It was a modest protest: about 10 university students in winter coats, waving placards near a government office in the central Chinese city Wuhan.
Yet the reason for the demonstration was shocking. The students were protesting against a requirement that women applying for civil service jobs must undergo invasive gynaecological examinations.
The demonstrators in Wuhan have joined a growing chorus of Chinese activists who, despite the government’s hard line on public protests, have shone a harsh light on China‘s deep-rooted gender inequality and job discrimination.
«Gender discrimination is very widespread and in many senses institutionalised in China,» said Geoff Crothall, communications director for the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin. «What’s been increasing in the past few years is the number of women in social and civil society activism groups who are standing up and demanding change.»
A picture of the protest on Monday, which appeared in the state-run Legal Daily newspaper, shows seven women standing outside a provincial government office, arms crossed defensively. They wear what look like giant underpants, each emblazoned with the Chinese character meaning «examine» – struck through with a red line.
The regulations that provoked the protest have been in force since 2005, and require women applying for civil service jobs to undergo invasive testing for sexually transmitted diseases and malignant tumours. Applicants have also been asked to provide information on their menstrual cycles.
«Through this demonstration, we call on government departments to drop the examinations,» one of the protest organisers told the Legal Daily.
In March, the Beijing-based non-profit social justice group Yirenping Center sent an open letter to government agencies including the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security protesting against the gynaecological examinations, but it received no reply.
«Sexually transmitted diseases can’t be transmitted at work, so we think it’s unnecessary to test for them – and the tumour examinations, these are unnecessary as well,» said Huang Yizhi, a lawyer with the centre. «If I’m going to the hospital in order to find work, is it really necessary to examine so many things, even those relating to my extremely private parts?»
Over the summer, activists in the southern city of Guangzhou protested against a lack of female public toilets by «occupying» mens’ stalls. Officials in Guangzhou announced that they would adopt a fairer ratio for new public toilets, but similar protests in Beijing were suppressed.
Elsewhere, about 20 women across the country shaved their heads in a quiet protest against discriminatory college admissions standards. Some university departments have demanded higher admissions exam scores for women than men, ostensibly to balance enrolment ratios. The education ministry approved the practice «in view of considerations of national interest«, it said.
On Sunday, an all-time record 1.12 million people took the notoriously difficult civil service examination, according to the China Daily; 150,000 more than last year. As China’s college-educated workforce grows, secure, high-status jobs such as government posts are becoming increasingly competitive.
«Civil service examiners can often get away with these absurd requirements, because there’s such a high demand for civil service jobs,» said Crothall.