really that I had been a longtime TV and radio journalist in China and I had gone to the US and I was working in the US for a few years and I was working in China for a few years and then I had two young children and I had married and so our whole family was going to go back to Beijing and I was sponsored by, at the time I was working for Voice of America News and they sponsored me for a second tour as China correspondent and my husband also was a journalist so in order to work as a journalist in China you have to get a special journalist visa from the Chinese government.
Now this was in 2009 and I was waiting for quite a few months for my journalist visa but my husband got his visa first so we decided to just go to China on his visa and so we took our two young children and I was still waiting for my journalist visa and I thought it was going to come through but I was waiting and waiting. It was almost a year and I still hadn't gotten it and so I had to think about something else to do because I wasn't allowed to legally do reporting in China.
So I then started a PhD program in sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing and this is where I got really interested in my research on China's real estate boom and how it was very heavily gendered that is-that when Chinese married couples or even boyfriend and girlfriend went to buy a home and there's this huge real estate frenzy and all young people were all very strongly pressured into buying a home that it was very heavily gendered and I started to encounter a lot of young women who I discovered had handed over their life savings to their boyfriend to finance the purchase of a home that was supposed to be the couple's marital home but then the home didn't have the woman's name on the property deed.
And at first when I heard about this for the first time I thought wow you know why would such an intelligent woman allow this to happen why would she agree to hand over her life savings to a boyfriend and and purchase a home without her name on the deed and but then the more interviews, I did the more I discovered this was incredibly common. It was very shocking to me and so I did more research into the phenomenon, I did a lot of interviews with young women and men and this is where I came upon the widespread term, “leftover woman” because so many of these young women I interviewed said well “I'm at that age, I'm in my mid-20s or I'm already in my late 20s”, some of them might have been in their very early 30s most of them were still in their mid to late 20s and they said “you know there's a lot of pressure I need to get married because if I don't get married now and I'm going to be a leftover woman” and that's how this whole huge research project.
and this brings me to my next question the concept of the leftover women is quite prevalent in Nigeria and Africa do you think that there is a link between traditions and the idea of marriage and family being a woman's great being a woman's greatest achievement especially compared to the Western countries.
Dr Leta Hong Fincher:
Yes, I mean I have certainly since this book first came out in 2014 so it's been a really long time since I started doing almost 10 years. I have been approached by a lot of women from around the world.
It's definitely not just China. Certainly other young women in Nigeria as well have reached out to me as well and said “you know this stigma about being single as a woman is really strong where I live” and it's very strong in a lot of countries. I mean in fact even you know I live in America I'm in New York and just the other day in America, a major American newspaper came out with an editorial saying that America has a marriage crisis.
There aren't enough young people getting married and that women are supposedly better off if they're married and have children. So this is not a problem, certainly that is unique to China but getting back to your question about the culture there are some countries with an incredibly strong patriarchal tradition and China is one of those countries where Confucianism is the traditional philosophy, that is
extremely patriarchal and for centuries you know with these Confucian beliefs that women were subordinate and that basically as a daughter you had to obey your father, as a young woman you were supposed to get married and then you were supposed to obey your husband, and as an older woman as a mother you're supposed to obey your son.
it's very strictly hierarchical and this is in part of Confucian ideology passed down through the centuries. Now what I discovered in my research was that actually this kind of patriarchy in China today is not so much historical tradition as deliberate Chinese government propaganda coming from the Communist Party propaganda apparatus because China's history is unique because of its communist revolution in the years leading up to 1949.
There was this civil war and there were the Communists fighting, the Nationalists and so the Communist Party at the time especially in the 1920s right after the Communist Party was founded in China, they were actually very feminist, they used feminism as a rallying cry to recruit women to the communist cause and a lot of young women joined the communist revolution not because they believed in communism but they wanted to be free of their families in many cases. They wanted to be free of this pressure to marry and have babies and lead a very traditional life as confined to the home and so communism was a radical break from that. And then in 1949, the communists won, Mao Zedong founded the People's Republic of China and really that communist party completely overthrew traditional society.
And in the early communist era, I mean, one of Mao's most famous sayings was “women hold up half the sky”. And so the official policy of the communist party in the 1950s and 60s, all the way through the end of the 1970s was that women all needed to work.
Women need to go into the workforce. They also need to be assigned managerial jobs and so this was seen as urgent and important for the communist revolution to build this new nation so that women could contribute to the communist party. So that women could contribute to the industrial development of this new communist nation.
So that's what is so fascinating about what's happening in China is that China's own communist history completely overthrew the traditions of patriarchy and sexism and Confucianism.
They completely revolted against those traditional beliefs. And so as a result, China had probably the highest female labor force participation rate in the world and what's happening today, what has been happening for more than 15 years, ever since 2007 in this leftover women, propaganda disseminated by the Chinese government has been a new complete about face by the communist party, which today is heavily male dominated.
And there's a strong push, particularly coming from the new leader, Xi Jinping, a very strong push to get women to return to the home and assume these traditional roles of dutiful wife and mother.
That is, you know, that is something that's going round in the world right now.
Like we're regressing. There was this speech by the UN secretary about how we're regressing and how things that were, things that were there for women before, like women's rights and all of that have been overthrown. They have been sent back into the old, and it's just really just crazy. It's just really crazy.
So, on the eve of International Women's Day in 2015, Chinese authorities jailed five feminist activists. Eight years later, how has the growing voices of women in China, atmospheres of oppression, improved the lives and wellbeing of women?
Yes. So I actually wrote quite a lot about what happened in 2015 with the jailing of five feminist activists who became known as the feminist five in China. And that was my previous book, Betraying Big Brother, The Feminist Awakening in China. And that marked a huge turning point for the Chinese government's attitude towards feminist activism.
Because in China, until then, there really wasn't a feminist movement that was discernible. It wasn't a movement. I mean, there weren't enough people taking part in it. There were maybe about a hundred feminist activists who were doing regular kinds of protest performance art, they called it, on the streets, drawing attention to things like domestic violence or gender discrimination in universities or sexual violence.
On the eve of International Women's Day in 2015, the Chinese police in several provinces did a huge round of arrests of feminist activists and the feminists were planning to celebrate International Women's Day by handing out stickers about sexual harassment on subways and buses. That's all they were planning to do for International Women's Day, but they didn't even get to do it. And just before International Women's Day, the police rounded up all of these feminist activists.
They focused on five of the feminists, brought them all to Beijing, put them in the same detention center. And that move really backfired on the Chinese government because, you know, at the time, I believe the government was trying to wipe out a potential feminist movement in China by sending away and warning the other feminists by jailing five of them. But it backfired dramatically because there was so much outrage among others, not just feminists, but the LGBTQ+ community. I mean, all sorts of people, young people in particular, were really outraged.
They couldn't believe that these five young women, you know, were jailed just for planning to celebrate International Women's Day. And so there was, that I believe was the birth of a true political feminist movement in China, where more and more young women in particular, but also LGBTQ+ young people were speaking out against discrimination and inequality, were starting to use the term feminist, (女权主义者) in Chinese, on their social media handles.
And then, so then you began, there was this beginning of a real clash between a ground up feminist uprising of sorts, where a lot of women, young women in particular, were increasingly speaking out against sexism and then the Chinese government trying to censor feminist discourse and persecute feminist activists, basically, they put a lot of pressure on the Chinese office.
And there began a big crackdown on feminist activism in general. And that started in 2015. It's still going on today. It's developed in unexpected ways and I have to say, I was surprised at first at how resilient China's feminist movement was and today I think it's very, very difficult for the Chinese government to suppress this movement. I mean it can jail individual feminist activists but it's really difficult to just try to get young women in particular to stop believing in feminism and this is something that I talk about in the updated version of the book as well in Leftover Women is a huge difference in the last decade is that you have so many young women who say they don't want to get married or have children and what is the government going to do about that? Because the birth rates have plummeted for many years, marriage rates have fallen for nine consecutive years.
This is perceived as a huge demographic crisis for the government and it has a lot to do with feminism and young women embracing feminist beliefs.
Rihanot Ojo-Oba: Speaking of so many young women not wanting to get married, even in this part of the world when you have conversations with young women when you touch the marriage subject, so many young women are not interested and when you probe for that even without probing for that in the line of our work we have conversations around femicide.
We say that “oh IPV is on the rise, intimate partner violence, femicide, more husbands are killing their wives. More ex-husbands are killing their ex-wives”. So we're saying that see it's not to say that women do not want to get married but if it's going to be oppressive, toxic or abusive then there is no point.
So many women would rather remain single and just stay strong in their singleness until they see someone that makes sense but then you wouldn't know until you get partnered with the person and even when you partner you can only hope and pray that you do not get killed in your sleep.
It is so scary and in this discourse it looks like oh it's because you're feminist you do not want a man and women are saying “no it is just that we just need so many men to learn to treat women better with dignity, kindness, respect and compassion and just let women's voices be heard”.
If we're advocating for ourselves it's not to say that there's a hate on men, it is just to say we want to live in a world free of violence. So really that was really that was really a lot from you. That was so bulky, really thank you so much for that. and this brings me to the end of this video. Now let's move to the next question. That's why more women becoming breadwinners they still bear the brunt of domestic responsibility so how can society address this to prevent married women from breaking under this heavy load?
Dr Leta Hong Fincher: Well you know this is a long-standing question for centuries. I mean it's very difficult but what what is important is that you need to have institutional government support for women's rights in the home as well as in public and so those kinds of- if you're talking about well let's just talk about intimate partner violence or domestic violence, you know you have to have government support for victims of intimate partner violence so that if you know.
It's not just women who are victims of violence but it is women are the vast majority of victims of this kind of intimate partner violence and if you don't have anywhere to turn to for help then. I mean it's really hard to say what to do other than…so you need to have you need to have. I mean in addition to just having a law saying the victims have rights you have to have the laws be properly enforced.
With the case of China, the government passed an anti-domestic violence law that was enacted at the beginning of 2016, this was widely heralded as a landmark in legal reform for China and feminist activists had been advocating for this for about 20 years but unfortunately this law has basically not been enforced at all.
I mean it's just virtually impossible for women in China who are victims of intimate partner violence to get a restraining order against their abuser this became a really acute problem during the pandemic because the Chinese government had a really draconian system that it called a zero covid lockdown where people were basically imprisoned in their own homes, in many cases they weren't allowed to leave.
Sometimes they weren't even allowed to leave their own apartment often it was they weren't allowed to leave their apartment compound without a permit and under those circumstances, the domestic violence anecdotally really skyrocketed and it was just so difficult for victims to escape their abusers because their abusers are in their same family, you know in the home.
So this and in fact this is again a more severe problem in China in recent years, because the Chinese government introduced something called a divorce cooling off period in 2021 that mandates that couples who want to get a divorce have to wait at least 30 days before their case is going to be heard and that doesn't sound like much but when you add it up with all of these other measures from the government, basically making it extremely difficult for women to get a divorce even when their partners are very abusive, this is a really bad ominous development and it effectively traps women in abusive marriages.
So that's something that's very ominous that has developed in the last few years in China but getting back to you know more mundane things like you know women traditionally having to bear the lion's share of household responsibilities, taking care of the baby or babies you know doing most of the housework, it's true that these are cultural customs or historical or traditional but these kinds of gendered division of labor within the household are being strongly pushed from the top from the Chinese government itself through propaganda and so you know what do you do when all the propaganda coming from the government is telling you that it's a woman's natural duty to be a good wife and mother in the home and to take care of the family and take care of the household.
I mean this is this is something that a lot of young women in China are really pushing back against but you know what even when it's not explicitly being pushed by the government, this is still universally around the world, we tend to see that these are highly gendered patterns and the solutions; they have to be institutional and systemic and the government has to be involved on some level.
I mean I can give you another example of women's participation in the workforce, now this is something where in East Asian countries like Japan or South Korea those two countries have had very low female labor force participation rates for many years but especially in Japan.
The government identified this as a problem for Japan's economic development and so the government introduced this under previous legislation and so the government introduced this under previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and they called it womenomics; these measures to try to encourage companies to hire more women to get more women into the workforce.
Japan has actually been able to raise the female labor force participation rate somewhat. I mean it still has work to do but contrast that with China, that's not happening in China. The Chinese government, if anything Xi Jinping the ruler of China today, has just come out and said women need to return to the home we need to focus on marriage and childbearing this is a woman's duty in the new era of China which is under Xi Jinping and so it really bodes very poorly for women's rights in China but as you rightly said this is a problem that we've seen in many countries around the world.
There has been some progress but there's also been a lot of regression and China is one of those countries where women's rights have not noticeably deteriorated and this is the direct result of Chinese government policy.
Tiaraoluwa Fadeyi: Thank you for that, but the question was about how do we help women, how do we as a society work together so that women can because women are taking the bulk of the chores in the house and they are also working regular jobs where they're bringing money and a lot of them are even bread winners so they come they go to work, come back home, come home to cook and take care of the children and all of that.
So you mentioned that the government has to be involved in in helping women in this case for are they other means that we can we can fight against this.
Dr Leta Hong Fincher:
Yes. well of course, you know if you're in a relationship, if you're a married woman and you know your unhappy with a division or labor and the household.of course as the woman you know you would want to talk to your partner about it.I mean it, of course they're saying sex household to as well and there's going to be a division of labor and same sex households as well but it is traditionally males/female households where the women tends to take on most of the household labor.
I mean, everywhere women are speaking with their partners and saying you know “why do I have to do everything you need to do more”, um and of course you need to have a willing partner, if you don't have a willing partner you know well you it's really difficult and so in that case, you know you might want to consider divorcing and this is why if the government is making it really difficult to divorce then you're kind of trapped in that situation
But this is why I said that there has to be a systemic solution because just for one individual to speak up and try to fight for her right is exceedingly difficult. What you need is all of society to support you in many different ways. So you know, you could have friends who support you, have government regulations, you can have things like um a government saying that there is mandated parental leave and if you don't take paternity leave, then you lose all of those parental leave benefits.
I mean, these are really tricky questions because if you only have maternity leave coming from the government, that's only for women after having a baby and that has the tendency to reinforce these highly gendered patterns of division of labor where it's seen as the woman's role to take care of the baby and take care of the household.
So you have to have all of these different policies that support a woman's ability to go back to work after having a child and this is where the problem becomes especially acute—after having a child. Before having the child, you know the division of labor inside the house tends to be more evenly distributed and not as highly gendered. It's after having a baby that women start to suffer a lot more, maybe drop out of the workforce or you know lose the promotion and this is where the rest of the society comes in.
This is where government policies come in, you need policies such as free or heavily subsidized child care here or free heavily subsidized Pre-K, for children all of these kinds of benefits, health insurance you know, food programs if you're too poor to be able to feed your kids when you're at work.
There's just so many different social and government policies that are needed to kind of break down all of these gendered barriers and the gender gap in so many different areas, but it as an individual. What can you do as an individual? This is where you know if you're not married yet as a young woman then you can do what a lot of young women in China are beginning to do. millions of young women in China are saying “you know I don't need to get married now, I don't want to marry now all right, I don't want to have a baby now” and they're coming under intense pressure from their own parents their Elders who are putting very heavy pressure making them feel really guilty as those they're not honoring their parents or they don't love their parents if they don't get married and a lot of young women feel this pressure very deeply and they'll say “okay well I'll marry because I don't want my mother I don't want my father to suffers so much because my thing single is causing my relatives to suffer” but that's simply not fair it's just not fair but for the young woman.
But as an individual this if you're not married this true is the best thing to do for yourself if you don't want to marry, you know, don't and don't have a baby because and you do need to be aware that once you're married and once you have a baby or more you know it's more and more difficult to extricate yourself from all of those really tricky, very heavy layers of gendered oppression.
It's very very hard and so the earlier you start to recognize how sexist and misogynistic society is in general and then try to make your own individual choices bearing that in mind you know, then you'll have a little bit more protection.
Thank you very much for that response, so in the “Leftover Women”, you discussed how women in China have started to reclaim the term “Leftover” and is there a point where women should refuse certain labels because we have had to reclaim a lot of slurs in the past.
Is there a point where women should start refusing and fighting against these labels?
Dr Leta Hong Fincher:
Well absolutely I mean I was just pointing out that there are a lot of women in China who don't use the term or “leftover women” at all and they don't want to use it because they say this is too sexist I'm not going to use it.
I was just really pointing out that there are also a lot of women who make fun of it or who you know repurpose as a symbol of pride and and I think that all these different forms of resistance are all valid so it just depends on the individual. I mean that I don't think that you know, I think that it's great that there are also women rejecting the stigma of being single by using the term leftover woman in a way that indicates that they're resisting so they're many many creative ways to rebel against that kind of stigma.
That makes sense. Thank you for that answer.
In societies like ours, when a woman insists on being single, she's seen as stubborn, she's seen as someone that does not want to contribute to the society because when you get married you're expected to have so if you're saying that “you know what I want to remain single” they ask questions like “are you saying that you don't want to have children?”
They remind you that if your parents didn't have you, you will not be here and women are saying that ‘“I see the workload that my mother and my aunties have done” and it is mostly women, girls that helps with children more than men and fathers and so many girls are saying “since I was 15/14, I have been raising my nephew/my nieces, my neighbors child and I'm burnt out as a child”, so having to say that if I get married, I would have to have children it means that they'll be continuity in the domestic and child care and women are saying “no I don't want to be a part of this”.
and when you say that, you're tagged as a “bitter feminist”, no it's because there's no equality in partnerships. When you're talking about maternity and paternity leave, so many women will say that they don't even want their partners to be on paternity leave because they end up caring for the newborn, themselves, the husband and the bulk of the chores.
Gender inequality is really one of the leading causes of women saying “you know what, I'll rather be single”.
Dr Leta Hong Fincher;
So many women are tired. You could be single and you're seeing the amount of chores. As a single person, you do lots of chores. You now say to yourself, add one child, a grown up man and another child then another and you're just like…at what point is this going to end?
And in a society like ours and other parts of the word as well there's some chores that when a man does, they say it feels like you're a emasculating the man like why should your husband do this and we’re saying so many women are called breadwinners, for some reason so many men want their wives to ease they are burdens but when it comes to domestic and childcare, it should strictly be the woman.
So the conversation is, what can you tell a single person that will make her get married? Convince me in 5 seconds and then you'll see that so many people do not have what to say. It is just chores and chores and chores and so many men refusing, saying “I will not do this, it is your job, it is your job” but when it comes to finance you want me to help you, it's so unfair. It is so unfair.
Dr Leta Hong Fincher:
It really is and the thing is I mean um a lot of young women in China are also having those conversations now and saying “why should I get married?” I mean, there are so many young women—I keep talking about China because that's where I did my research and um and it is very pronounced. I don't really feel in America and there is as strong and very passionate resistance to getting married in America.
it's just not,.I don't see that but in China, it can be very militant actually. There's a wide range of opinions among young women so you have—I would say, most of the young women who don't want to get married, as you were saying earlier, it's not because they don't want a partner. You know, they would like to have a partner who really believes in them, who would share all of the household duties equally, who would support them and they're career dreams or educational dreams but so many of these young women haven't found a partner like that and so they say “well why should I marry then?”
I mean of course, I shouldn't marry and they're making the correct decision and they also don't want to have a child yet or some of them say when they're very young and I've definitely interviewed women who are very young in their early 20s, who say “that's it. there is no way I'm ever going to marry or have a child because now marriage is a living hell, marriage in China is a living hell, it's just a patriarchal trap” and it doesn't even matter who the partner is that the whole institution traps women and this is something that is not entirely unique to China but almost it's rare to be trapped to this degree in a marriage in China because now the government has made it so difficult to get a divorce.
But the thing is you know that these
beliefs, misogynistic beliefs, sexist beliefs that it's the woman's job to just maintain harmony in the home, it's been women's natural job to do all the housework, do all the cooking, you know, take care of the children. These kinds of gender beliefs in these traditional gender norms are virtually universal actually.
They are very universal and that's why in conversations when women say “I got married and I lost myself”. We can use the word trapped, it's just like you get married and so for so many women whose partners you lose focus of who you are and what you have intended to be before marriage, things would change anything if you do not have a part of that comes on this supporting to get degrees to go to school to empower yourself you'll be really hard I'm missed all of the house chores and domestic and child care you have to do.
So it's unfair to actually say to a woman that she's left over, she's saying “you know what, I want to partnered but it has to make sense with someone that makes sense and until I find that I will remain single.”
This brings with the conversation of the pay gap. Your book highlights how poverty laws in China contribute to a wealth gap and increase women's dependence on men. Do you see a way to close this gap in the future?
Dr Leta Hong Fincher:
Yes. So this really is unique to China and this is something I studied a lot of And wrote a lot about in my book “Leftover Women” is that because China has had this really hot real estate boom that has driven economic growth— it's played a major role in economic growth in the last few decades.
One of the trends that was very pronounced a decade ago when I started in my research was that women were really shut out of the accumulation of residential real estate wealth through several ways. One was that parents of daughters sadly really discriminated against their own daughter's, so parents were by and large, a decade ago, extremely unwilling to help their daughters buy a home and if the daughter had a brother then the parents would help the brother buy a home and they wouldn't help the daughter.
This was seen by these young women who had brothers who were getting financial help from their parents, but they weren't getting the financial help. you know a lot of these women just said “you know that's just the way it is um there's nothing I can do about it and yes I want to buy my own home but I can't afford it because my parents aren't helping me” .
Even even some cases where parents only had one child and their child was a daughter, I found quite a few examples, unfortunately of parents helping their nephew but a home and still saying no to their daughter because the norm in China that the man supposed to be head of the household and he's supposed to own a home. That that norm is so strong that many parents discriminated even against their own daughters
So that meant that women, the younger generation who wanted to buy their own really had to do it on their own. Now obviously, there are exceptions. Sometimes, parents would help their daughters and buy a home for them but um this plays into another unique kind of pressure in China which is that marriage and home buying go hand-in-hand in China and when you get married, norm is your supposed to have your own marital home and there's another gendered belief that is incorrect that I researched that men cannot find a bride unless the men own a home.
This is really untrue actually in the big cities because I found so many women were helping these men buy homes and then the homes would be registered only in the man's name and so the woman would just give away all of her hard earned life savings and it was painful for me to see this, as a researcher.
And I kept asking, every time I encountered this, I’d kept asking the woman I interviewed you know “why?”, if she hadn't married yet because a lot of time she hadn’t married.
“Why do you feel like you have to marry this man? Why are you willing to give me your entire life savings? no, why don't you just walk away?” But at that time ,10 years ago, the society hadn't taken hold yet, that women could really walk away en masse from an unequal relationship.
But today things are really changing quite dramatically, so I already talked about how millions of young women in China are saying no to intense marriage and child rearing pressure, so many women are saying that the birth rate and the marriage rates have fallen conspicuously. Another change is that you do see more single women buying homes of their own and that means that the home is registered in their own name. Unfortunately, China’s real estate boom is over, so those women I mean it's still better than these women are able to afford to homes, prices have come down somewhat, a little bit, not that much they're still extremely unaffordable given you know the median income for Chinese consumers.
The only way and through all the research I did I thought that well okay what if a woman jointly owns a home with her husband then at least she gets, if they divorce you know at least she gets half of the home’s value. Unfortunately, that's not even true.
Because the courts are so and this again this comes from very top of the Chinese government, these judges refuse to give women, to grant women a divorce and a divorce trial and if the women are determined to divorce they have to go through an entire trial lose the trial and then they have to file a second divorce lawsuit to stand the chance of being granted at the divorce.
Meanwhile most divorces, even when the property is jointly owned, the property goes to the man and so does the custody of the child or children especially if the child or the children are boys and so this is another way in which things have become much more dire for women's rights over the last decade.
On the other hand, the really good thing is that there are more women finding ways to resist individually to either say “no, I'm not going to marry or have a child to begin with”. I mean maybe they'll have a long-term partner but they don't want to enter into this marital institution under which women's rights aren't simply not protected in the marital institution in China but in terms of keeping your property wealth as a woman you have to register the home solely under your own name, that is not easy to do because these homes are really expensive but if the home is in your name only then even the Chinese courts recognize well you're the owner so that's the only way you can really guarantee your property rights.
You can't even have a jointly owned property unless of course the partner agrees, unless your partner is very considerate and agrees to give you, your half of the property but unfortunately there are so many couple cases, where the man refuses to let the woman divorce him and refuses to give her her share of the property or even custody of the the child in any cases.
Oh this is so unfair and to think we have so many parents supporting nephews and sons, where does that leave your daughters? because the thing with having to buy a house in your name—we can't have this conversation without talking about dependency on men and domestic violence, when a person has so much power or when power has been given to them and they know that okay this place is mine you're depending on me financially.
The chances of financial and economic abuse is high so what happens to women who are going through that kind of abuse also knowing that they probably do not have a place they can call home because so many parents end up helping nephews and sons. It's really heartbreaking like so many women's stories all over the world. They may not be the same but it's always some similarities and it feels like women will keep fighting but yeah right every single day in every institution, in the religious space, workplace even in the marital institution.
It's just so heartbreaking, you don't want to be called a leftover woman, you're trying to put in the work, you're trying to then get married and we have all of this hindrance. I mean it's just so heartbreaking.
Dr Leta Hong Fincher:
Yes it is heartbreaking but I have to add that I actually feel very encouraged in China by the recent development of millions of young educated women who recognize that society is very sexist because 10 years ago, more than 10 years ago when I was doing research that was not the case. it wasn't the women that I interviewed 10 years ago or more um when I was originally doing this research a lot of them felt hopeless that these are women who had not married yet and this is where the hope lies.
If you haven't married yet, you can control, you decide if you're going to marry or have a baby that's up to you. nobody as yet, nobody can force you to marry or have a baby I mean you know unless we talk about abortion bans which we see in in America now um and that is a huge problem and this is where again the government plays a really strong role but in China so far abortion is not banned then but I think um you know in the future will see because the government is so determined the push young women into getting married and having babies that you know, we just don't know it they made ban abortion they've already made it really difficult to get a vasectomy it's very very difficult now and this is a reason development in China so that's less controversial than abortion restrictions in China.
The thing is I am very heartened by this new trend of young women in China saying “I don't have to play this game”, “I'm not going to get married” and and in fact even some young women who have found somebody they really love and want to be their partner even some of those women are saying they don't want to get married that it's fine with them to just have a long term relationship that they don't want to enter into that legal contract because that legal contract for the institution of marriage in China at any right is really a trap because they they can't get out of it and then you get into property ownership, you know custody of children but if you don't get married, that's a decision —that's an individual taking control of the destiny and I didn't see a lot of that 10 years ago I definitely saw some of it, I mean there were very militant young women who were very militant feminists and said “I'm never going to marry!” because you know marriage is a trap but that was the exception 10 years ago.
Today there are so many women as much more than to just say you know” what I don't care how much pressure you put me under I'm not doing it I'm the one against to make a decision”, and that to me really gives me hope because I think even in an autocracy that is so tightly controlled or you don't have press freedom, you don't have internet freedom, you don't have freedom of assembly in China and this is one area where a personal is truly political in China; a young woman deciding to make a personal decision not to marry, that's a political decision actually.
Collectively when you have many millions and millions of young women in China making that same kind of decision then it becomes a political form of pressure on the government and that really does give me hope.
Whereas 10 years ago, I felt why aren't these women walking away from an unequal relationship. I wish they would walk away and today more and more of them are walking away.
So what you said about young women becoming more enlightened and demanding for equal rights. It's the same actually in Nigeria, because you see a lot of young women, you see 18 year old/19 year olds, they are very aware and they are standing on business for their feminism. They are not playing around, you call them militant feminists, that's the way they are also here so it gives us hope that we have younger people who believe in the equality or the humanity of themselves and they're working, they are fighting hard to make sure that people know this.
I know a lot of young women who have talked about not getting married or having children. They're 20/21 they're saying these things so it's I think for me it gives me hope that we have younger people coming behind us who are secure in their humanity and just want people to know that I'm equal to any man out there.
It's really very inspiring, very amazing. Thank you for coming and so let's ask you what words would you leave with our listeners? What are your final words to our listeners out there?
Dr Leta Hong Fincher:
Well I would say you know be true to yourself. I think this is really important especially young women who are getting this intense pressure to do something that's they really don't want to do but they feel like they're not going to be a good daughter or you know a lot of it is pressure from your own parents at least in China and admittedly I haven't read a lot about this situation in Nigeria but I wouldn't imagine.
That's the most difficult kind of pressure, I think is when it comes from your own mother or father, who especially if you have a good relationship with them and you really love them and you're beloved parents are telling you “you're causing us pain by doing this why are you hurting us in this way”, “ why don't you do the right thing and find no nice man” or or “don't be so picky and just get married because you're causing us pain” and and you know the thing is it's not your fault the young women you know it's your life, it's your life to live and you only have one light and I guess you're young but it's very important to do what you want to do each truth or yourself and and in any case even if you have found somebody really love, be careful.
You don't need to rush into marriage um so but but it is a very unfortunately still a very sexist world and marriage and then having children can be something that we can't foresee the consequences but because it's a very sexist world, it becomes much more difficult to be true to yourself later so just take your time and do what you want to do and you know you don't succumb to all of that pressure.
Thank you Leta for sharing your insights and experiences with us today. Your work continues to educate and inspire many around the world.
To our listeners, we hope this conversation is enlightening and sparks a desire for change.