Women across China are getting into the ‘Whip It!’ spirit all in the name of gender equality. It’s hard to find a sport played internationally that is female-dominated, so it’s no surprise that one of them, roller derby, is increasingly becoming a platform to push female empowerment ideals. UN Women’s He For She campaign certainly has recognized this and decided to use that platform for a gender equality event on May 3 in Beijing.
Amateur teams from Shangai, and Bangkok, Thailand, competed in an exhibition match as part of the International HeForShe Roller Derby Invitational. China’s largest roller derby organization partnered with UN Women in order to “shine the Olympic spirit on gender equality”.
Writer Adele Pavlidis from Theconversation.com points out that a lot of the Chinese roller derby members are ex-pats, but more and more Chinese nationals are joining teams.
“There are a growing number of Chinese women who see the sport as an opportunity to challenge gender norms,” she said.
In an interview with Time Out Beijing, one of the Beijing Roller Derby skaters expressed how the derby, although dominated by women, has a strong view on gender equality and is a co-ed league, which is something other sporting events don’t necessarily show.
“Unlike men’s football where you rarely get female referees and officials, Beijing Roller Derby promotes equality between men and women in a female-dominated sport,” she said.
Roller Derby has only been around in China since the mid-2000s, but has since spread across the country, and to Hong Kong and Thailand. Today there are tens of thousands of derby players worldwide, and although it is mostly seen as a fun sport, it is heading toward being recognized as an official competitive sporting event.
An article in The Daily Dot talks about how a couple of “misfit” expats Jay Latarche and Annie Migli (who both moved to China for work), were the masterminds behind the Beijing Roller Derby, and how they drew upon their own experience in the derby in their home countries to bring this sport to China.
Jay was involved in her local roller derby in Milton Keynes, UK, and Annie was a member of the San Angelo derby team. Initially they reached out to other expats from Australian, US and UK embassies, then expanded their search to recruit local Chinese players. Not having the advantage of a central roller derby organization to tap into, the women relied on social media platforms to spread the word and publicize what they were doing.
The UN Women/Beijing Roller Derby event was the perfect mix of “athleticism and feminism”, according to Adele Pavlidis, showing the Beijing community how the sport has become the perfect platform to challenge narrow gender ideals in China. Some participants shared how the resistance toward women in positions of power or authority in an arena that is not huge in China, is very present.
“I did mention to my father at one stage that I was really busy doing lots of different things and he was coming from a point of view of maybe you should stop the skating, so he’s not entirely behind it,” said one young woman.
“The idea of a woman being athletic is strange but the idea of a woman being athletic hitting another woman is also out of this world,” said another skater.
The idea behind partnering with UN Women’s He For She campaign is to draw attention to China’s groundbreaking new domestic violence law, a first of is kind in the country, and encourage more men to understand that it is their responsibility to also speak up for victims of violence.
There has been a lot of resistance toward a law like this, seen very clearly in the treatment of the group of Chinese feminists who were jailed for launched protests raising awareness about domestic violence and sexual harassment. With international media attention and advocacy for the girls online, the girls were eventually released and we are seeing just how impactful their efforts have been on this issue.
Calling oneself a “feminist” in China is still a risky thing to do, writes Adele who visited China in November 2015 and spoke to some of the roller derby members personally, but the growth of a sport like roller derby has allowed women to express their ideas about equality in a unique way.
“The partnership between UN Women and Beijing Roller Derby demonstrates the potential of derby, in giving Chinese women the opportunity to experience empowerment and express alternative forms of gender. Seeing women on roller skates knocking each other down, however athletically, is a far cry from the images of successful female gymnasts or swimmers usually seen in China,” she writes.
There are some very conservative and traditional pressures put on women in China, despite the emancipation of women especially under communist leader Mao Zedong, who famously declared “women make up half the sky” and pushed for the equality of women in public life.
“In China, despite women’s emancipation and important role in civic life, gender inequality continues, with pressures for women to marry, and very particular standards for beauty and acceptable leisure choices. Yet the women I spoke to who are involved in derby, said that feminist ideas around gender fluidity, equality, democracy and empowerment were an important part of the sport,” said Adele.
This single event is representative of how the sport itself is growing worldwide. In the US, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association organization was started in 2005 and is now the international governing body of women’s flat track roller derby. Their mission is to promote the sport as well as foster goodwill among participants. Their philosophy is “by the skaters, for the skaters”, but one of the coolest aspects of the sport is how female skaters are primary owners, managers, and/or operators of each member league and of the association. They have over 300 professional leagues.
Across the pond, the UK Roller Derby Association began in 2006 and today has over 90 leagues across the country. There are national derby associations across the world, and teams also compete in the Roller Derby World Cup (the next one is in 2017) which began in 2011.
While there are many co-ed leagues, along with female-only or female-dominated teams, the fact that the sport is growing with recognition of being a platform that can carry with it an idea of gender equality and female empowerment in a way that other more established male-dominated sports cannot is what excites us about the growth in interest. If the Chinese roller derby leagues are any indication of what we may see more of in the sport, we hope it will continue to be an event that will continue to give women a voice in their communities.
Learn more about the LA Derby Dolls team from Los Angeles and how the feminist Riot Grrrl scene influenced the players who are involved today: