Female students in the southern city of Guangzhou have shaved their heads in outrage at what they say is gender discrimination in the highly competitive national university applications process.
Guangzhou university hopeful Ouyang Le staged an art installation recently in which a number of women had their heads shaved and read out a letter to the education ministry in Beijing after she was rejected from a university using gender-specific criteria.
"I am trying to get into university and I filled in my choice for my specialty [at the International Relations Institute]," Ouyang told RFA's Mandarin service in a recent interview.
While Ouyang's results in the national university entrance exam were above the threshold set by the university for male students, they fell below the threshold set for female applicants, she said.
"So I failed," said Ouyang, who said she was furious at the unequal standards based on students' gender.
She was joined by four other women from Beijing, Guangdong and Jiangsu after posting about her rejection on the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo.
The ministry responded by confirming that a number of specialist colleges restricted the number of female applicants "based on national interests."
"The education ministry ... told me that there are some specialist schools and institutes that are allowed to do this ... because they are classed as special professions," Ouyang said.
While Ouyang's results are still good enough to get her into other schools on her list of choices, she said she wanted to highlight the issue through the art installation, so that other women wouldn't be treated in the same way.
"In Cantonese dialect, 'shaved' has the meaning of empty-handed and impoverished," she said. "This is our response to the education ministry; a protest that says they may as well have not spoken."
She called on the ministry to make public details of exactly which professions were considered "special," to the extent that the institutions offering training were allowed to practice such blatant gender bias.
Calls to the education ministry and the Guangzhou branch of the All China Women's Federation went unanswered during office hours last week.
Ai Xiaoming, a Guangzhou-based professor of literature and gender studies, said she fully supported the womens' protest.
"Actually, they got quite a lot of media attention," Ai said. "The women who took part were in their teens and 20s, and when they get together and start talking about gender discrimination, they are capable of having a very big impact."
Ai said that the setting of separate academic standards for men and women was a clear case of gender discrimination, which China has pledged to eliminate under United Nations protocols on discrimination to which it is a signatory.
She said many of her students had written about gender discrimination in Chinese society during assignments in her classes.
"One male student wrote that his older sister had dropped out of college and got herself a factory job in Shenzhen, just to enable him to go to university," Ai said.
"There was also a story about an abandoned female baby, and about discrimination against women in the labor market."
Meanwhile, Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Tang Jingling said the women's protest was a good example of peaceful non-cooperation at work.
"The system itself is synonymous with power," Tang said. "But it can be changed through culture."
"Only a system that concerns itself with justice will be able to erase the last traces of this culture of discrimination."
China's ruling Communist Party has promoted gender equality since it came to power in 1949—in theory, at least. But women and rights campaigners say the reality is very different on the ground.
Discrimination in the workplace still presents major obstacles to equality for Chinese women, according to Chinese women and social commentators.
Chinese women face major barriers to finding work in the graduate labor market and fear getting pregnant if they have a job, out of concern their employer will fire them—a common practice despite protection on paper offered by China's Labor Law.
Reported by Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.