Saturday, May 25, 2024

From gyms to hostels, women in China are creating female-friendly spaces

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In 2022, Zhang decided to create her own all-women gym, joining a small but steadily growing trend as Chinese women – tired of the male gaze, feeling unsafe or being overlooked – in recent years have opted for female-only spaces.

The phenomenon stands in stark contrast to the official clubs and elite politics of China, where female participation is often minimal, if not absent.

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At Modern Training, during the lunch break of a normal weekday, a woman is being guided by one of its five female trainers on how to use a weightlifting machine correctly.

The trainer’s arms rest on the woman’s shoulders while one hand traces up her spine, helping to adjust her posture. “You can’t have this level of intimacy if your trainer is a man,” Zhang said.

The gym does not advertise itself as a place to lose weight rapidly, instead emphasising better shape and tolerance. More importantly, Zhang said she wanted to create a community, where women could come whenever they needed to and feel emotionally supported.

“Sometimes when a family comes over, the dad will take the children to play and leave the mother in our gym,” she said.

Similar services are springing up in multiple cities, across a range of activities and interests. A search on social media turned up women-friendly spaces that included book clubs and hostels, as well as bars and gyms.

On their homepages, these venues overwhelmingly describe themselves as offering “tolerance, comfort, warmth”, and a place where “girls help girls” in a “safe space to express your feelings”.

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Most events are themed around feminist issues – one club in Chengdu, in southwest China, recently advertised a screening of a documentary about the US women’s soccer team’s fight for equal pay.

Not everyone intended to tailor their services for women when they started but gradually found there is a strong demand, as Xiaoli and Yanzi discovered when they opened a hostel called Cheer in 2023.

The two friends originally wanted female guests because the hostel – in Dali, in the southwestern province of Yunnan – had only one bathroom and it would be easier to clean.

But as they got to know more guests, they realised many intentionally sought out women-only rooms when travelling. Some were on a gap year, others were elderly, while some of their guests were women taking their mothers on a trip.

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Xiaoli and Yanzi started to improve the hostel with women’s needs in mind. They placed an emergency tampon box in the bathroom, added a make-up table in the common area, and upgraded the gate with security cameras.

They also made connections with their guests, including one woman who did not succeed in booking a room but visited the hostel several times.

She would sit in the hallway, knitting while watching a film. One afternoon, she even took a nap on a carpet in the common area, and left after waking up, Yanzi said. “She just came over and slept, like a cat. All her valuables were scattered around her.”

Yanzi said she felt touched, taking it as a sign that the guests trusted her, in a trust built on connection and mutual help between women.

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According to Pei Yuxin, sociology professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, southern China, the trend is on the rise because women are becoming more willing to protect their own feelings in a culture where men traditionally are the opinion leaders.

It was for these very reasons that Orange Li moved in with three other women last June, in a co-living project they called Scythia. “We wanted an environment where women can nourish each other … a relatively more honest, comfortable and safe environment,” she said.

At first, Li and another woman found themselves cooking for the entire household, leading to an exploration of how to fairly divide housework without falling into traditional gender roles.

The project did not last. After running for more than six months, Scythia had to close because of a lack of funding. Being all-women meant giving up half the potential market, and it had made operations difficult, Li said.

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She is trying other projects, including an online community that encourages women to “exchange their skills”, such as plumbing, and help each other.

Li said the project, though short, had been meaningful. By living together, the women at Scythia also established deep connections and tried to fix the shared traumas experienced by women in an East Asian patriarchy, she said.

One woman learned how to respond to praise – when growing up, she seldom received any. Another changed from always criticising others, realising that was how her family treated her.

Li said the women at Scythia did not wear make-up or comment on appearances and wore whatever felt comfortable. “It’s part of the healing process,” she said.

Zhang tells a similar story, of a client – large by societal standards – who said that trainers in other gyms often pushed her to lose weight. She added that she had never received such pressure at Modern Training, where she was supported to work with her own goals.

Pei, the sociology professor, said men had always had their clubs. “They could play ball together, drink together or sing karaoke together. But now women are starting to have it too.”

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