Gina Mei
April 14, 2015 5:20 am

For more than a month, the Chinese government have detained five women in Beijing after they attempted to organize a public awareness campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation for International Women’s Day. Their detainment was met with global outrage (and the birth of the hashtag #FreeTheFive), and as of late Monday night, the five women — Wang Man, Zheng Churan, Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, and Li Tingting (also known as Li Maizi) — have been released on bail “under a form of conditional release that still allows charges to be brought later,” The Guardian reports.

Their release is an important win, but not a total one: the five are still under close surveillance, and can still be convicted for their alleged crimes at any time. While the women were originally charged for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” the charge was later changed to “illegal assembly” and attempting to organize a crowd in order to “disturb public order“— which carries a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment. Their original plans for the protest were to pass out leaflets and stickers on public transportation in order to raise awareness about sexual harassment on trains and busses; and prosecutors have so far not pressed criminal charges.

“I’m not surprised at all because they’ve never committed any crimes,” Liang Xiaojun, Wu’s lawyer, told Reuters. “They’ve taken people into custody without any evidence of wrongdoing, so they have to release them.”

The women, now being referred to by some as the Feminist Five, will be monitored by the police for the next year, and are not allowed to travel without informing the authorities, the New York Times reports. Police can detain and interrogate them further at any time.

“Their release is not a victory — they are still on bail and still are suspects,” Liang told The Guardian. “Though released, the feminists’ activities are still being restricted and they are yet to gain their complete freedom.”

“Detaining people and locking them up for 37 days has now become a common practice for the police to put pressure on civil society,” he continued. “[It’s] a great threat to everyone who seeks social justice.”

The female activists’ detainment sparked an international discussion on women’s rights, and the right to protest and express your beliefs peacefully — and if the intention of the Chinese government was mostly to scare, it seems in some ways it has had the opposite effect.

“The Chinese feminists might have felt that they enjoyed a special freedom, but now they see the barbaric and brutal reality where every Chinese citizen, man or woman, is denied of basic political rights,” Wang Zheng, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Michigan said in an interview with ChinaChange.org. “This generation grew up in the last 20 and 30 years, most of them not keen on politics. But they are being politicized by this event.”

And women the world over have been equally roused by their unjust detainment. Just last week, even newly announced presidential candidate Hillary Clinton weighed in on the matter via Twitter, and Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement on behalf of the United States.

“Each and every one of us has the right to speak out against sexual harassment and the many other injustices that millions of women and girls suffer around the world each and every day,” Kerry said in the statement. “We strongly support the efforts of these activists to make progress on these challenging issues, and we believe that Chinese authorities should also support them, not silence them.”

Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman for China, rejected Kerry’s requests.

“We urge the United States to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs,” he said, according to The Guardian.

But the Feminist Five’s case has seemingly expanded beyond the domestic, and has raised questions of what should and should not be considered a universal right — particularly when it comes to those fighting for gender equality. Either way, we couldn’t be happier that the women are home at last, and we hope their case is completely resolved soon.

(Image via, via.)

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