Ye Haiyan – Feminist Hooligan

‘A good system is achieved by people’s efforts,’ says Ye Haiyan. The activist, also known as Hooligan Sparrow, considers herself one of the people who will have to change China’s system. She stands up for the rights of women and girls in her homeland – despite the consequences for her freedom.

Activist Ye Haiyan says she is rather optimistic about all she achieved in recent years. ‘Officials treat us differently now. They tend to be softer.’ Ye says this, however, right after mentioning that there are two men standing next to her to listen in on the call. This isn’t anything she hasn’t experienced before. Threats, interrogations and being followed are part of her life.

For over ten years, she has been standing up for the rights of sex workers. She became most well known by her campaigns on the island of Hainan where she demanded attention for a school principle who raped six teenage girls. He might have gotten away with it by framing it as prostitution, if it weren’t for Ye’s efforts.

The (semi) nude pictures that were often part of her campaigns have caused a stir in Chinese media more than once. ‘At first it was only a personal matter and I didn’t look for any response. Later it became a way to show that people couldn’t get to me.’ It wasn’t about seeking attention, Ye claims. That changed when she realized her message was widely spread because of its shocking effect.

Since that time, she was chased out of several cities as a persona non grata. This unstable life was especially hard on her teenage daughter, she says. ‘Yaxin is now afraid of strangers, and she constantly thinks someone is watching us.’ Her daughter is the reason things have been quiet around Ye Haiyan for the past year or two. ‘I know sacrifices are needed if we want to succeed, but as a mother I have the responsibility to take care of my daughter. I can’t give her up.’

Ye finds some consolation in the idea that it wasn’t all for nothing. Social awareness has grown, these past years. On the Internet, Chinese discuss political issues, and criticizing men who rape is no longer taboo. However, there is still no freedom of speech. Ye hopes that government officials will start communicating more rationally with people whose ideas they don’t like, instead of simply arresting anyone.

Sometimes she considers fleeing the country; the freedom with which colleagues like Ai Weiwei can work, is tempting. But Ye rather stays. ‘A good system is achieved by the people’s efforts. Another country’s system may be better, but its own people achieved it. How could I just go and enjoy their system? Maybe things will improve in some years. If I am somewhere else, I will not see it happen.’

By Eefje Rammeloo