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Hong Kong’s new feminist wave

Hong Kong has long been home to sexism and inequality with little protest. But things are starting to change.

The throng of defiant, energetic men with bras strapped around their chests was the first indication of a new movement. Last month’s “breast walk” was in aid of Ng Lai-ying, a 30-year-old woman who was sentenced to three months and 15 days in prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer with her breast during a protest in March. She recalled that the Chief Inspector in question, Chan Ka-po, put his hand on her breast when he was attempting to grab her bag, but the judge accused her of using her “female identity” to “trump the allegation” that the officer assaulted her.

Despite its overtly westernised society, which has remained intact since the 1997 British handover, Hong Kong has avoided the public sexism scandals seen in cities like London or New York – like an increasing pay gap, and the backlash against catcalling in NYC, after Hollaback’s street harassment video went viral. Hong Kong has managed to maintain its archaic hierarchy system thanks to “tradition”, and shut the blinds on the changes occurring in mainland China, namely women exercising their ambitions and making considerable dents in the glass ceiling.

People have found their voices, thanks in part, to the Occupy protests last year against Beijing’s power over the selection of Hong Kong’s new leader. With more noise being made about feminism, it’s no longer just city politics Hong Kongers are breaking their silence over.

While Ng Lai-ying’s case is extraordinary, sexism in Hong Kong isn’t. In 2013, the Secretary for Security, Lai Tung Kwok, commented that women “should not drink too much” if they wanted to avoid being raped, after it emerged that the number of rape incidents had risen by 60 per cent.

It doesn’t end there. One of Hong Kong’s biggest problems for women lies in the boardroom. The eight tertiary education institutions across the city are dominated largely by men, with women making up just 35 per cent of professional staff. It’s not surprising, then, that none of these colleges has had a female at the helm.

While gender parity seems to have been reached within the student body, with the number of women choosing to study having risen 20 per cent over the past 30 years, it gets less promising the further up the timeline you go. Women are quitting their jobs to look after their families, with a staggering 83 per cent admitting they wouldn’t ever go back to work. For most, this comes off the back of the economic crisis. Only 10 per cent of families are able to afford childcare, and new mums only get 10 weeks maternity leave, falling four weeks short of the International Labour Organisation’s recommendation. With tradition condemning stay-at-home dads, women are left with few options.

In an interview with Time Out Hong Kong, Su-Mei Thompson, the head of non-profit organisation The Women’s Foundation, called it “western guilt”, a result of the aforementioned barriers. “Hong Kong women are prone to western guilt about being a bad mother if you also have a demanding job,” she said. The lack of women in work is also largely fuelled by the overriding attitude that females who work part-time are uncommitted. Add to that the recent widening of the pay gap (by HK$500 since 2011), and the current situation doesn’t look good.

“There are so many bright women graduating from our universities and joining the workforce, but the upper echelons of power are still dominated by men across industries and professions,” Thompson said, adding, “How can it be that in our Court of Final Appeal, all 21 judges are male?”

But the landscape for women in Hong Kong is changing. One of the initiatives raising the flag for feminism is She Objects, a project spearheaded by The Women’s Foundation, which focuses on the reality of female objectification and sexualisation within the media. The short film, due to be released in early 2016, covers media-bred eating disorders, sexual harassment and features young women defiantly stating, “I am not an object”.

Meanwhile, the first all-female e-gaming team emerged last month, sponsored by Logitech to compete in professional gaming battles. Earlier in the year, lecture phenomenon TED teamed up with a host of successful Chinese women to host TEDxWanchai Women, covering everything from technology to challenging the status quo. Amazingly, through a successful charge.org petition, the women of Hong Kong also recently took down a new advice book titled Get Laid in Hong Kong, which had become an Amazon bestseller.

While this is only just the beginning – American sports bar Hooters and new “dirty” burger bar Double D are set to open in the city this month, both complete with sexualised advertising – it’s clear that feminism in Hong Kong is finally having its moment.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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