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protester of the Occupy Central movement, sits on a divider used by demonstrators to block the main road leading to the financial Central district in Hong Kong October 9, 2014
Reuters/Tyrone Siu
Not just sitting pretty.

The Umbrella Movement marks a coming of age for Hong Kong’s “princess” generation

By Lily Kuo & Heather Timmons

HONG KONG—Willis Ho, 23, is probably not who you picture when you think of a democracy protester who has been arrested three times in the last four months. In a light blouse, shorts and flip flops, she has her hair pulled back in a neat bun and is wearing circle contact lenses that give her a doe-eyed look. “I don’t care how people see me, or about my crime record,” Ho told Quartz. “If we are doing civil disobedience, it is something correct.”

Ho, a philosophy major at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University and part of one of the student groups behind the demonstrations, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, grew up near Mong Kok, the most combative of the city’s pro-democracy protest sites. She’s spent most nights on the streets for the past seven weeks, not counting the one she spent in jail after storming the government headquarters in late September. She isn’t alone—thousands of young women are a core part of the protests, organizing everything from food and water distribution to communications—and also appearing on the front lines.

Willis Ho
Ho speaking at protests in Hong Kong.

In fact, young women are playing a greater role in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests than any other political event since the city’s return to China from British control in 1997, according to social scientists, former student activists, and academics studying the demonstrations. These include stay-at-home mothers ferrying in supplies, secondary students spearheading art projects, environmentalists running the massive recycling efforts, medical students staffing the first aid tents, and goggles-wearing agitators. “When it comes to extreme situations like pepper spray or strong reaction by police, there are no differences between male and female,” Ho said. “Even though it’s dangerous, they go to the front lines because they know that Hong Kong belongs to all of us.”

Their passionate participation belies a demeaning nickname applied to Hong Kong’s young women in recent years: “gong nui.” It literally means “Hong Kong girl” but in practice describes a “princess” who is “self-absorbed, demanding and materialistic” and suffers from the so-called “princess syndrome.” For most young women in Hong Kong, the tag was always unfair, but the Umbrella Movement has thoroughly upended the insult.

A protester sits under a tent as she helps to block an area around the government headqu
Reuters/Carlos Barria
A protester in Admiralty.

On the ground and in the tents

The main protest site at Admiralty in the center of the city is well-organized hive, with tents in rows, a recycling center, study corner, a library, and constantly expanding art exhibits.

Women who have been at the protests say they’re sometimes relegated to support roles—running logistics, keeping things clean and, when confrontations have happened, sticking in the background or playing peacemaker.

But, mostly they say, they don’t care. “Men enjoy protecting women,” explained Jennie, a petite 20-year-old wearing a face mask, a camouflage t-shirt, pink lipstick and perfectly applied eyeliner. Whatever the role, she said she’s committed. “If there’s a movement in the future, I will join too,” she said. Women have the “same voice and the same vote,” she said, and are going to share their opinions.

On many occasions, male protest organizers and pro-democracy lawmakers have completely dominated the media spotlight:

Women at the protests shrug that off too. “The role of women here is to decide the direction of this movement, same as the men,” said Shek, 20, a long-haired, apple-cheeked protester who was part of a small group camped outside the nearby government headquarters. Like many of young protesters here, male and female, she still lives with her parents. They’re glad she’s participating, she adds, even going so far as to bring her supplies and soap.

Women are often more passionate supporters of the cause. “Some of these women are willing to fight with their last breath, and I have not heard the guys say the same thing.” said W.W., a 30-year-old man wearing a plastic rain poncho who seemed to be the informal leader of a group of protesters guarding a makeshift blockade outside the government headquarters. “They’re the first to step up and help out.”

A generation finds its voice

Quartz/Heather Timmons
Women at the Umbrella Movement protests.

When student activists took their seats across from government officials Hong Kong during a televised debate on Oct 21, there was only one woman protester present—Yvonne Leung, a 21-year-old government and politics student, wearing dark, thick rimmed glasses and a plain black t-shirt with the words “Freedom now.” Still, she confidently pressed officials, all but one of them men decades her senior.

“It is the Hong Kong government who is giving up its responsibility. It has the constitutional duty to fight for a democratic reform proposal for Hong Kong and then pass it to the legislature to vote,” she said, speaking quickly and forcefully, arguing against the government’s oft-cited claim that reversing Beijing’s strict rules on how Hong Kong will elect its top official would be unconstitutional. “You should not sit and do nothing,” Leung concluded. After she spoke, cheers erupted from the thousands of demonstrators watching the talks live on television from the Admiralty protest site.

“Even though it’s dangerous, they go to the front lines because they know that Hong Kong belongs to all of us.”

It is a stark contrast to what the city was watching just two years ago, when Hong Kong’s most popular television show, “Bride Wannabe,” followed five unmarried Hong Kong women as they endured cosmetic surgery, life coaches, and vapid advice in an attempt to get themselves married off.

Seventeen-year-old Agnes Chow, a former spokesperson for Scholarism, one of the main student groups organizing the protests, told Quartz she believes that one consequence of the Umbrella Movement is that more women will take up leadership roles in Hong Kong’s male-dominated political sphere.

“Everyone is kind of equal here. So many females have already taken a role in the protests,” she said, speaking outside of government offices where protesters had camped out. “Definitely. I think women can have higher participation.”

More opportunities, and more pressure, than ever before

Hong Kong women in their late teens and early twenties have it, in many ways, better than any women in the history of the city. Over 26% of the Hong Kong women over the age of 60 didn’t even go to primary school, according to the 2013 census (pdf, pg. 85), compared to 8% of the men, which reflects the huge numbers of immigrants from China when girls were not educated. Higher education, even a generation ago, was a luxury.

A protester reacts as she is dragged away by police after storming in government headquarters in Hong Kon
Reuters/Bobby Yip
A protester being arrested after storming the government headquarters in September.

“My mother is one of eight,” explained Gigi, a PhD student at the Admiralty protest. “The first child was clever, but she was a girl, and the family was poor. She gave up her chance to be educated for her brother, and he went to [Hong Kong University], became a translator and is quite rich,” she said. He emigrated to Canada. His older sister lives in Hong Kong and married a taxi driver. Today, that wouldn’t happen, she said—in fact, her parents blessed her studies, despite the fact that she has two younger brothers. “I’m taking the resources of my family,” she said.

In this current academic year, 54% of Hong Kong’s college undergraduates are female (census, pg. 97), as are about half of the post-graduates.

Hong Kong ranks third in East Asia in terms of female participation in the workforce at 50.9%, a figure that’s boosted by foreign domestic workers, or “helpers” that take care of children and elderly family in wealthier families—one in every eight households has a helper. And unmarried women are now participating in Hong Kong’s workforce at a greater rate than unmarried men:

Just as in the protests, though (and just like in most of the rest of the world), that doesn’t mean women are getting the top jobs, or making as much money as men. Women in Hong Kong earn 20% less than their male counterparts (compared to 16% less globally), make up 11% of the directors on its publicly traded boards, and ran none of the 40 largest Asia Pacific companies based in Hong Kong last year.

They’ve also been shouldering the blame for the city’s quickly diminishing birth rates, which are transforming Hong Kong into a city that will be 50% senior citizens in less than 30 years. Hong Kong’s decreased fertility can be blamed on an “increase in spinsterhood,” the government said, citing the rising age of marriage for women (and overlooking the fact that man are getting married later too, and at an even older age).

Still better than the Mainland

The United Nations gender development index, which looks at health, education and living standards, ranks Hong Kong about the same as the Netherlands and Singapore on the basis of equality between men and women, while mainland China ranks considerably lower, at about the level of Mexico and Cyprus.

“The people don’t want the woman to stand…the family, they will be horrified.” – Emily Lau, head of the Hong Kong Democratic Party.

In mainland China, the percentage of women in the National People’s Congress, the country’s nearly 3,000-member national legislature, a figure that remained virtually unchanged at 21.2% from 1978 (p. 137) to 2012, but increased slightly last year to 23%. Women make up less than 10% of officials ministerial rank or higher, a figure that hasn’t changed since 1982 (p. 139) and there has never been a woman in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top governing body, since the communist republic was established in 1949.

In Hong Kong, things are better, but not great—out of 70 Legislative Council (LegCo) members, only 11 are women or about 16%. Women make up just 14% of the 1,162 member Election Committee responsible for naming the city’s top executive as of the end of 2013, according to the Hong Kong election commission.

By contrast, in Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines, at least 20% of lawmakers are women. Both the governments of South Korea and Thailand have been led by women, yet Hong Kong has never seen a woman nominated for the city’s top political office of chief executive.

A woman meditates at a protest site after clashes between anti-occupy Central demonstrators and pro-democracy protesters near the government
Reuters/Carlos Barria
A woman meditates behind a barricade facing police in central Hong Kong.

Women in Hong Kong are often held back by family members, according to Emily Lau, the first woman to be elected to LegCo in 1991. “The reason is that the people don’t want the woman to stand,” Lau told Quartz. “The family, they will be horrified. They think, this is not something for you. You’ve got housework, you’ve got the elderly, the baby, and everything to look after. How can you go and stand for election? If a man were to stand, they would not think the man would have all [these obligations].”

Exhaustion, sexism and assault

Few expected the Umbrella Movement protests to last this long, and the pressure has weighed heavily on some of the young female participants. Just three weeks after the Umbrella Movement started, Chow stepped down as the group’s official spokesperson, citing physical and psychological exhaustion. “I’m sorry, but I’m only seventeen years old,” she said in a public resignation message.

The undercurrent is there, the gender expectation that for women their role belongs at home.

In some cases, it is difficult for the young women involved in the democracy movement to be seen as more than symbols of femininity. Photos circulate that compare Chow and Leung, the student negotiator, in terms of their potential as a wife or girlfriend, and one article on the male-dominated web forum Hong Kong Golden asks readers to vote in the “democracy goddess election,” writing “First on the list is Agnes Chow, who is not only brave and a leader, but also really adorable.” (Chow also has a Facebook page dedicated to her that calls her the “goddess of democracy.”)

“Solidarity has not emerged at the protests beside that of class,” Cheng Sealing, an expert on gender and activism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Quartz. “The focus on women as sex objects and to incorporate that into political language and everyday speech is quite common … you have to ask how women can be properly seen as leaders and not always associated as a sexualized symbol.”

Hong Kong Golden
Student leaders Yvonne Leung and Agnes Chow (right.)

Gender has become an issue for those protesting against the umbrella movement as well. Female protesters have been sexually assaulted by anti-occupy residents; one video of a woman being violently grabbed by an older man went viral. “It suddenly exposed that level of hostility to girls and young women, ” said Maya Wong, a researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch. “The undercurrent is there, the gender expectation that for women their role belongs at home. If they stand up in public, they should stand back.”

There are women at the protests that are pushing back against these images. Last month, the Hong Kong chapter of Slutwalk held an event to raise awareness of rape culture and also protest against the assault on protesters. In Mong Kok, the site of most of these attacks, demonstrators set up an area for female protesters to practice self defense.

Cheng Sealing
In Mong Kok, protesters set up a small “Girls pump up area.”

For women of older generations, these protests signal progress. Heidi Lung, 60, spoke with Quartz while standing with her 25-year-old daughter among a crowd of protesters in Admiralty as student leaders prepared to speak on stage. “In my generation in the 1960s, most of the people were always pro-government. But now, this younger generation, they make use of the internet and gather a crowd,” she said. “It’s much easier for this generation to speak out.”