Chinese Internet giants in sexism row over Women's day 'doodles'

China detains activists ahead of Women's day
China detains activists ahead of Women's day

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Story highlights

  • International Women's Day doodles stir controversy in China
  • Baidu and Youku depict women as girls, brides and mothers
  • Feminist activists held by police over the weekend

(CNN)A ballerina dancing in a music box and a girl sat in an armchair drinking tea surrounded by flowers.

This is how two of China's most popular websites chose to celebrate International Women's Day Sunday, unleashing a storm of criticism, especially on social media, which ridiculed their home page "doodles" as sexist stereotypes.
    "May the world treat you gently," the video-sharing site Youku told its female users.
    Search engine Baidu had no explicit message for its visitors, but the rotating ballerina turned into a bride and then a mom with a stroller.
    A screenshot of Baidu's homepage on March, 8. 2015.
    Internet users were quick to point out how the efforts of Baidu, China's biggest search engine, and Youku, dubbed China's YouTube, contrasted with global rival Google.
    Its doodle depicted women in several different professions, including a scientist, artist, astronaut, chef, musician, teacher and volleyball player.
    "This is how you define women and celebrate them!" said Weibo user @Zoexiaoyizi of Baidu's music box.
    "Google's doodle just makes their stupidity even worse."
    Guo Weiqing, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said that the companies' choice of imagery suggested that women are there only to be taken care of and look pretty -- and the real world of business should be left to men.
    "Internet companies conveying such a narrow definition of women isn't good. It's exactly the opposite of the International Women's Day mission, which is fighting for gender equality," he told CNN.
    Baidu and Youku didn't immediately respond to calls for comment.

    Activists detained

    The doodle uproar came as Chinese authorities detained several women right's activists this weekend. Some of them had planned to hold a nationwide protest against sexual harassment.
    On Monday, five were still being held police, said an activist and a friend of the women, who asked not to be identified. Beijing traditionally cracks down on activists during important meetings like this week's National People's Congress (NPC).
    "In other countries, doing such things on International Women's Day is natural, while in China you get detained for fighting for women's rights," she said.
    "Everything we've done is mild and done legally -- we call for gender equality in the college entrance exam and more toilet spots for women," she added.

    More discrimination?

    Under Chairman Mao Zedong, women famously "held up half the sky" but there is a growing sense that Chinese women today face more, not less, discrimination than in the past.
    The New York Times reported last month that women make up fewer than one in 10 board members at the country's top 300 companies.
    And China's state-run media often appears more concerned with women's looks and marital status than equal rights.
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    Showing the same tin ear as Baidu and Youku, the People's Daily, the Communist Party's official newspaper, published an online gallery entitled "Beauty with brains."
    It featured 18 snapshots of female journalists covering the NPC in Beijing this week.
    And during the Lunar New Year holidays last month, a television gala watched by 690 million people included comedy skits mocking overweight and unmarried women.
    Incensed feminists called for an end to the annual televised extravaganza in an online petition.
    Just weeks earlier, Zhou Guoping, an influential writer, enraged many when he said that "a man can have thousands of ambitions but a woman only one" -- to give birth.
    Guo, the professor, said that more and more women aren't happy with the gender roles Chinese society ascribes to them, and this year's string of "sexist incidents" reflects men's concerns that women aren't as "feminine" as they once were.
    "They hope women will return to the way they're supposed to be."