Not a Wave, a Tsunami!—Part 5

Unbound vs.bound feet

Now we move on to Asia, excluding majority Muslim countries. (I’ll consider the Muslim world separately.) We have lots of ground to cover, so today’s post focuses on women’s situation in two nations with Communist governments. As with other areas of the world, the picture isn’t pretty but there have been some improvements over time.


A personal note: in 1970, when I joined the women’s takeover of RAT newspaper, some of my comrades were enthralled with the Chinese revolution and one wrote an article lauding it. At that time Mao’s Little Red Book was popular with the radical left. I couldn’t get through it, finding the Marxist rhetoric tedious. But I do remember one of Mao’s famous sayings, “Women hold up half the sky.”

On a positive note, the Communist regime did finally put an end to foot binding.

For around 1,000 years Chinese women bound their daughters’ feet, breaking the toes and arch. As adults they would be almost unable to walk. Historian Amanda Foreman writes, “A small foot in China, no different from a tiny waist in Victorian England, represented the height of female refinement. For families with marriageable daughters, foot size translated into its own form of currency and a means of achieving upward mobility.” r

Melissa J. Brown and Laurel Bossen offer an additional, competing explanation—that girls with bound feet couldn’t run around. Stuck at home, they were put to work spinning and weaving fabrics for sale, making huge contributions to the household economy. As Brown says, “…the Chinese commercial handicraft producers we interviewed were probably feeding themselves by 8 years old. And many girls contributed much more.”

There had been numerous attempts to outlaw foot binding but none were successful until 1949, when the Communists came to power. According to Bossen, the last time a girl was tortured in this manner was in 1957. The last factory that made shoes for bound feet closed in 1999.

On the negative side, decisions about birth control, abortion, and family size are made by a totalitarian state, not by the individuals. Initially, to replenish the population after World War II, the Communist government prohibited contraceptives, abortions, and sterilizations.

Although they relaxed the rules in the 1950s, by 1979 the population of China seemed to be outstripping the food supply, so the government ordered couples to limit themselves to one child. Given the cultural preference for sons, many families aborted female fetuses, abandoned female infants, or even committed infanticide. In many cases government officials forcibly aborted and sterilized women.

As a result, China now has around 34 million excess males and an insufficient number of young people to care for a large aging population.

The one-child policy was abandoned in 2016. In 2021 families were allowed three children. Nonetheless, sex-selective abortions of female fetuses persist.

Gendered violence remains rampant. Prof. Brian Wong writes that “In 2013, the UN Population Fund published a study that found intimate partner violence is pervasive, with 52% of Chinese men surveyed admitting they had engaged in physical or sexual violence against their partner. Among men who admitted to rape, the most commonly cited motivation was…a belief that they deserved, and thus should possess, the oft-objectified bodies of women.”

This violence is against the law, but as in so many countries, the law is not enforced. No surprise here. As Prof. Wong points out, the Chinese bureaucracy is heavily male-dominated, especially at the top.

Although I haven’t researched pay equity for other countries, since Mao advocated equal pay for equal work I thought it would be appropriate to include a note about it here. In the 1980s, when the economy was under strict state control, the gender wage gap in China was much smaller. A man would earn 16% to 22% more than a woman, compared with 36% to 38% in the United States. With the transition to a market economy, i.e. capitalism (while still under a one-party dictatorship), the gender wage gap has doubled, approaching that of the United States.


At the same time as we young radicals were glorifying the Chinese revolution, we also championed the National Liberation Front of North Vietnam. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam or its culture, only that they had never done anything to hurt the United States, yet our government was slaughtering them. In the rush to demonstrate success by “body counts,” even the corpses of women and babies were counted as Viet Cong.

I’m still furious about that war.

These days, the situation for women in Viet Name bears some similarities to that of women in China.

Sex-selective abortion is common in Vietnam. Abortion is legal up to the 22nd week of pregnancy and, due to the nation’s poverty, birth control has not been available. As a result, Vietnam has one of the highest abortion rates in the world—64 per 1,000 women annually. Most of the aborted fetuses are female.

Violence against women is rampant here as well. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) cites a study done by the Vietnamese government in 2019, which showed that “63% of married women aged 15-64 reported experiencing some form of violence at least once in their lifetime by their husbands or intimate partners.” Half the women who had experienced such violence had never told anyone before the survey, and over 90% never sought help from “formal service providers.”

Also, according to the study, “women with disabilities, young people, LGBTQI+ and ethnic minorities are more likely to be targeted with abuse or harassment…between 40 and 68 per cent of young women with a disability experience sexual violence before age 18.” In other words, apparently a significant number of men prefer to rape disabled girls.

To give them credit, the Vietnamese government appears to be making an honest attempt to collect data and perhaps even to deal with these issues. Viet Nam’s “National Action Month for Gender Equality, and Prevention and Response to Gender-Based Violence” runs from 15 November to 15 December each year.

Foot binding in today’s world

Here’s another personal note: When I was 16, I joined a social dance class where we learned the fox trot, waltz, lindy hop, and so on. Boys wore suits and ties. The girls wore dresses and high heels, and underneath the dress you’d wear a girdle with garter straps to attach to your nylon stockings. Let’s just say that vigorous dancing in those outfits was not fun.

A year later I went to work in an office, where the same tortuous dress rules applied. I suffered in high heels for a number of years before discovering sneakers. My mother, my aunts, and even many girls my own age continued to wear high heels. And many still do! This modern version of foot binding limits mobility—despite what you see in the movies, in real life try running away from an attacker or fighting back when dressed like that. And wearing high heels often leads to the development of painful, disabling bunions.



In the next post we’ll look at three non-Communist Asian countries.


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