The tragic and the everyday of the garment industry


On May 10, 1993, 188 workers died, or were killed, in a fire at the Kader Toy Factory, in Bangkok, Thailand. 177 of the killed workers were women. The factory had no fire alarms, no sprinklers, very few fire extinguishers, and practically no means of escape. Those not immediately burned to death jumped out of third and fourth story windows … and were killed or seriously injured.

On November 19, 1993, 87 workers, all women, died, or were killed, in a fire at the Zhili Handicraft Factory, in Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone. A month later, on December 13, 61 women workers died, or were killed, in a fire at the Gaofu Textile Factory, in Fuzhou.

On Sunday, November 25, 2012, Bangladesh suffered its worst-ever factory fire, at the Tazreen Fashions factory, one of 4500 garment factories in the country. At last count, 123 workers died. By all accounts, the workers were all or almost all women.

Nothing here is new. Industries rely on women’s `nimble fingers’ to produce goods. Factories filled with women are overcrowded, have no fire alarms or sprinklers, and have no means of escape. Many women are burned to death. In these more recent versions, as in the earlier Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the factories are the signature of the modern. They are proof positive of progress made, or so the public is told.

Until the fire next time.

And each time, the fire, the tragedy, `enlightens’ a public that was previously innocent of any knowledge of the circumstances of industrial women workers. Fortunately for the innocent public, the dead cannot speak, cannot contradict the protestations of surprise and the performances of dismay.

But the living can.

At almost the same time the Tazreen factory burst into flames, garment workers, women workers, gathered in Bengaluru, in India, to give testimony to their working lives and to make demands. Managers abuse the women verbally and physically. The production targets are impossible. The pay is bare. The list goes on. What do the women want? They want what every worker wants. They want dignity, they want a living wage, they want the right to organize. They want everything that constitutes dignity, they want everything that expands dignity.

The women know they are working in a factory that is all women workers because a factory full of women is a factory of low wages. They are told this is a sign of development, of modernity. The women know better.

As we enter into the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, mourn the women workers who have died in the fires and support the women workers who continue to organize and make demands, as they produce clothing, toys, microchips, textiles, and more. Don’t let the brilliance of the fire obscure the urgencies of women workers’ everyday struggles for dignity and a living wage.


(Photo Credit: The Guardian)

They are neither mules nor witches. They are women.

Janice Bronwyn Linden

Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser. Janice Bronwyn Linden. Sixteen elderly women, unnamed.

On Monday, Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was beheaded by the Saudi Arabian government. The charge was witchcraft and sorcery.

On Monday, Janice Bronwyn Linden was executed, by lethal injection, by the Chinese government. The charge was drug smuggling, of being a `mule.’

On Monday, it was reported that, in one district of one province in Mozambique, from January to November of this year, sixteen elderly women had been accused of witchcraft and then were murdered.

Witches. Mules.

Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser was arrested in 2009. She was in her sixties. The charge was that she engaged in unorthodox healing methods. She charged people as much as $800 a session for … the claim of a cure. There is no way of knowing if this was, indeed, a fraud or if Nasser believed in her methods. She was never given the chance to explain. Instead, she was deemed “a danger to Islam”, and that was that.

Janice Bronwyn Linden was a thirty-five year old South African woman, from KwaZulu Natal, who was arrested in 2008 for smuggling three kilograms of crystal methamphetamine. The South African government tried to intervene, tried to appeal to the Chinese government for clemency. As is the practice in China, Linden was not informed of her impending execution until the morning of the day she was to die. Her family is distraught and despondent. South Africa, at least according to discussions in online forums and newspapers, is divided as to the execution. Many feel Linden deserved her fate. Why? She was a mule. She smuggled drugs into China. She should have known better. She `chose’ her path. She was a mule.

In Mozambique, in the district of Marromeu in the province of Sofala, women elders are under attack. A group of women elders, mulheres da terceira idade, women of the third stage, explained that when young men encounter failure, in work, in school, in life, they blame the elder women, they charge them with witchcraft, and then, filled with righteous indignation, they murder them. The women asked: “Estas situações estão a ser frequentes na nossa sociedade . Será que possuir 50 anos de idade deve constituir motivo para a idosa ser considerada feiticeira e condenada à morte?” “These situations are becoming common in our society. Is being old sufficient reason for being considered a witch and being condemned to death?”

Witches. Mules. These are terms that legitimate the murder of women. And they are terms of the current period, our period. They are the names of what is becoming common in our society. The real story is not crime but women’s power and audacity, “the struggle between orthodox men of the Establishment and an unorthodox woman making claims on forms of social power and authority. Ms. Nasir was low on the social hierarchy but making claims to high status by virtue of magical gifts. She posed not so much a danger to Islam as a danger to the authority of the clerics.”

The real crime is the witch-hunt. Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser. Janice Bronwyn Linden. The sixteen women elders. They are neither witches nor mules. They are women. Remember that.


(Photo Credit: South Africa History On Line)


Seven billion. Who cares?

According to the United Nations, the world population reached 7 billion today. Ok, maybe it’s really tomorrow or the next day, maybe it was yesterday. The exact date is somewhat beside the point. The point is 7 billion. Maybe the child is a girl-child named Danica May Camacho, born today in the Philippines. Maybe the child is a girl-child named Nargis Kumar, born in India. The exact child is also somewhat beside the point, although the choice of gender for symbols is telling.

Seven billion is a big number, difficult to visualize. Of course, two centuries ago, when the population was a `mere’ 1 billion, that also was a big number, difficult to visualize. In 1930, when the population reached 2 billion, in 1960 when it reached 3 billion, in 1975 when it reached 4 billion, in 1987 when it reached 5 billion, in 1999 when it reached 6 billion, each time the number was a big number, difficult to visualize. That means in less than 40 years, the world population had doubled. Clearly, `we’ are not very good at numbers.

Some will tell you this is largely a story of India and China. Others will note that, of the continents, Africa has the fastest population growth. Of course, the whole of Africa has fewer people than either China or India, but it’s growing. Others will talk about inequality and resources. Geographic inequalities between people born, raised, living in different parts of the world. Inequalities between and among generations, between and among genders as well.

These are important issues to discuss. So is this. Who cares and who will care for the billions? Already, we know that the world population is growing older … quickly. Every state in the United States, has prepared a program to “Ride the Age Wave,” mostly by coining groaningly clever phrases and quandaries, such as “The Age Wave:  Silver Tsunami or Golden Wave of Opportunity?

Who will care for the growing global population of elders, the growing scattered populations of children, the growing population? Care workers. Child care providers. Elder care providers. Nannies. Maids. Housekeepers. Family members, more often than not unpaid. Women. Women of color. Women from “somewhere else.” And girls. Women and girls. Women and girls who are too often described as silent. Women and girls who are too often described as invisible. They aren’t silent, and they aren’t invisible. We’re simply not listening or seeing.

Care work is systematically dropped out of development programs and public policy debates. Care workers are systematically excluded from any consideration or consultation concerning … care. The ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers is a step towards correcting that situation. So are campaigns like the Caring Across Generations Campaign, launched by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and their allies, in the United States.

Another step would be global conversation. Try it. The next time someone says or writes, “The world population is …”, answer with a question. “Who cares?” And then, together, answer the question.


(Infographic Credit: NPR / UN Population Division)

The low spark of high-heeled African women farmers

Esnai Ngwira in mucuna field

The planet of slums is fed, clothed and sheltered by continents, and oceans, of farms, many of them small farms. Many small hold farmers are women. This is the case in China. By focusing on women farmers, China, with 10% of the world’s arable land, now feeds 20% of the world’s population.

And now, according to reports, China is turning to Africa, not in a land grab but rather in skills sharing and capacity building. China “seeks to show its trading partners in Africa that feeding their populations is only possible when women are empowered.” China is pushing for land rights for women farmers and for investing in women farmers. A key problem, however, is “the low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women”.


The clause concerning “low skills” is slipped in at the end of an article, but it’s actually a bombshell. The reason “Africa” is hungry is that its women are “low skilled”?

This would come as a surprise to those, such as Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Campbell, who have argued, “Most often, women are the keepers of the seeds, tucked away among the beams in the thatched roof, protected from pests by smoke from cooking fire. Others are stored in tins in another location. Villagers volunteer labour to build storage buildings for seed banks, protecting the treasure within the public trust.”

For centuries, and more, women farmers have tended to the seeds, nurtured biodiversity, sustained communities, developed new, and successful, medical treatments, and more.

Esnai Ngwira, a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, would be surprised to hear she has a low skills base. Ngwira has been working with a program that builds social ecology in sustainable ways. Rather than using fertilizer, for example, Ngwira uses crop residue. She gets a better maize harvest, helps the soil, helps the earth. Esnai Ngwira is considered “a star innovator.”

Marie Johansson and Victoria Mulunga, of the Creative Entrepreneur Solutions (CES) in northern Namibia, would also be surprised. They, and the other women in their group, are fusing farming practices, gender-responsive environmentalism, and women’s market practices into a sustainable agricultural political economy. They haven’t done that by relying on a “low skill base.”

Likewise, in Kenya, Joyce Odari, an elderly subsistence farmer, was once arrested by forest guards for having cut down trees in a public preserve. She turned her imprisonment into a women’s sustainable agro-forestry operation, that now involves over 200 women in her region.

There are other stories, other women, other names. In the Gambia, women farmers are using simple store-powered dehydrators and dryers to preserve mangoes, which, as dried fruit, they sell to local schools. The mango is a key source of Vitamin A, and its season is short. By drying and distributing them the women farmers are combating blindness, providing extra nutrition in their own homes, and securing extra income.

The stories are everywhere because the women farmers, everywhere across the African continent, are doing what they do. Storing. Sharing. Experiment. Farming. Sustaining. Experimenting some more. Sharing some more.

The first problem for women farmers, on the African continent as elsewhere, is access. Access to land, access to market. Access to resources, access to decent and equal pay. Access to education and then more education. The second problem is security. Land tenure security, market access security. The third problem is autonomy. Global systems of exchange have no respect for the local “customs”, much less the biodiversity that women farmers have created over centuries through open and principled sharing.

“The low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women” pretends to focus on women as it obscures the actual lives that women, in this instance women farmers, lead. Not women farmers’ low skill but women farmers’ access to real power haunts a world teetering on the brink of famine. That’s our world.


(Photo Credit: / soilsandfood)


Women pay for rising food prices

Jenga Mwendo

Youth in Algeria are `rioting’ to protest, and change the conditions of, high unemployment and high and quickly rising food prices. In Egypt, where food inflation is running at a staggering 17 percent, the women are talking once again of the food lines, and the food riots and uprisings, of 2008.

In Bolivia, shopkeepers, such as Pilar Calisaya, are battling with police because of quickly rising bread prices. As she explains, “I am not at fault”.

In China, as Xu Shengru shops for food to feed her family, she notes that cabbage, a staple, has doubled in price since last year. That’s actually the good news. Recently, rice prices rose 30 percent in just 10 days.  Pepper prices rocketed an astonishing 1,000 percent.  In Indonesia, where pepper prices are also scaling new heights at new speeds, the government is imploring citizens to plant chilies in their backyards.

In India, food inflation has `zoomed’ to 18.32 percent this week alone, spurred by onion, vegetable and milk price rises. Last year alone, the price of onions rose 40 percent.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, world food prices in 2010 hit a new high, especially cereals and sugar. Wheat prices soared, corn as well. The price of meat and of milk also rose precipitously. These are the highest prices in thirty years. Put differently, well over half the world’s population has never lived with such high prices. It’s no surprise the youth of Algeria are protesting.

The brunt is back, and yet again the analysts inform us that it’s the world’s poorest who will bear the brunt.  And yet again there will be stories of individual women, such as Pilar Calisaya, or the unnamed woman in Egypt, or the unnamed woman in Algeria facing down a row of police, or Xu Shengru, and their struggles with food political economies, but there will be no analysis or reporting on the place of women in the `danger territory’ of food provision and consumption.

As the discussions of food prices, food riots, food protests, food markets, and food counter-markets spiral, keep an eye out for structural analyses of women’s positions.

One woman who knows something about women, food, crisis, is Jenga Mwendo.   Mwendo is the founder of the Backyard Gardens Network in New Orleans. After Katrina, she began rebuilding her own home, in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, and began building a new food political economy in the middle of food desert and in the midst of a food desertification.  She organized the rebuilding of two community gardens, the planting of fruit trees, and more. Mwendo understands that the only buffer against the predations of market control of food is community production. For some, this would be community gardens, for others, coops. In all of these, and other alternative community food experiments and projects, women historically have been the principal agents and constituency. Women still are.

Jenga Mwendo is precisely not exceptional. Women do not only bear the brunt of the devastating food market economies. Women are neither the victims nor the survivors of food catastrophes and crises. Instead, women are the change agents, from food uprisings to community gardens, and beyond.

Meanwhile, “fresh rioting broke out in Algiers today.”

(Photo Credit: Civil Eats)

(Re)Producing Gender: The Lavender Menace

Apparently, lesbians in China are less threatening. But less threatening than what? Lalas, the Chinese equivalent of lesbian, are less threatening to conceptions of gender and sexuality than gay men.

Lalas are apparently less threatening because the government has approved a reproduction of a 19th century play featuring two women who fall in love with each. Such approval does not confer acceptance. Just ask the organizers of a recent gay pageant. They had permission, but the police shut it down. Ask the organizers of the Beijing Queer film festival. For years, they would get the necessary permits only to have them eventually revoked.

According to Eli Zaretsky, a psychoanalytic historian of Capitalism, contemporary sexual identities are rooted in corporate Capitalism and the corresponding rise of “personal life,” that is, sections of life that are not connected to the production of value. As far as those interests are concerned, what you might do in your free time does not matter as long as you continue to produce value – which can be generated either through labor or consumption. This represents a rupture from earlier methodologies, which sought to control every aspect of the worker’s life in order to achieve maximum productivity.

Deregulated identities are not unregulated identities. It is simply cheaper for people to internalize  regulations and enforce the ethic themselves. The contradiction between prevailing cultural norms and the interests of Capitalism forms the boundary that separates personal life from production. An identity too far from what is deemed acceptable cannot produce and thus cannot consume. An example of this can be found in a recent survey conducted in the US, in which 6,450 transgender identified individuals found “near universal harassment on the job.” This assumes, of course, that they could even find a job.

While certain identities may have been able to distance themselves from the requirements of productivity, there has been nowhere near the same success in the realm of reproduction. Indeed many of the Chinese queer economies of desire seem to be defined almost exclusively through heteronormative means.

Lala couples are expected to be comprised of a “T” and a “P.” “T” stands for the adopted English term  ‘tomboy’ while “P” is a derivation of laopo, or wife. T is supposed to be more masculine in presentation and thus to take a more active sexual role. P is expected to exist through her femininity and passivity. In this particular economy of desire, a feminine identity is the most sought after.

While there may be a hierarchy of desire amongst lalas, their spaces are not subject to extreme regulations of desire and presentation that seems to be present within the gay male, also known as tongzhi, communities. There, men who display any form of femininity are immediately ostracized as being “not right”. Most will reply that this is because they want to be with men who act like “real” men. Of course, if they really wanted to act like “proper” men they would sleep with women. While the prevalent position on “feminine” men is mired in misogyny, it is also a reaction against a larger cultural misogyny that would feminize and ostracize them simply because to be attracted to a man is to be automatically feminized.

This same ideology carries through what in the U.S. would be called transgender identities. (I refer here only to trans-women as I have no experience with Chinese trans-men.) Their extreme marginalization makes these liminal identities even more resistant to reductive and categorical definition. The difficulty of definition is compounded by the fact that there does not seem to be any sense of cohesive community. Some might secure employment in a legitimate hair salon. Others find work as drag queens. Or they might be self employed, going to popular clubs looking for `foreign investment’. In the case of the last two, any revenue depends on their status as male-bodied women.

One such woman told me that if she were to really be a woman she would have to kill herself, because, otherwise, she would be excommunicated from the collective tongzhi, who already mistrusted her. On the other side, she could never tell her future husband of her past for fear that he would leave her. Not all feel exactly this way, but all distinctly feel the contradiction between their desires and their realities. And so they do what they can, (re)claiming spaces of resistance wherever they are able.

None of this is to say that their desires or their genders do not reflect authentic positions, only that they also reflect social expectations. To this end each identity is defined by the politics of “passing,” being perceived as belonging to the dominant (i.e. heterosexual) group. Gender presentation or identity aside, they are all able to achieve this social ideal through reproduction. Most talk of marriage as a shield from stigma. The difference is that this shield comes in the form of a performance of heterosexuality through the production of a child – a commodity all the more imperative to produce since the advent of the one child policy.

While Capitalist ideology may have opened the space needed to express these identities, it brought with it the imperialism of queer identities native to an English-speaking world. Often, these identities impose categories on the way that these other identities are supposed to behave and how they are supposed to work within the global framework of reclaiming gender diversity from colonialism.

Nevertheless, these are identities struggling to create authentic spaces of existence. That the lalas are somehow less threatening is ridiculous. Even though their identities may fit within the heteronormative paradigm, the space is still subverted through the reclamation of gender diversity. The master’s tool may not be able to completely dismantle the structures of oppression, but his sledgehammer might still be useful to knock down a few of the walls.


(Re)Producing Gender: The New Water Cycle

In honor of World Water Day my colleague at Women In and Beyond the Global, Lisa Seyfried, began writing on the intimate connections between gender and water – particularly that water is provided as a part of the domestic labors of women.

At the same time, a cry for help rang out across the provinces of southern China. They are experiencing what could be the worst drought in a century. Reservoirs and rivers desperately needed to sustain life are drying up. It is getting to the point where even the ground is beginning to crack of thirst. It is impossible to know for certain how many people have been affected. In just one province, according to government officials, there are 19 million people with a severe shortage of drinking water. For some comparison, according to the most recent government estimate, that is about two million people more than the total number of residents in Beijing. And that is just one province. Another three provinces are said to be in similar straits.

With no water immediately available, many villagers are forced to wander for miles in order to bring back as much water as they can carry. Many of these are women or girls.

The problem goes beyond not having enough water to drink. There is also not enough water to sustain either the livestock or the crops. Under the hukuo system (the system of house-hold registration that determines access to social services), it is expected that many rural villagers will engage in subsistence farming rather than employment. Much of the families’ yearly income comes from selling their excess produce at a price that is fixed below market value by the government.

Who then, decides the allocation of the water that is made available? Not the women in charge of retrieving it. Further, as water becomes increasingly privatized, the men in the villages do not get much say either.

These regions most affected by drought are also expected to provide many of the flowers for the country as well as other nations. In fact, this same region is the single largest wholesale center for flowers in all of China. It is this same market for gendered tokens  which decides that available water will go to producing saleable commodities rather than to sustaining human populations.

Many of the rural villagers are being forced to migrate toward more industrial centers as the land becomes increasingly untenable for subsistence. There is a limited supply of gendered destinations. The men are left to go to the urban centers, where they will erect   the glass and steel facades of Chinese modernity. Or they can enter the mines – which continue to pollute more sources of water through environmentally destructive practices such as strip mining or mountaintop removal.

The women, however, bear the increased burdens of this migration. Since they are most often left behind in the village, the duty of care labor falls upon them, without any support that their partner may have otherwise provided or received. Depending on age and familial position, they may be expected to migrate in order support themselves as well as their families.

If a woman has a younger brother (the one child policy has a stipulation that a second child may be afforded if the first born is female), the cultural conditions dictate that she may have to work extra to support his educational endeavors.

If she is young enough and/or attractive enough (by the standards of the employer of course), she may be expected to go to work in the industrial centers either in retail or in the factories. Or she may find herself in the more informal economies if she proves to be unsuitable for the other types of labor. As she works to (re)produce herself as well as her family, she will be simultaneously responsible for facilitating the standard of living that many in the US have become accustomed to having.  She serves two household masters, and both are distant and intimately felt.

Beyond that, her labors will further contribute to the ecological damage that leads to the drought. Two of China’s largest exports, clothing and electronics, require some of the most intensive investments of water – water which is then so polluted by production that it cannot be safely used for human consumption. In this way, the migrant woman worker becomes a part of the force that created the impetus for her migration in the first place.

This is the new water cycle, spiraling out from the original state of the waters’ potential. A new industry moves into the region. Women are predominantly employed since their labor is more cost effective. The industry purchases rights over the usage of the water. Water becomes scarce. More women move to the factory for much needed work, potentially working for less than the previous cohort as they are more desperate for money. If the industry is to survive, it must draw from a wider pool of resources, bringing more devalued labor with it. Finally the industry moves elsewhere to a fresher supply of resources, leaving in their wake the hollowed out shell of how the people used to survive.

A system built on unlimited growth through the exploitation of limited resources cannot be sustained indefinitely. An obvious point yet one that has yet to be fully accepted as truth. While we demand that our standard of living be subsidized through the exploitation of cheap labor and even cheaper labor standards, the economic machines march on towards our collective destruction. This destruction cannot be averted through a green-washing of the problem. We need to fundamentally alter our relationship to water and by extension, the ways that we relate to feminized labor.


(Re)Producing Gender: The Ant Tribe Part II – The Sexless Class

Why are women from rural China, generally, more open about sex? Rather, why are they more inclined to publicly expose their bodies or to trade their sexuality for money or other opportunities? This question that prompted someone to write an op-ed piece based on her experiences growing up in the rural countryside. To this end, she identifies three reasons of various significance: that it is difficult for them to “form positive mentalities,” that life marked by a presence in the lower classes is defined by competition and these women will do what ever it takes to ensure that they have access to the necessary resources, and finally that there is a distinct lack of mechanisms which afford social mobility leaving the body as the only concrete resource that can be traded.

In itself, all of these points offer an ideological platform for some interesting discussions. But the issue is not that these women are or are not geographically inclined toward this type of sexual expression but rather that such actions are occurring outside culturally sanctioned conditions. Particularly, that of marriage.

Such is the threat presented by the women of the Ant Tribe – that since they are already from the country that they just might regress back into their immoral ways. Or, for those who have been successfully refined, that they might never find an appropriate outlet.

According to certain representations in the media, living in an Ant Colony will dramatically reduce any potential for achieving the pinnacle of heterosexual discourse – marriage. And frankly, it probably will.

Internally, the Colonies lack private, personal space in which to perform acts of intimacy appropriately unseen by the community at large – though such expectations of privacy are themselves a relatively new phenomenon brought in the wake of an influx of globalized cultural mores. Such an influx of puritanical sexual values did not take root in a vacuum of expression. Rather they served to reinforce existing and resurgent (yet still somewhat reticent) Confucian values of morality: subservience, modestly, and filial piety.

Issues of being seen or not-seen aside, the current employment climate also creates another condition antagonistic to the social contract of reproduction. Without a valuable and valued job, the male Ants are unable to consume the material trappings needed to secure a spouse. What else could he possibly offer her in this age of commodified desires?

Much of the available work is not the foundation they expect to build their eventual careers upon. It is instead based on an industrial model of care work, i.e. the service industry that has become the true marker of national and economic development. Of course, there are segments of the service industry that prefer masculine employment, but much of the available work is feminized, either through its association with care work or the need for sexualized bodies to serve as a form of advertisement of the commodities being sold.

According to Lian Si, the author of much of the research on the Ants, the primary Ant Colony on the outskirts of Beijing contain many shops, clinics, internet cafes, and hair salons. These are all consistent labor venues to be expected in a community of about 3,000 villagers that has been inundated with over 50,000 migratory Ants seeking work. At the same time, this list of venues has a veiled subtext: in urban areas of China, hair salons are often fronts for brothels.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that all of the women who belong to the Ant Tribe are sex workers. Nor am I saying that some male bodied individuals would not find themselves in similar situations, likely selling to other men.

However, if we take the account of the woman who wrote of her own experiences and accept them as valid, it is reasonable to accept that Ant Tribe women might seek overtly sexual labor as a form of securing income. But where is the line between sexual labor and sexualized labor? Though more subtle, many of the avenues of potential employment for the women of the Ant Tribe require an appearance of a certain level of sexuality to lure customers. This appearance must be of the right variety, for to stray too far from the norm is to become like those bad rural migrants who might seek actual wages from their sexuality rather than wages contingent upon the illusion of it, in one way or another.

The sexuality that is attributed to a rural upbringing, which is actually far more representative of social conditions than geography, threatens established orders of sexual morality. The threat is that these inherently promiscuous women will seduce and somehow taint young men who are in similar conditions. Because clearly it must always be the woman’s fault. In either case, once tainted they may no longer be able to find ‘appropriate’ mates for their future security.

Thus the real worry surrounding the Ant Tribe is not that they might find themselves members of a class without sex but rather a class that is unable to procure sexual property. The worry is that the collective sexuality of the Ants will be like their lives – cheap, anonymous, communal, and temporary.


(Photo Credit: China Hush)

(Re)Producing Gender: The Ant Tribe

Her mother had worked in a factory. When the factory relocated, her home had gone with it. With nowhere else to turn, the mother moved into her daughter’s college dorm room. Through delayed payments and loans, the daughter was able to finish her education. She was able to get a couple of jobs, here and there, all temporary. She decided to go back to school, partially with the hopes that again her mother would be able to share the room as her health was deteriorating. The school refused. In December, the young graduate student killed herself.

But that is only part of the story. She is a member of the Ant Tribe.

This new tribe has been “discovered” in China, living in the capital city of Beijing. They are not marked by Orientalist caricatures like the other Nationalities (a euphemism for various ethnicities living in China). Indeed they are seemingly invisible. They are the Ant Tribe – a new term coined by Lian Si, a post-doctoral fellow at Beijing University, to describe an educated generation of anonymous workers in their 20’s, living and working in incredibly small and cramped quarters, also know as “colonies.” The Ants represent the latest generation of college-educated adults, and, like their US generational counterparts, they are largely unemployed.

Moreover, they are migrants. Nearly all of the members of the Ant Tribe have left their homes in the rural reaches of the nation in search of an education. Like their little sisters, they flow from potential job to potential job in search of the job that was said to await them. These jobs promised to withdraw all of the knowledge that had been deposited over the years of education. Maybe it would even pay interest. And like their sisters, they inserted themselves into a mechanized factory of production where they might become the citizens of consumption demanded by the market, the type of citizens that might become members of the emergent middle classes. Such citizenship would mean never having to return to the backwards ways of the village. They could become modern.

There is, however, a key difference between the dagongmei and the Ant Tribe. Though they are both described as flows, the former are imagined to be a class of undesirable migrants, a plague that descends upon an industrial center that threatens to contaminate the area with their unrefined presence. Conversely the Ants are trying to do something that will ‘actually’ benefit society.

In all this, Lian Si seems to neglect gender. Like actual ants, in his mind there is little to tell them apart from one another.

The reach of the impact that the Ant Tribe will have on the social and political landscape is not limited to their recent emergence. They are also some of the first children born under the One-Child Policy. As such,  they have a perspective that is completely different from that of their elders, and they are faced with a different set of responsibilities – particularly the most important responsibility of elder care.

In the past, Confucian tradition dictated that sons ensure that the needs of their parents were met, since daughters would join her husband’s family and shoulder the primary burden of caring for his parents. With the advent of the One-Child Policy, the government began an aggressive campaign to foster the belief that daughters were just as valuable as sons, that they could still be able to care for their own parents after they got married. And the daughters believed it. They were encouraged to pursue realms previously inaccessible, such as education and careers, rather than be brought up on the premise that their primary social function was that of reproduction. While there are those in the US and elsewhere in the Global North who would demonize the policy for its strict controls over bodily autonomy (and often failing to turn that same gaze upon their own social systems), many woman who now comprise the Ant Tribe view the policy as integral to their own personal achievements. Where their mothers were told that they were responsible for holding up half the sky, the daughters thought that they actually could.

Despite all this, these women are still held within a rigid construct of feminine performance and presence. Part of this is domestic labor. Many of their parents had already sacrificed their savings so that their child could get the chance at social mobility, either through factories or universities. The daughters felt that they needed to be able to care for their parents, since they were getting older. And then there weren’t any jobs to be had.

Some did what they could, like the young graduate student. Sometimes it just isn’t enough. While members of the Ant Tribe struggle to provide support themselves, their roommates, and their families, Chinese bloggers fear that these young individuals will not be able to find someone to marry, since marriage is conditional on having privacy between partners and on the idea that the husband will be able to support his wife. Without marriage there can be no reproduction and without reproduction there will be no one to care for them as they age. In a move common to US beliefs about poverty, a hostess of a day-time talk show asked several female Ants if they had considered marriage as a pathway out of their condition. It is perhaps telling that none of the women thought that was a possibility.

In the next article, The Sexless Class, I will explore the shift from revolutionary comrades to gendered partners and how this relates to the anxiety over the sexual capacities of the Ant Tribe. Until then, I welcome any insight, thoughts, or questions on the topic.


(Photo Credit: ChinaHush)

(Re)Producing Gender: Being-Temporary

In June of 2009, a young woman was out celebrating her college acceptance with two police officers she apparently knew. They proceeded to get her drunk, take her to a hotel, and then they took turns raping her. On October 27, they were sentenced. It is at this point that the series of events takes an interesting turn – the judge decided to sentence them each to only three years as he viewed their crime as “temporary” – there was no evidence of premeditation and all parties involved were ‘appropriately’ apologetic.  A lawyer from Zhejiang Hai Hao Law Firm  explained that under normal circumstances, when two or more people rape another, it is generally referred to as gang rape, and that under existing law “they should have been sentenced to more than a decade in prison, life imprisonment or death, which has a significant difference from their three-year term.”

Understandably, this grotesque judgment has unleashed a fury of criticisms. The outcry has been so loud that even the paragon of global feminism and progressive politics, the Wall Street Journal, took notice.

It would be accurate to situate this whole series of events within the rot of corruption that plagues nearly every system where the law and the enforcement of that law are part of the same apparatus. It would be equally accurate to attribute this to misogyny, another case where the woman was “asking for it” and thus convinced the helpless men to commit a crime. But what if there is more to the story? As pointed out by Marta Cooper at Global Voices Online, it is about society.

As one commenter has added to the discourse, “We will soon be living in a temporary time.” Presumably, this means a time where all crimes that lack premeditated malice are temporary. What if it is actually this woman, and others, who are judged to be “temporary” and not the crime itself?

If this is the case, the era of temporality is no so much looming over us but rather we are already there. This woman was not yet a productive member of society. She had yet to find herself in full-time employment, that climax of meaning and value ascribed by capitalist logic. Even worse, she was not yet a part of the reproductive labor force. There is an assumption that she is only at the beginning of her own long march toward modernity.

It is in this context of value, that the Wall Street Journal’s attention comes back into focus. Why would the bourgeoisie who leaf through its pages care about rape, let alone the rape of an anonymous woman in China? The story is more than just a retelling of a method of masculine disciplining of the woman at the heart of this story. At the periphery are the dagongmei.

The same logic which constructs temporary rape is similar to the processing of dagongmei bodies where they migrate to the factories so that they might migrate into a more culturally desired representation of their femininity. For all the ways that gender is used as a tool of discipline for these woman (and the woman) the masculinized domination receives a far lesser sentence, which is useful knowledge when much of the economy has been made in China.

Labor, of either the physical or intellectual variety, has been constructed as temporary so as to deskill and devalue the efforts. Being-temporary means being-replaceable. On this scale, there is a necessary regulation of identities to ensure enough of a cold conformity that there is little difference between the models. To vary from this regulation is to be unproductive. And unproductivity is the greatest sin under this contemporary logic of capitalism.

As far as this particular brand of logic is concerned, these little sisters have no real identity of their own prior to being inserted into the factory process where they (re)make themselves into something that has concrete use value in place of what was before only the potential for it. This something is the simulacrum of femininity that Kristeva articulates in her observations on female sexuality. The value of a woman’s body is her potential to (re)produce the commodities of desire.

As far as this logic of capitalism is concerned, what is the value of a woman’s body to the system? In “The Arcane of Reproduction” Leopoldina Fortunati identifies that there are really only to possibilities which have been made ‘natural,’ and hence invisible, by this system which has largely reduced human interactions into questions of exchange and value – housework and prostitution. This creates two worlds of gender, one where there is a partner who sells their labor to capital while the other partner sells their labor to the reproduction of social norms adhered to by the State (and the reproduction of the State itself) is one the causes of the compulsory heterosexuality within the structures of the nuclear family (pg 24).

Is this the source of the self-fulfilling prophecy that is being-temporary? Have our collective bodies and identities become so regulated, commodified, and instrumentalized that there is no alternative to other that to be temporary until the time that we become domestic?

Then again, it really could just be corruption and misogyny.

I don’t know but I must admit that the outcry gives me hope. Even if it is only temporary.

(Image Credit: China Digital Space)