GENDER.EDs five year anniversary reception was accompanied by the launch of a student-curated, travelling exhibition on #MeToo in China, supported by GENDER.ED and the SPS EDI Committee. A poster-based timeline, video work, and black boxes with objects belonging to survivors of sexual assault were on display in the CMB Foyer 26-29 Sept. to explore the impact of #MeToo in China, followed by a roundtable on ‘#MeToo in China and Beyond’ chaired by Sophia Woodman (Sociology) with Dr. Gabriela Loureiro (Sociology), Dr. Hemangini Gupta (Politics and International Relations and GENDER.ED) and the Mushroom Sisters (a collective of feminist student-activists) speaking to an engaged and enthusiastic audience. We invited the Mushroom Sisters to reflect on the process of curating the exhibit and joining our roundtable.
With the generous help from the school of Social and Political Science and GENDER.ED, we were absolutely delighted to bring the #MeToo in China exhibition to Edinburgh. Moving beyond England and setting up the exhibition in Scotland was a huge success for us and the other volunteers who devoted a lot of time and energy to this exhibition. In this blog, we write about our experience of curating the exhibition and joining the roundtable discussions with Dr. Gabriela Loureiro (Sociology, University of Edinburgh) and Dr. Hemangini Gupta (Politics and International Relations and GENDER.ED).
Image: Black boxes and the history of #MeToo in China exhibit
When we began to plan the #MeToo in China exhibition in the UK, we did not expect that we would be able to set up more than one exhibition due to our limited budgets and the potential political risks. In fact, we ran out of all our budget for the very first exhibition at Cambridge in March, 2022. Our volunteers who courageously took the political risks of setting up and maintaining this exhibition paid for their own train tickets and accommodations. Luckily, since we successfully put up the exhibition in Cambridge, we received some attention and support from people who support the #MeToo movement in China, which made it possible to bring this exhibition to other universities in the UK. Without the generous help from the #MeToo movement supporters and volunteers, we would not able to go this far in such a limited time and with such a minimal budget.
On the first day (September 26, 2022) of our exhibition, we were surprised to see that many people had gathered around the exhibited objects, stopping to observe them and whispering to their peers while discussing what we had displayed. We wondered about visitors’ thoughts and reflections: What kind of debates were sparked by this exhibition? What were their feelings about seeing an under-discussed topic in a Western university? Noticing the more hand-written “MeToo”s in different languages on the blank banner and the encouraging comments left in the comment books, we could see solidarity and support built on this exhibition that transcended national borders.
Image: ‘We support Jingyao’ section in the exhibition
In order to protect ourselves and to continue doing #MeToo in China exhibition, we have to work in an underground style using the nickname ‘Mushroom Sisters’. This name indicates the invisible solidarity between feminists and the hope of expanding connections with feminists from different socio-cultural backgrounds. Although we hope to share our knowledge and experiences as #MeToo activists as widely as possible, it still took us a lot of courage to sit in a seminar room to talk about our activism due to the current censorship system. We had been worried about potential direct confrontation as well as the likely cyber violence towards feminist activists. However, the roundtable discussion on the first day of our exhibition provided us opportunities to learn about feminist activisms from Brazil and India and rethink the ways that feminists from the Global South can build solidarity, based on Gabi and Hemangini’s work.
Image: The Voiceless Rise Up banner
During our roundtable discussions following the launch of the exhibition, Gabi spoke about how hashtag feminist activism on social media platforms started in Brazil in 2015, adopting a different trajectory from hashtag movements in the West. She carefully explored the role of emotions in the anti-sexual assault movement in Brazil. Gabi pointed out that emotions in feminist hashtag movements helped people find like-minded others and create a virtual space for sexual harassment survivors to liberate themselves from shame. The action of sharing also raised awareness and broke boundaries between the public and the private, which resonated with the everyday struggles and the secondary trauma #MeToo survivors experienced after they spoke out about what has happened. The continuous and ongoing Brazilian feminists’ resistance gave us new insights into sensing the role of emotions embedded in cyberspace and new strategies for doing feminism online.
Hemangini further continued Gabi’s discussions on shame and added how different feminists in India responded to the activism around sexual harassment with what they termed “name and shame” tactics on Facebook. This unexpected rift between groups of feminists revealed the complexity of feminism in India. Making public the names of the alleged perpetrators without an opportunity for them to defend themselves was interpreted as a way of “shaming these people” and using shame as a tool to stop gender-based violence. This action also led to a discussion of weaponizing the #MeToo movement given the right-wing government in power in India and the naming of several left-leaning academics as perpetrators. The fragmented information and posts on social media platforms were considered as an oversimplified picture of the ongoing #MeToo movement by academic feminists. Hemangini also pointed out the role of caste system in understanding feminist activism in India. She ended by asking a couple questions: How can feminists from the South do feminism in the Global North? How can the feminists from the South avoid the simplified stereotypical image of “the South filled with gender-based violence”? How can feminists from the South build solidarity?
These questions, alongside the honest queries centred around the relationships between the state and feminism from the audience, were very thought-provoking to us. The message that we want to deliver to the audience is that, focusing on the state might make it the only obstacle for Chinese feminists while obscuring problems within feminist communities. Frustrations and despairs about the powerful state might discourage feminists from taking action to build the future we want. In fact, we cannot deny that we are all part of this patriarchal system, and we can also be a part of the problem. We want to encourage our feminist sisters to do small things to destabilise the deep-rooted patriarchal system. Step by step, we can build a strong feminist network which can live longer than a patriarchal government. ‘Do small things’ is not an empty slogan. On the contrary, it poses difficult tasks to feminists to find creative ways to keep fighting against patriarchal systems in our everyday life. Taking part in this exhibition and roundtable gives us hope that we can continue this fight. Together, we can be closer to social justice and a more gender-equal society.