By Rafia Zakaria
October 17, 2018
LITERALLY translated, the Chinese word ‘sheng nu’ means ‘leftover women’. The term refers to women, generally over 30 but sometimes younger, who have failed to find husbands.
According to research, the chances of a Chinese woman finding a husband after that age plummet. In the words of a Chinese scholar who studies the subject, “It is as if a Chinese woman is driven off the showroom floor on her 30th birthday, she instantly loses her retail value. Add a graduate degree, and she is essentially on clearance sale.”
The phenomenon is reflective of the patchy sort of modernisation that has taken place in China. The opportunities that became available following the move toward capitalism have been availed by women just as they have by men.
The shift from a rural society to an urban society has given women economic power. This economic power, in turn, has made them demand more of marriage; it has made them more likely to view the relationship in terms of compatibility, attraction and other similar factors, rather than a form of economic stability as it was before.
The consequence is a huge rise in the number of ‘leftover women’, even as the cultural stigmas against unmarried women remain in place.
These less-discussed facets of Chinese culture may be useful for Pakistanis, given that China is Pakistan’s newest favourite benefactor.
It is increasingly assumed that, unlike aid provided by the United States, Chinese aid does not come with an attached cultural or rights agenda. China, it is assumed, cares little about the human rights records of those it seeks to help, nor does it seek to achieve an export of a worldview and cultural mores.
Chinese aid, therefore, is assumed to be more benign and a better deal for countries like Pakistan that have found the cultural meddling of previous overlords to be tiresome.
In terms of women in particular, the enduring nature of stigmas — such as the ones that permit the labelling of women as ‘leftover’, or that assign women value in terms of their ability to have children — is comforting.
Unlike other aid givers who have come before and who have been more critical, China, it is perceived, will let Pakistan perpetuate its own misogynies.
And Pakistan has a lot of them ie misogynies. If educated women in China are labelled ‘leftover women’ and dragged off the showroom floor, so too are Pakistani women. They may not have the actual label but they have all the burdens, being treated like they are somehow ‘less’, social pariahs despite any and all of their accomplishments in other areas.
The superficiality, the tendency to hold on to the idea that women are mothers first and anything else second — and nothing if they are not the former — is even more pervasive in Pakistan than it is in China.
This little bit, a China-Pakistan partnership on the mutual relegation of women to lesser citizens, it is assumed, will be the basis of greater accord between the two countries. And on this count, the calculation may be correct. Pakistan can carry on with so-called honour killings, ignore the skyrocketing rates of sexual harassment, refuse to provide any real security for women beyond the home and just shrug and blame women for all of it. The mistreatment of half the population is not Pakistan’s problem — it is the problem of the women who have been born in Pakistan.
There is another possibility, albeit a far more difficult one to access. The issue of ‘leftover women’, the denigration of women who choose not to marry or who are not yet married at age 30, is one that could be the basis of feminist collaboration between women of the two countries.
What has united the men in a chummy friendship could also unite the women. Both could commiserate on the basis of shared stigmas, of living in societies that work to make life harder rather than easier for them, and the strategies required to survive the constant and unrelenting dominance of men.
There are, as is always the case, obstacles to this. China is a totalitarian state where dissenters and critics are treated poorly even as capitalists and the nouveau riche are elevated. Women who speak up require even more courage than men who speak up and face legal repercussions for doing so. Free speech is not a goal or a reality.
Pakistani women have similar obstacles, except that the enemies are varied, sometimes the state, sometimes the intelligence apparatus and sometimes the hard-liners that love demanding the blood and extinguishment of women from public life.
The result, of course, is the same: only the very wealthy and the very well connected can say anything at all, and everyone else has to stay primly quiet and stash away the rage and anger that comes from living in a society that does not believe in your dignity.
China and Pakistan have shaken hands at the government level. At the level of people, these contacts have yet to be made.
Undoubtedly, they will be watched over by the minders of the two governments but they represent, nevertheless, a possibility.
One way to dismantle the ‘leftover’ label in China, and the treatment of women as ‘leftovers’ in Pakistan, may well be a delegation of the two, such that they could see the similarities in the struggle before them.
Cooperation, after all, need not always be about leasing ports and building roads; it can also be about something more substantial: the walls that continue to stand between men and women, the denial of equality and consideration faced by one, and the scorn and disdain of the other.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.