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Following the introduction of China’s market reforms in 1979, the country has experienced rapid urbanization and industrialization. Complementing these spectacular economic and social transformations is the globe’s largest internal migrations. Notably, the estimates show that 158 million people (women constituting 36%) had moved from rural areas to urban centers in search of paying jobs by the year 2011.1
Using disposable labor and nimble fingers, the global capital has established a unique international division of labor which has transformed the People’s Republic Of China into a “world factory.” Besides, the global capital made sexual and class exploitation of women more complex, more mobile, and more extensive. This paper reviews gender dilemmas as part of complexities engulfing rural migrant women in the country that espouses Marxism – China.
A major dilemma that engulfs rural migrant women in urban areas is authoritative speech. Notably, authoritative speech is highly recognized, believed, and valued by the listeners. Mainly, the recognition of the speech depends on the status of the speaker, the form of the speech, and the status of the speaker.2 Since rural migrant women lack the ability to speak with authority as urban people do, in most cases, the urbanites do not recognize their speech. Some organizations such as Dagongmei’s Home have been established to act as a site of articulation.
Dagongmei’s Home helps rural migrant women to learn the manner in which they can speak with authority.3 The primary objective of Dagongmei’s Home is to empower Dagongmei so that they do not submit to the language of white-collar women. Specifically, Home empowers migrant women through speech which in turn connects them to legal experts, media, social workers, professors, and women’s federation officials.
Ironically, as Home empowers migrant women, it suppresses them too. In particular, the Home acts as a cage which contains and limits marginal voices by letting migrant women speak as Dagongmei instead of as people with prejudiced experiences. Notably, the Home does not allow or authorize all forms of the speech. Mostly, the Home selects particular women whose speech is favorable to promote the discourse which is based on Chinese peasantry representation. According to Fu, most of the speeches advocate for the awakening of Chinese peasantry representation for inactivity so “that it can undergo a pedagogy, the completion of which would produce a disciplined labor force with high suzhi (quality).”4
Again, rural migrant women face the dilemma of peasant identity. Mostly, rural migrant women reject their rural identity and instead embrace “a more sexualized, urban femininity through a discourse of eating spring rice.”5 For instance, during Dagongmei visits to their villages, they wear and talk differently to distinguish themselves from their colleagues in the village.
Notably, it is not an easy task to discard peasant identity in reality because of women’s rural hukou registration, secondary and temporary status in the urban labor market as well as gender specific waged work, together with the disparity between urban and rural space. Such aspects differentiate rural migrant women from “modern” urban identity. According to Zhang, these issues together with other institution based barriers compel women to rely on their relatives for support; hence, making them come to terms with their peasant identity.6
Another dilemma that rural migrant women encounter relates to the role played by the government regarding their plight. In fact, “organizing migration has become a national project that is encouraged by the government, and exploitation of migrant workers is depicted as a legal problem rather than exposed for what it really is: capitalist exploitation of cheap labor.”7
This aspect is demonstrated through manipulation and official naming of rural migrant women using phrases such as ‘peasant workers’, ‘dagongmei’, ‘disposable labor’, ‘floating population’, and ‘blind migrant’. Notably, Dagongmei means working sisters (young and unmarried). Mostly, it is mostly translated as “working for the boss” or “selling labor” hence implying commoditization of labor.
The government and other institutions consider Dagongmei as ignorant, short term, docile but quiescent workers. Usually, the government portrays them as offenders or victims of crime who deserve punishment or discipline respectively.8 As such, the government ignores Dagongmei suffering which symbolizes their each day struggle. Mainly, rural migrant women are allowed to take low paying gender specific jobs in service sector, manufacturing, and textile. Consequently, rural migrant women constitute the most oppressed group in China’s urban areas. In fact, they are victims of exploitation through the oppression of state socialism, global capitalism, and familial patriarch (based on gender, class, and rural-urban differences).9
Media biased narratives
According to Wanning, “profit-driven media narratives often reinforce [the] sexualized image of the Dagongmei and construct them as morally loose and sexually out of control.”10 Notably, some official narratives argue that rural migrant women tend to succumb “to the lure of easy money and shamelessly sell their bodies instead of doing respectable work, or for being naïve enough to fall prey to predatory men.”11 In particular, these narratives maintain that rural migrant women use sex for opportunities, favors, and monetary gain and as such, they are depicted as being morally questionable, uneducated, or lacking civility. However, the media narratives refuse to acknowledge that sexual decisions made by rural migrant women are meant to assist their families and friends and thus they are acts of selflessness and bravery.
Commoditization of Dagongmei bodies
The commoditization of Dagongmei’s bodies is common in Chinese urban centers. For example, in Beijing, sexual harassment of domestic workers is commonly practiced on rural migrant women in urban homes because many victims cannot complain, let alone seek justice.12 As a result, rural migrant women in Beijing, premarital sexual activity has increased, always entailing unprotected sexual intercourse and unintentional pregnancies.
Again, the absence of working opportunities compels some rural migrant women to enter the sexual industry by becoming prostitutes. Notably, near factory assembly lines, there are bars, entertainment centers, hair salons, and brothels.13 Further, the media narratives and urbanites regard rural migrant women as chickens or contaminating bodies and thus considered as sources of fear, fascination, desire, and anxiety.
In conclusion, rural migrant women are facing dilemmas relating to their inability to speak with authority, peasant identity, government discrimination, median biased narratives and the commoditization of their bodies by the society. For instance, the incapacity to make an authoritative speech poses a significant challenge to rural migrant women. Although Dagongmei Home intends to empower migrant women to speak with authority, it suppresses and limits their voices by letting them speak as Dagongmei.
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Again, rural migrant women are the most oppressed group in the urban areas in China, and some cases, they are considered as substandard citizens because the government, which is supposed to defend them, encourages their current predicament. Besides, the media, which is supposed to raise the concerns of rural migrant women to the government and other groups, continues to demonize Dagongmei by depicting them as morally loose and sexually out of control. Overall, rural migrant women are victims who have no one to turn to because of the institutionalized exploitation by the state socialism, global capitalism, and familial patriarch.
Fu, Diana. “A Cage of Voices: Producing and Doing Dagongmei in Contemporary China.” Modern China 35, no. 5 (2009): 527-561.
Wanning, Sun. “”Northern Girls”: Cultural Politics of Agency and South China’s Migrant Literature.” Asian Studies Review 38, no. 2 (2014): 168-185.
Zhang, Nana. “Performing Identities: Women in Rural–Urban Migration in Contemporary China.” Geoforum 54, no. 1 (2014): 17–27.
- Nana Zhang, “Performing Identities: Women in Rural–Urban Migration in Contemporary China,” Geoforum 54, no. 1 (2014): 17.
- Diana Fu, “A Cage of Voices: Producing and Doing Dagongmei in Contemporary China,” Modern China 35, no. 5 (2009): 547.
- Ibid., 548.
- Nana Zhang, 21.
- Ibid. 21.
- Diana Fu, 548.
- Nana Zhang, 18.
- Ibid., 17.
- Sun Wanning, “”Northern Girls”: Cultural Politics of Agency and South China’s Migrant Literature,” Asian Studies Review 38, no. 2 (2014): 174.
- Sun Wanning, 173.
- Ibdi., 174.