Gina Mei
April 08, 2015 1:20 pm

Early last month, the Chinese police detained over 10 female activists in Beijing for planning a “public awareness campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation,” the New York Times reports. Five of those women — Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, and Li Tingting (also known as Li Maizi) — remain detained today, and the Internet is rallying in support of letting them go by taking to social media with the hashtag #FreeTheFive.

According to their lawyers, the women have been subjected to ruthless interrogation over the past month. They are being charged for arousing “social instability” and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” which carries a maximum five-year sentence that can be extended to ten years if the accused are deemed guilty of multiple offenses. The Times goes on to speculate that if not released this week, they will likely go to trial and be convicted — and many believe the detainment is more a message to activists than an actual exercise in carrying out the law.

“I think that this is a trend that we’re seeing a lot in general right now and not just with feminism,” Eric Fish, author of China’s Millennials, told NPR. “People have made the argument that there are things about feminism that irk the government, but it’s more, I think, their ability to organize people, not just in one location, but across the country.”

The arrest happened on the eve of International Women’s Day and just before the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, a United Nations conference that led to the creation of the Beijing Declaration and Beijing Platform for Action — both blueprints for how we could work to achieve global equality between men and women. It feels extra significant that the five would be arrested so close to this monumental event, and has many questioning China’s dedication to adhering to its promise by signing both documents in the first place.

“If China is committed to advancing the rights of women, then it should be working to address the issues raised by these women’s rights activists — not silencing them,” Samantha Power, American ambassador to the United Nations, told the New York Times.

But by and large, and perhaps most essentially, coverage on their detainment has instead brought attention to all of the amazing activism these women have done in the past. Rather than “rally” in the traditional sense, they have each taken part in protest of a different kind: via performance art. From donning white wedding dresses splattered in red paint in protest of domestic violence to shaving their heads in protest of higher education inequality, the five women are nothing if not creative in their means of outcry — and their political performance is now being brought to the global stage.

“They have been very successful in using performance to provoke social dialogue on gender issues,” Zeng Jinyan, a Chinese blogger and feminist activism student, told the New York Times. “I think we can call them the first modern, independent, feminist, grassroots actors in Chinese history.”

The attention has garnered comparisons to Pussy Riot, the feminist Russian punk rock activist group that was jailed in 2012 for their political demonstrations — and the women seem to be receiving a similar amount of global support. Many organizations around the world have publicly shown solidarity with the women, including prominent gender equality activist groups and — because two of the detainees are gay and a third bisexual — a few gay rights organizations have joined the cause, as well. Most notably, LGBT organization All Out has collected over 86,000 signatures for a petition demanding the women be released. Even Hillary Clinton has thrown her hat into the ring, and tweeted that the detainment was “inexcusable.”

Supporters have also begun to take photos of themselves in various locations worldwide wearing masks of the detained women’s faces, and the resulting photos have proven to be a beautiful and empowering visual.

“We’re doing it to show solidarity with the women’s rights advocates that were arrested without any legitimate reason,” one of the masked activists told Asia Society. “They’ve done so much to promote women’s rights and they’re trying to make this country a better place with more gender equality. . . We want the five women to know that there are many people supporting them and we also want to show that it is impossible to arrest all feminist activists.”

We couldn’t be more inspired by all the incredible female activists who have rallied in the five detained women’s support — and here’s hoping that the very public nature of their detainment means they are released soon (as was the case with Pussy Riot). For now, you can join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #FreeTheFive. And to the five women detained, 女权无罪. 我们和你在一起.

(Images via, via, via.)