Yesterday while on the way to the hair salon, a 20-minute walk from the DFID office in downtown Beijing, I was stopped by several strangers asking me for the directions to the labour market. I can figure out from their outfits and accents that they are young rural women who are coming to Beijing to realise their dreams. Their eyes are bright and cheeks red under the chilly wind, shy but extremely happy. I watched their backs, history tells me that someday, one of them will be a millionaire.
At the doorway, I can hear the giggling inside. It must be the girls’ gossip session. I rush into the room, and bump into Xiao Li, whose job is to greet customers. The young girl seems so happy to see me and unable to resist her curiosity, asks: "Ping, if your husband sleeps with another woman, will you divorce him?" Fully prepared to answer any unexpected questions from those lovely girls, who left their rural hometowns, trying to pursue bright futures in the big cities, I still can not hide my surprise. Raising my eyebrows, I say, "Well, that depends". My answer upsets the girl so much that her mouth opens wildly. "But, you are a girl from the big city, I would have thought that all urban women will say yes."
Apparently, the exchanges have drawn the attention of another girl who is having a pedicure. She shrugs her shoulders and says "Oh, young girl, why should I give a chance to another woman who will sleep with my husband, live in my apartment and beat my children? I will not divorce as long as he still cares about me!"
"What is your opinion? Xiao Wang?" As a DFID programme manger, and backing DFID’s ambitions of seeking rights for vulnerable women and girls, I know that I should give extra attention and respect to the people from less developed areas. Otherwise, they may just keep smiling and say nothing.
"Well, if things happened five years ago, I might just close my eyes since I need my husband’s money to support the family. But, now I can earn money myself, I will be sure to divorce him" says Xiao Wang.
"But, how about the children - what if your husband wants to have custody of the children?" The question is apparently out of the thinking zone of Xiao Wang. She turns to me as if I am her rescue.
"No worries, I've seen legal programmes on TV. If the husband is unfaithful, he can not have custody of the children, and we can always get help from the women’s federation or go to the court." Xiao Lei, who came to Beijing three years ago from western Gansu, suddenly stands up and is filled with courage at this reply.
In this diversified and dynamic society, it is hard to judge the merits of each answer. But I am quite amused to see that we now live in such a tolerant society. Divorce, which was such a stigma ten years ago, now becomes a casual topic. Women, urban or rural, become more confident in expressing themselves and in challenging the existing system. Although disparities still exist, you can feel the courage and ambitions of the rural women, who are working in big cities as immigrant workers, embracing changes everyday. And women are no longer shy from seeking help from the Women’s Federation or come to the TV talk shows to complain about domestic abuse and fight for their rights!
The debate is getting more heated. "I will divorce him straight away. Why should I waste my time living with a man who betrayed our love? I have the right to pursue my new life and I am quite confident that I can do so. We should enjoy marriage for pleasure and not for the sake of marriage itself." Wang, who dropped out of school at 15, is now studying at the night school for business, looks as if she is the judge herself.
Nearly half of the girls in the room nod their heads in agreement.
"I will stay with my husband since I love him so much. I cannot live without him." Xiao Yun, a newly wed wife, expresses her devotion to her husband, but all the other women pull faces.
"How I wish I could marry you," Mr hairdresser says and looks very content with Xiao Yun’s expression.
My mind suddenly flies over to the girls and women who are the beneficiaries of DFID’s programmes in poor areas of China. The questions I always ask them are: have DFID programmes helped you to go to school? Do you now have the same access as men to TB/HIV treatment? Have you benefited from the capacity building programme that enables you to higher positions as female representatives? May be next time, I should change my question a bit and ask ….
"Ping, excuse me…." The barber looks at me with a big smile and draws my mind back, "Ping, believe me, I will make you one of the prettiest girls in town so that your husband will always be with you." "Promise?" "It's a deal!"
Well, as long as women can make their own decisions, and have the equal rights with men when it comes to access to education, health and career opportunities, divorce surely will not sabotage a woman’s life. What we need to do is fight for our rights and follow our true passion.