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He, Natalie Jinna - Chinese Visually Impaired Women - Hero Image ;

Chinese Visually Impaired Women: The Ambiguous Body Full of Sensibilities

Feminist Perspectives - ’Disciplined and Resistant Bodies’
Natalie Jinna Ho

PhD student, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

22 September 2023

The body becomes a site for intersecting identities such as gender, ethnicity, and disability but is still in need of more localised understanding in different non-western contexts. By exploring the maternity of Chinese women with visual impairment, we try to bring back the ambiguous but sensitive body of blind women to the conversations about reproduction in China.

My research companion is a man with visual impairment who has worked with disabled people for ten years (Cong Cai, a member of the council of Shanghai Youren Foundation). We started the project with shared confusion; except for the advocacy for equal rights, in what other aspects can we understand the maternity of women with disabilities, in this case, visual impairment? Do they have autonomy over their maternity? And to what extent can we integrate the complexity of disabled women’s motherhood into contemporary conversations in China?

Recently, reflecting on maternity is enjoying new visibility in China. When Chinese young women in cities express their independence, competence, and autonomy in and through work against motherhood, the voices of disabled women are often missing. Alongside this, there is also a narrowed understanding of disabled women’s maternity because it is regarded as equal SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights) of disabled people. As for motherhood, the complexity in real practice remained unaddressed.

To solve these discontents, we invited 20 women with visual impairment to depth-interview about their experiences of visual impairment and reproduction. Most of them come from rural areas and small towns in China. Seeking better economic opportunities, they work as massage therapists in more prosperous cities. Prior to this, their education was primarily limited to traditional Chinese medicine and massage training received at schools for the visually impaired. It is noteworthy that their husbands are always massage therapists with visual impairment.

Prior to the investigation, we anticipated a story about having babies to challenge the stereotype of disabled people – however, cases were rare. It seems that even though visual impairment might be inherited, the interviewees felt it was a regular rite to have a baby in their 20s and 30s regardless of the visual impairment. When asked whether their families had argued with them about the choice, most of them said their parents did not prevent them from getting pregnant and some parents or/and parents-in-law provided them with babysitting or even economic support. Despite the challenges that visual impairment may bring to raising children, most interviewees' parents supported them based on traditional beliefs such as "everyone should get married and have children, and the older generations should help with childcare", which is similar to the ideas of non-disabled couples' parents. One interviewee's (Jasmine) expression of her intention to remain unmarried and childless caused great anxiety for her father. However, when she eventually got married and chose to have children, her father felt deeply relieved. This dynamic of anxious parents and adult children reluctant to marry and have children reflects a common situation in many Chinese families in recent years.

The Chinese disability community fights against stereotypes towards disabled people, one of which is the protectionism from their parents. Parental protectionism arises from societal bias against disabled individuals. On one hand, parents see disabled children as hopeless and a disgrace to the family. On the other hand, they fear potential harm to their disabled children outside, leading them to keep the children at home. Our interviewee Gina, who grew up in rural Tibet said that, two or three decades ago, because parents lacked knowledge about how to bring up blind children, they took care of blind children yet at the same time tied them up to protect them. Jasmine recalled how she fought for the opportunity to get special education against her father's will several years after she lost her eyesight. Her father had been ready to support and protect her until death but did not believe that she can live independently. In the end, she went to school and learned massage skills. In our research, blind women got used to living with visual impairment(s) through special education or in life with non, or less-protective parents. Women in their 30s or 40s who grew up in the countryside (Indigo, Lily, Lulu, Abby,) have been engaged in housework since they were young. Two interviewed women (Jasmine and Abby) with experience in disability advocacy concluded their disability is “a lifestyle”. So everything they achieved independently is the practice of autonomy in deciding to be a mother. In this sense, for them, their blindness does not impede them.

As aforementioned, elder generations will participate in intergenerational parenting. The majority of the interviewees welcomed the assistance provided by their elders when some of them also wanted to prove their abilities as mothers. After her mother-in-law took on all the parenting tasks, Jasmine felt like an "empty vessel" and considered herself a "failed mother." Her perspective reflects a dual consciousness of being both a woman and a person with disabilities. As a mother, she resented being treated merely as a machine of reproduction, and as a person with disabilities, she firmly believed in her own capabilities.

Nonetheless bringing up a child is always difficult. A newborn baby is an unknown and fragile puzzle for a blind woman to explore answers. As Abby recounted, it was on the third day after her delivery that she held her daughter for the first time. She was alone with her baby. When the baby cried, the nurse told her:

I will not hold the baby, every woman can hold her baby. You should know.– Interview participant, Abby (pseudonym)

This experience of “every woman” is not suitable for her. Her low vision, and inexperience as a first-time mother, made her afraid of hurting her baby. Nevertheless blind mothers keep exploring as their children grow up.

You should keep trying, I was afraid that I could not find my daughter when she played outdoors, but I could see light colours so I dress my daughter in light colours when we play outdoors.– Interview participant, Abby (pseudonym)

Upon hearing this, I could not imagine that she was the woman who did not hold her baby in her arms. Abby also shares her parenting experience with new mothers with visual impairment.

China is going through a transformation of reproduction culture and family structure. Although Chinese young people show increasing individualism in marriage choice, Chinese still value marriage and childbearing during the social transformation, but a child’s happiness weighs more in family. Middle-class mothers struggle with the ideal “happy childhood”, and visually impaired mothers share the idea that their children deserve a happy childhood just like other children so their disabilities should not get in the way. However, the disability is an embodied predicament and causes a dilemma. Lulu, who showed a strong will for autonomy and self-determination described the feeling to me;

I am very independent and I know I should not bother my son for my clumsiness, but sometimes I have difficulties with my blindness. Every time I had to ask for his help, witnessing his cleverness and sweetness, I felt pain. I regret that I had not fully prepared to have a child.– Interview participant, Lulu (pseudonym)

Ultimately, we found that the reproductive choices of visually impaired women are generally similar to those of non-disabled women. While some may initially desire to remain childless, the majority ultimately end up having at least one child. In our research, 7 women wanted to remain childless, but only 2 women are childless. This trend is not so much a resistance to disability discrimination but rather aligns with the broader reproductive culture that still emphasises the importance of having children, even as the number of children is decreasing. Furthermore, the concept of valuing children also reflects a convergence towards that of non-disabled women. However, this convergence has brought about more subtle and complex sensibilities for disabled mothers. The convergence and complex sensibilities are two sides of the same coin. In other words, disabled people will try to integrate their experience into normative life. Motherhood is normative and the desire of chasing a normative life is strengthened by mothering sensibilities when disabled women realise they are disabled.

As is mentioned, the motivation for childbirth among visually impaired women in China is not primarily driven by the resistance to disability discrimination. Instead, it is influenced by the prevailing culture of reproduction and the parent-child dynamic. Therefore, the medicalised discourse “risky mother” is not applicable as a target of resistance for Chinese visually impaired women. In an environment where intergenerational ties are strong and there is a strong emphasis on marriage and childbirth, whether and how visually impaired women can fully decide not to have children becomes a significant issue, despite it being a recurring topic. A 24-year-old interviewee (Cissy) co-resides with her husband’s parents in a rural area of Sichuan Province. After unexpectedly giving birth to a baby girl in 2021, just five months later, she became pregnant again unexpectedly. The second pregnancy was an unwanted pregnancy. She wanted to have an abortion, but she depended on her parents-in-law to access health services as she lived with them. Her husband’s mother wanted the baby, so her abortion was put off indefinitely. Another woman, Rita, found herself pregnant when she was at her parents’ home. Her parents longed for a grandchild, and tried to keep her at home. In the end, she kept the baby. Sometimes, with birth control, women still become pregnant. In our research, women will persuade themselves that it was Yuanfen (a predetermined relationship between people that is difficult to explain) and keep the children that are a result of an unplanned or accidental pregnancy.

By asking whether or how visually impaired women can fully decide not to have children, this exploratory research does not suggest passive bodies. In the case of visually impaired women, their bodies exhibit a certain ambiguousness, which can be attributed to how motherhood and disability are perceived and contextualised in China. This ambiguousness underscores the specific cultural perspective compared to their Western counterparts. Nevertheless, as Abby stated

[m]y husband and I are used to blindness, so we are not afraid that we cannot make our daughter live well if she is blind. But when I was pregnant, I still had some worries, and I don't think he could imagine mothers’ worries, because he didn't need to carry a baby in his belly.– Interview participant, Abby (pseudonym)

I tried to use the word Sensibility to describe the various feelings and subtle power dynamics in that body emerging from ambiguousness. Here, the body full of sensibilities will brew awareness of disability, of feminism and of feminist disability.

Further notes

Abby, Cissy, Indigo, Gina, Joy, Jasmine, Lily, Lulu, Rita, Rie, Scarlet, Snowy are all pseudonyms.

The hero image above displays a picture drawn by Jasmine’s daughter, depicting Jasmine and her daughter playing together.

About the author

Natalie Jinna Ho (She/Her) is a PhD student at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. She majors in Communication. She is interested in feminism, body, and STS.

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