She is breaking glass ceilings in space, but facing sexism on Earth

Washington, United States Published: Oct 23, 2021, 11:05 PM(IST)

Chinese astronaut Wang Yaping Photograph:( AFP )

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Shortly before the launch, Pang Zhihao, an official with the China National Space Administration, let it be known that a cargo capsule had supplied the orbiting space station with sanitary napkins and cosmetics

Col. Wang Yaping is a pilot in the People’s Liberation Army’s Air Force. She is a space veteran, now making her second trip into orbit. She is set in the coming weeks to be the first Chinese woman to walk in space as China’s space station glides around Earth at 17,100 mph.

And yet, as she began a six-month mission last week at the core of China’s ambitious space program, official and news media attention fixated as much on the comparative physiology of men and women, menstruation cycles, and the 5-year-old daughter she has left behind, as they did on her accomplishments. (No one asked about the children of her two male colleagues.)

Shortly before the launch, Pang Zhihao, an official with the China National Space Administration, let it be known that a cargo capsule had supplied the orbiting space station with sanitary napkins and cosmetics.

“Female astronauts may be in better condition after putting on makeup,” he said in remarks shown on CCTV, the state television network.

At 41, Wang is a model of gender equality in a country where Mao Zedong famously said that “women hold up half the sky,” and the object of an undercurrent of sexism and condescension that courses through Chinese society, business and politics.

In China today, it is rare for women outside the entertainment industry to reach such public prominence as Wang. When they do manage to break barriers, their accomplishments are often viewed through the prism of gender.

In a short television report showing her training for the upcoming spacewalk, Wang exuded confidence, saying she hoped the mission aboard the new space station, called Tiangong, would be “more brilliant because of me.” She also hinted at the hurdles she had to overcome.

“For me, being an astronaut is not a profession, but a career, and it is such a career that I have an ardent love for,” she said. “This love is enough for me to overcome all difficulties, to overcome all barriers and even to sacrifice my own life.”

Online debates have erupted over whether women and men are fit for the same physical tasks.

“Most girls cannot do hard work or sweaty labor,” one user wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “Women must face up to this characteristic of their gender.” Others suggested she should have cut her hair or wondered how she would wash it.

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