Tamara Jacka and Sally Sargeson are members of the Department of Political and Social Change in the College of Asia and the Pacific, ANU. They share a research interest in socio-political change and gender relations in contemporary China. In this presentation, Tamara presented their co-authored research and enlightened us with a new perspective on the relationships between democracy, representation and gender equality from a grassroots level. Recently debate has been conducted over the assumption that increasing women’s numerical representation in local politics naturally leads to improvement of substantive representation. However, those debates were solely within democratic political systems and in relation to representatives elected to national parliaments. Tamara and Sally examined the substantive representation of village women in China. Over two years they conducted fieldwork in several villages in Zhejiang (Sally) and Yunnan (Tamara). The following questions underpinned their research: What does village women’s substantive representation entail? How and by whom is substantive representation achieved? What is the relationship between woman’s substantive representation, democracy and gender equality? Findings from the qualitative research challenged their analytical framework. First, there were marked variations in villagers’ institutions and understandings of representation. Second, higher-quality democracy was associated with stronger substantive representation of women villagers, but democracy was not a precondition for substantive representation. Third, little evidence was found to prove that women’s substantive representation leads to less gender inequality in non-political spheres of life. Tamara concluded that women’s substantive representation can be achieved within authoritarian political systems by weakly democratic subnational governments which include only a few women. Female participation is particularly important because it enhances democracy. However, it does little to reduce gender inequality. This leaves space for future research to address how and under what condition women’s substantive representation enhances gender equality. After the presentation, Tamara and I discussed her research.
Q: What brought you to this topic?
T: Gender relations in China, especially the situations and experiences of rural women, including female migrants, is my thing. It is what I have been researching for more than twenty years. So I have a particular interest in gender relations. So does Sally. We have slightly different kind of disciplinary approaches and focuses in our research. In this project we received funding from ARC. Sally was the leading investigator and I was the second investigator. So we were really trying to bring together our slightly different interests and expertise relating to rural society, rural governance and gender issues. This is the first time I have really looked at village politics and village government in detail.
Q: Your research focus is on villages in China, recently as the urbanization marches on. Does this impact village women’s understanding of being a woman? For example, how they define the domestic sphere?
T: I think it might. But we weren’t working with villages that had been urbanized or that had been turned into a 社区 (community). So we were working just in villages with rural populations working at the agricultural, farming and outside work.
Q: You mentioned there were migrant workers from going from villages to the city. Did this process reverse with migrants returning to the village?
T: That wasn’t really part of this research project. But we did have a few younger people who had experienced migrant work and come to their village in Yunnan. But very few. Mostly in Yunnan it was quite hard for us to find women aged under 40 to talk to. Because they are not in the village, they are out. That is the case with men as well. So the only women, younger than that, in most cases in Yunnan are women with small children. And then women in Yunnan villages who are aged over 40, some of them have experiences of migrant working in the past. Some don’t. But it was quite different in Zhejiang. In the Zhejiang villages, there is relatively little migrant labor. So there are more young people in the village. They are not working in agricultural production, but they are commuting, working in an industry nearby their township. Or in a nearby city like Shanghai and they come back to the villages relatively often.
Q: In terms of the remaining population in the village, what is the sex ratio, is the majority woman?
T: There is a majority of women partly because there are more old men working away from home. And also because women live longer than men.
Q: How do village women perceive gender equality? It is quite interesting that women don’t agree upon 男主外女主内 (men rule outside, women rule inside).
T: Most people respond to that question about equality like it is just a slogan. It is an automatic response, a political correct response to a party slogan. Most people agreed automatically. But in Zhejiang, there are some people saying they are not actually equal.
Q: Their interpretation to the slogan varies from individual to individual, is that correct?
T: A little bit. It is meaningless to most people.
Q: Women are interested in their access to land and other properties. Does the word “interest” here refer to individual or family interest?
T: It is usually the family, the household, so in Yunnan a lot complaint about the government. For example, they are not compensated or they complain about village leaders who distributed the 低保 (subsistence allowances) to their relatives. But those were all complaints about the failure of village leaders to address the interest of the household. Both men and women are complaining. Q: When it comes to the women’s interest here, what is their exact interest? T: They rarely identify interest that is specific to them. If you ask what are your main needs or what are the village’s main needs, they will tell you something. If you are saying what are women’s needs-your needs specifically-, they will say the same thing. And then you try to press, is there any difference between your needs and your husband’s needs, or between female villagers and what they really need and what their interests are? And they say no.
Q: That sounds very interesting. It is like selflessness.
T: It is not selflessness. Partly I think it is a particular concern with interests that they share. In Yunnan, because of the low income and financial needs, they tend to prioritize their overall needs and interests. But I also think the issue about possibility and about what occurs to people might be their interest. You can only articulate an interest or a need if you can imagine it. If there is no possibility that an interest has never been raised by anyone else and there is no possibility that it would be met, then they are not going to raise it. So for example, female villagers have enormous workloads. Older women often look after grandchildren as well as doing agricultural work, house work and raising chickens and pigs. And if there is any kind of family business, they will be doing that as well. Now you might say, that is a big need for rural women like some support for childcare. Or maybe support in agricultural production and assistance so that their workloads would be alleviated. But they never mention these things, it doesn’t occur to them. It is both to do with a lack of awareness of the possibility but also a lack of possibility. So if you ask me what is your need and interest, things that occur to me would be things that have been addressed or at least being raised by people. So I think, for example, in one village, the party secretary of one of the villages in Zhejiang organized a canteen for elderly people. They don’t have to cook for themselves, they can go to the canteen. If that happened, even if it is in the neighboring village, if villagers heard about it, they might think that is what they now need.
Q: How do village women address differences and inequality? Sometimes people say what is different is therefore unequal. But I don’t think that is necessarily true.
T: No. And I don’t think people in the villages think in that way. They don’t equate gender difference with gender inequality. But also as we were saying, village leaders, particular higher-level government officials and peoples in the women’s federation, are much more likely to identify gender difference. You ask a villager is there any difference in male and female leader work, or is there any difference in the way they interact with the villagers, or are there any advantages or disadvantages to have a male or female leaders? We are trying to get a question about gender difference. Most villagers would say no, whereas village leaders and township government officials will say yes. So there is a stereotype about male leaders. They are quite standards in Zhejiang and Yunnan. Village leaders and governments have the same kind of stereotype. But those stereotypes are not shared usually by ordinary villagers, men or women. For example, a female village leader is quite likely to say there are advantages in having women in government. And in some ways, women in government are better than men. Because female leaders are less likely to be corrupted, and also more likely to be patient and not to respond very aggressively, so villagers are more likely to talk with female village leaders. But if you ask villagers about that, they would disagree. I asked lots of villagers do you think female leaders are less corrupt than male. Most people said no. And some women found it is easier to talk with female leader. This doesn’t necessarily mean they will more likely to go to a female leader with the problem than to a male leader. Partly because women tend to have less power. So if you want the problem addressed, you are better off going to male leaders.