Summer of the Balaclava-Wearing Women
You’d think summer would be the last time anyone would be thinking about balaclavas — but not this summer.
China: Balaclava as Beachwear
To make sure they do not acquire a tan associated with peasants, some middle-class Chinese women have been sporting balaclavas at the beach. A New York Times article describes what must be a surreal sight, women with pink, white and variously colored ski masks made of swimsuit material in the surf in Qingdao, in China’s eastern Shandong province.
58-year-old Yao Wenhua, a retired bus driver, simply says that she is “scared of getting dark.” She and other beach-going females in balaclavas clearly attest to a traditional Chinese saying, “Fair skin conceals a thousand flaws.”
While a gynecologist, Sun Li, describes the face masks as “over the top,” she seems equally wary of the sun as she wears “a sun hat, sunglasses, a polka-dot surgical mask, a long-sleeve shirt and lace gloves” while on the beach, sits under an umbrella and has a shirt covering her legs. Other women sit under camping tents (though these are illegal on the beach) and wear wet suits.
While all this may seem very odd to Westerners who worship the sun (at the expense of sunburns and skin cancer, admittedly), I wasn’t surprised to read about the beach balaclavas or that women in cities wield parasols, cover their faces with tinted visors or scarves and sheath their arms and hands in sleeves and gloves. Years ago, I spent a summer in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and saw women wearing the sleeves, gloves, half-face-masks (the kind surgeons wear) and more outside. As a third-generation Chinese American raised in northern California, I stood out wearing tank tops and shorts and not minding getting a deep tan.
Russia: Pussy Riot, Balaclavas and a Powerful Idea
Balaclavas on beach-going Chinese women can be seen as symbols of women’s oppression. In a very different context and in a different (though equally authoritarian) country, balaclava-wearing women represent something quite the opposite, a potent example of women in protest against oppression. I’ve been fascinated by the fearlessness of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, three of whose members are now on trial for performing in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on February 21 after an anti-Putin protest.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich face seven years in prison. They are part of a collective of more than ten women including two others who also performed at the cathedral and have gone into hiding. The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr interviewed some of the band’s members who were not arrested
Although they’re not the imprisoned women, they don’t have to be. That’s the intention of the balaclavas – they’re meant to be anonymous, indivisible, representative. It doesn’t matter which of them got arrested. That’s the point – that they’re not individuals, they’re an idea. And that’s the thing that has gripped Russia and caught the attention of the rest of the world, too: that the Russian government has gone and arrested an idea and is prosecuting through the courts with a vindictiveness the Russian people haven’t before seen. An idea perpetrated by three young, educated, middle-class women, or devushki (girls), as the Russians call them.
The outfits are cartoonish, with bright, primary colours, but the masks aren’t just there to shield their faces from recognition – their anonymity is both symbolic and integral to their entire artistic vision.
Along with reports of a rise in plastic surgery among Chinese women (and also in South Korea), the beach balaclavas are a reminder of how, for all the progress women have made in China, they remain bounded by traditional ideas of beauty that limit them in ways small and large, not to mention the potential for forced abortions should they not abide by the country’s draconian one-child policy.
Whatever the outcome of Tolokonnikova’s, Alekhina’s and Samutsevich’s trial, they’ve done more to “expose the moral bankruptcy of the Putin regime than probably anybody else.”
Despite this, one Pussy Riot member who goes by the name Balaclava emphasizes their everywomen status: “We are not superwomen – we are pretty ordinary women and our goal is that all women in Russia can become like this without masks.” What if it might be a goal for all women, anywhere and everywhere?
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