WHAT is a WOMAN
WHAT is a WOMAN
Being a woman around the world

"If your first child is a girl, then you usually have a second one and, hopefully, it will be a boy. If the first child is a boy, parents stop because a boy is enough."

In a few words, Wendy summarizes the state of mind of many Chinese parents-to-be. At the end of the eighties, following the relaxation of the infamous one-child policy, daughters were entitled to have a little sibling, in order to give more chance to the family to have a son. That measure, dictated with a set of other exceptions, was inspired by the superior value attributed to the boy: his physical strength and the higher financial opportunities but most of all the idea that the family tree's expansion only happens through the male descendant. In China and many other countries, the daughter's marriage was followed by her transition to her in-laws -and still nowadays in some cases- and the payment of a dowry. While custom evolves and while the new generations tend to deviate from the pattern of the past, the preference for the son is still widespread.

During a dinner at the Lugu Lake, with the help of Wendy, I ask to my table companions, three young Chinese couples, if they would rather have a son or daughter. Everybody agrees: a son would certainly be better. The men are stronger, they have more responsibilities and they give more merit to the family. Hoping to put their answer into perspective, I remind them the strength and the power of the Nakhi and Mosuo women, ethnic groups from this region. In response to this argument, they smile, they laugh politely.

lugu lake

lugu lake

In the Yunnan, a region stuck between Tibet and Myanmar, another universe survives. At 2,600 meters above sea level sleeps the Lugu Lake, a magical landscape attracting mountains lovers as well as packs of Chinese tourists, obsessed with the view angle, the light and the composition of their next selfie. Despite its renown, the place is quiet. Firstly, the multiple villages around the lake spread the tourists in the area. Secondly, the old road from Lijiang, one of the closest cities, might cool down some travellers.

During a nine-hours journey, the van slaloms between the peaks, wanders on the other traffic lane, avoids the falls of debris and rocks. Familiar with tar's hazards and the road's boredom, the driver, an everlasting cigarette between the lips, warms up his vocal cords with the help of old-fashion Chinese songs. Sometimes, driven by an excess of confidence, attracted by a ray of sunshine, he looks at the landscape: swimming in a cloud, the shape of the mountains, indented with high trees, reminds local black-inked drawings. Taking the responsibilities of the front passenger to heart, I interrupt his daydream and point abruptly the road and the car in front of us.

Eventually, we arrive safe and sound at Lugu Lake, in Mosuo lands. A big sign yellowed by time greets us: "Welcome to the last women's kingdom".

wendy and the mosuo grandma

wendy and the mosuo grandma

"A girl has more value than a boy, even if we need boys for the farm work." The Mosuo grand-mother laughs heartily. The scarf around her head and the multiple layers of clothing protect her from the particular weather we find at this altitude: a cold made of a biting wind and an infinite light rain. The Mosuo ethnic group, 40,000 individuals spread around the lake, is known to be the last matrilineal society in China. Their daily life has nothing in common with what their compatriots live: the women, with the oldest one at their head, control the finances and any important decision. They are highly respected and are even seen by some as superior to men. In addition of that, the progeny is taken care by the mother's family and the father's role is given to her brother. "There is no marriage here... There is no official [biological] father, we don't always know who that is anyway." The grandmother laughs. She refers to the local custom called "the walking marriage". The translation does not make justice to its complexity nor its value. However it attests the lack of taboo and the uncommon freedom surrounding Mosuo women's sexuality: the unconditional choice of their lovers. They can invite the men they fancy to spend the night over and to leave with discretion before the sun rises. This leads to undefined paternities, a rare sexual autonomy and many biased interpretations from the outside, understanding this custom as a form of prostitution. It seems that, in many minds, female sexuality is stuck between two extremes: one monogamous and the other merchandised.

"Many young Mosuo prefer now to marry... They think the tradition is too messy." Sitting in the central room of the home, the oldest woman's bedroom, Wendy and I witness a typical and beautiful family portrait: the great-grandmother, in the back, smokes a cigarette with one hand and entertains the kid with the other. Next to the fireplace, the grandmother, smiling at us, cooks the dough in the oil while the mother, from that generation floating between modernity and tradition, removes it and offers it on a plate. Wendy translates patiently my questions. When I ask the 29-years-old-mother how is her culture different from the others, she shows the two main pillars of the room. "They come from the same tree and have the same height... The one next to the door represents the woman and that one, the man... Here, women and men are equal. The women are respected a lot, much more than the other Chinese women... I feel sorry for them." She stops to feed her son. The fire cracks and there is smoke in the atmosphere. The violent light from outside is filtered and covers the heads with a timeless halo. The mother carries on: "We have so much esteem for the women that we don't celebrate birthdays... The date of the birth is first of all seen as the day where the mother has suffered the most."

mosuo family

mosuo family

Darkness falls. The dancers wait for the start signal. On one side, the men, dressed with a sunny yellow jacket and a hat talk loudly. Further, the women wear a colorful top and a white long skirt. Their wide hat is decorated with pearls and flowers. The Mosuo celebration will start soon. Around the fire, thirty Mosuos form a circle and turn indefinitely. The chants, in a joyful harmony, dance with the Tibetan prayers flags above our heads and heat up the temperature. Outside that circle, a static crowd made of visitors coming from all China is absorbed by the show. Every generation is there. The three couples are there. Wendy and other young people of her ages are there. They are all the bearers of a normalized inequality, admitting without a problem the priority we give to the male sex. The lens of their smartphone fixed on the songs made of female and male voices, they have come all the way here for the landscape and this strange culture that survives like a museum does, like a maintained utopia fed by a will of good conscience. The skirts weave, the music flares up. In the distance we see the shadow of the mountains, Himalayan little sisters, emerging in a dream with out hosts. A dream that attracts every year thousands of tourists. A dream protected by altitude and by a semi-isolation. A dream that we struggle to understand, that disturbs and spreads fantasy at the same time. A dream where women are equal to men.