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I.M.O.W. Team

The Other Half of the Sky

Photographs by Lili Almog

Photographer Lili Almog presents an intimate look at women in today's China, and explores how this society is grappling with the challenge of blending modernity with deeply embedded cultural traditions. Almog traveled through rural Central China, photographing women in their domestic and work environments, and examined how the rapid modernization of Chinese society is changing women's economic opportunities along with their cultural traditions.

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Photographs by Lili Almog

Women's Changing Roles in China

The Communist Revolution, with its vision of the nobility of physical labor and emphasis on gender equality, left its mark on women's personal identities in a changing China. The Communist Party came to power in 1949 with, among many other utopian resolves, the vow to liberate Chinese women from millennia of "feudal" subordination. Female citizens were to be equal partners with men in a redeemed land where opportunities to serve the collective good would be abundant and women would have legal rights identical to those of men. As Mao Zedong famously stated, "Women hold up half the sky." Women in Communist China would be true partners to men.

Reality, of course, was a different matter. Within the Party--with such notable exceptions as Mao's fourth wife, the former Shanghai actress Jiang Qing, head of the powerful Gang of Four--women labored dutifully but seldom attained high rank. Granted, many gender abuses of the past were curtailed or eliminated (foot binding, domestic servitude, concubinage), yet the freedom that women attained was primarily that of working side by side with men of low or middling station. Politically, women have not made the inroads that the Party once promised. No women serve in the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party, a regression from the previous 40 years and an indication that women's voices are not being heard at these upper levels of government. However, greater equality in education did pave the way for a higher level of self-sufficiency in the post-Mao economic upsurge of the past 30 years.

Socially, many women in today's China have returned to more traditional practices. Duty to family and the social pressure to marry and reproduce remain paramount for most Chinese women. And the one-child policy, instituted in 1979 to slow population growth, has somewhat dampened their independence and self-worth. The ingrained preference for a male heir has fostered countless abortions and the widespread abandonment of female infants, many of whom have been adopted in the West. Because of these policies and practices, men now outnumber women in China by 20 million.

The Other Half of the Sky: Women in Rural China Today

Knowing the background of women in China, I wanted to depict the individualism of Chinese women in both domestic and work environments. Although previously my photographic practice has focused on women and their private spaces, given the nature of China today, and the conflict between the private self and society, I wanted to present intimate portraits of the "unseen women"--the culture of minority women--as an expression of the dignity and heroism of the private self reflected through time and culture.

The women I photographed are mostly part of ethnic subcultures in rural central China. In this region, agriculture is the main industry, and women are fully expected to work in the fields. Most of them work with very basic tools, using only animals or simple hand tools to farm the land. Most of the areas that I visited in Western China were closed territories until the late 1980s, and many of the people (both men and women) were essentially peasants before the Communist revolution in the 1940s: most were illiterate, had no formal education, and lived without electricity.

Since then, change has come slowly. It took until the 1990s for children to begin attending regional school, and most villages now have electricity but still lack running water. There are more and more signs of contemporary and traditional cultures overlapping: Many homes have television sets, traditional religious dresses are worn over Levis and Keds, and cell phones are ubiquitous. Because of the lack of economic opportunity, many young people from the villages leave and move to bigger cities in order to work and support their family. It is obvious that this culture is changing rapidly, and it's only a matter of time before this world catches up with the West.

Muslim Women

I also focused on the everyday lives of minority religious women with an emphasis on the extraordinary situation of Muslim women in China. As a multi-national country, China presents a rich tapestry of minority cultures of women. Each nation has a traditional culture of its own. In Yunnan (western China), the province with the highest number of minorities, there is tremendous mutual support and inspiration among the women of different nationalities. The women I photographed expressed their individualism in the clothing they choose to wear.

The images of minority women in my photographs create an intimate portrait of Chinese female identity. Chinese Muslim women are one such minority group: In China, Islam is unique from Islam in other countries, especially in its treatment of women. A unique feature of Islam in China is the power and presence of female imams who lead women-only mosques. Female imams (Nu Ahong) and exclusively female mosques (Nu Si) play a distinctive role in China. In the province of Ningxia, the heartland of Islam in China, Muslim women pray and celebrate together, and female imams teach other women the Koran. In both group and solitary moments, Chinese Islamic women are passionately traditional, yet firmly enmeshed in modern society. Their religious and domestic expressions have resulted in images that are vibrant and colorful and also profoundly moving.

Mosuo Women

Another minority group that I met was the Mosuo. These women most clearly embody the effects of modernity upon a traditionally isolated society. My portraits of Mosuo women reveal women who are extremely traditional, yet firmly enmeshed in modern society. Their religious and domestic appearance is a blend of modern components mixed with expressions of traditional values. Although their living conditions are humble, these women exhibit a sense of self-empowerment and exude confidence.

The Mosuo women come from a unique matriarchal society situated by the beautiful Lugu Lake in Western China. Up until the mid 1980s, the Mosuo people were completely isolated from western society. There is no marriage system within the Mosuo people. Open relationships are widely accepted, and the children that are born into these relationships stay with their mother. In this society, the women hold the property and authority and the family structure is based entirely on mother power.

Although it may sound bizarre to a Westerner, anthropologists say that because the men in this society control no land, have no power, and play subservient sexual roles, they have nothing to fight over, making this one of the most harmonious societies in the world. The Mosuo people, an ethnic population of about 50,000 in western China, have no word for war, murder, rape, and jail.

But this world is changing rapidly. It is not going to take much longer for these minority women to change their appearance and move to regular apartments; they are completely open to technology and the flow of communication with the western world. But creating new "modern" values will take longer and will be much more difficult and confusing. Discarding or altering traditions is a long and uneven process. Looking at these portraits, part of me that does not appreciate this change, and would like to leave "the rough and pastoral picture" the way it is. I suspect some of these women may feel the same way.

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