On November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, scholars and human rights activists discussed violence against women of spiritual minorities and the Tai Ji Men case.

by Daniela Bovolenta

An article already published in Bitter Winter on December 8th, 2023.

The poster of the webinar.
The poster of the webinar.

November 25, 2023, was the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers organized one of their bimonthly webinars about the Tai Ji Men Case, with the title “Violence, Women, and Freedom of Religion and Belief: Honoring the Women of Tai Ji Men.” 

Camelia Marin, deputy director of the NGO Soteria International, introduced the webinar. She noted that in the world 736 million women, almost one in three, have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse at least once in their lives. She paid homage to the three Mirabal sisters, murdered on November 25, 1960 by the dictatorial regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. The date of their assassination was chosen by the United Nations for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Marin then focused on the women members of religious or spiritual movements slandered as “cults” by their opponents, who are victimized twice: as women, and as members of discriminated groups. There are several such cases in Europe, Marin said, and this is also what happened to many female dizi (disciples) of Tai Ji Men, starting with the wife of the movement’s leader, who was unjustly arrested with him in 1996.

Camelia Marin’s introduction. 
Camelia Marin’s introduction. 

Marin introduced a video on the state violence against peaceful Tai Ji Men protesters in Taiwan, featuring the testimony of Dong Heng-E. A female dizi, she told how she was physically attacked by security guards when she tried to approach the director of the National Taxation Bureau of Taipei. Her intention was to explain the real facts about the Tai Ji Men case. The attack left wounds all over her body.

The first video, featuring a certificate documenting the injuries suffered by  Dong Heng-E.
The first video, featuring a certificate documenting the injuries suffered by  Dong Heng-E.

Marin then presented the speakers of the first session, Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist and the managing director of CESNUR, who is also editor-in-chief of “Bitter Winter,” and Maria Vardé, an anthropologist from the University of Buenos Aires, in Argentina, and a lecturer on spirituality and freedom of religion or belief.

Introvigne discussed three different relationships between religions and violence against women. The first is that, unfortunately, there are religious leaders who abuse their position to perpetrate different forms of violence against women. They should obviously be prosecuted and cannot invoke religious liberty as an excuse. However, Introvigne noted, sometimes the media treats more harshly religious leaders than other defendants accused of abusing women, and TV series and other media products poison the wells, compromising the fairness of the trials. 

The full video of the webinar.

The second relation, Introvigne said, is a subtler form of violence against women who join unpopular new religious movements. They are labeled “victims” even when they claims that they are not victims at all. In this case, media and sometimes prosecutors argue that they are victims without knowing it, as they have been subjected to “brainwashing.” While this is a spectacular case of violence against women members of new religious and spiritual movements, whose free agency is denied, Introvigne noted, there is a third case of daily and almost routinely persecution of women members of groups slandered as “frauds” or “cults.” This is what happened in the Tai Ji Men case. After the media slander, women dizi were systematically discriminated in schools, workplaces, and in their own families, and some were even victims of police brutality when they tried to protest.

Maria Vardé’s presentation.
Maria Vardé’s presentation.

Vardé reviewed some of the cases of physical and psychological violence against the women of Tai Ji Men. These included Peng Li-Chuan’s harsh detention for forty days, the already mentioned physical assault against Dong Hong-E, the death of Wen Hsiu-Chen as a consequence of her mistreatment and discrimination after she defended Tai Ji Men against false accusations; and the abuse of Ms. Huang after she peacefully protested in 2020. She compared their cases to the abuse suffered in her own country, Argentina, by the women of the Buenos Aires Yoga School, who were declared “victims” of non-existing abuses even after they vehemently denied having been abused. Vardé concluded that when new religious and spiritual movements are discriminated, slandered by media, and persecuted, women are often the first who pay the price and suffer.

Willy Fautré, co-founder and director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, introduced the second session of the webinar. He mentioned the efforts of the European Parliament for containing violence against women, and of his own organization to remind the European institutions that this kind of violence is often associated to religious discrimination. He noted that some progress has been achieved, but much remains to be done. Fautré praised the work of Tai Ji Men and its Shifu, Dr. Hong Tao-Tze, to create a society where men and women can be treated equally and grow together by relying on conscience as their moral compass.

Fautré presented a video featuring Brenda Chen, a Tai Ji Men dizi, offering her testimony at the International Religious Freedom Summit 2021 in Washington DC. With tears in her eyes, Brenda told how after the crackdown on Tai Ji Men in 1996, her father was detained and held incommunicado for four months by Prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen. By means of hunger, fatigue, and threats, Hou tried to compel Brenda’s father to testify against Dr. Hong. Because of Prosecutor Hou’s slander campaign against Tai Ji Men, her family was discriminated against; her sister even received a threatening note at school. Her father and mother, respectively the Chief Financial Officer of a well-known tech company and an editor at Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice, were forced to retire early. Their careers and reputations were ruined, and they suffered tremendous emotional and financial losses. Her father passed away with regret, unable to see the redress of the Tai Ji Men case, Brenda reported.

Brenda Chen’s 2021 testimony.
Brenda Chen’s 2021 testimony.

Fautré then introduced the testimonies of six dizi. Jaicy Hsu, a patent engineer, presented an important paper on the odyssey of Shimu, the wife of Tai Ji Men’s Shifu, Dr. Hong. When Dr. Hong was detained in the 1996 crackdown against Tai Ji Men, Shimu voluntarily went to Taipei to offer explanations about the case. Although she had just undergone a surgery and had not fully recovered, and with her husband detained their children, then in foreign countries, relied on her for financial support, Prosecutor Hou decided to detain her too. He extended her detention for another two months after the first two-month period, froze her assets, and even after her release put her under a ban from leaving Taiwan. She was eventually recognized innocent and compensated for her unjust detention. What impressed Hsu, she said, is how Shimu reacted to this unjust persecution without losing her calm attitude and maintaining her love for the Tai Ji Men dizi, always with a smile on her face. She was and remains an example for the many female Tai Ji Men dizi who fought for justice for 27 years.

Jaicy Hsu speaks.
Jaicy Hsu speaks.

Robert Tsai, a university student, offered as an example of the bravery of the women of Tai Ji Men his own mother, who sacrificed her free time and weekends to take to the streets and ask for justice in the Tai Ji Men case. Even more dramatic, Tsai said, was the case, already mentioned in the webinar by other speakers, of Peng Li-Chuan, an elementary school teacher and a dizi. Although she had committed no crime, and she had to care for a young child and a mother-in-law with mobility problems, she was detained without informing her family. Only when her school enquired about her, did her family learn she had been detained. Prosecutor Hou let her understand he knew she was innocent. He was only pressuring her to testify against Dr. Hong. She was eventually found not guilty and received compensation for her unjust detention. However, nothing can compensate her for the abuse she suffered, Tsai said.

Robert Tsai at the webinar.
Robert Tsai at the webinar.

Mia Wu, a social worker, reminded the audience that achieving gender equality is part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Yet, women continue to be discriminated and persecuted, sometimes because of misguided religious ideologies, as evidenced by cases in Iran and other countries, Wu said. She focused on another case of abuse against Tai Ji Men women, the police mistreatment of Ms. Huang in 2020. Although her protest was totally peaceful, Wu noted, Huang was forcibly taken to a police station and then transferred to a district prosecutor’s office. Clearly, Wu said, this was an attempt to intimidate Tai Ji Men protesters. However, inspired by the bravery of Ms. Huang, rather than ceasing their protest they were inspired to continue it even more vigorously, Wu concluded.

Mia Wu presents her testimony. 
Mia Wu presents her testimony. 

Fletcher Wu, a project assistant, reported that as a man engaged in tax and legal reform activities in Taiwan, he has developed a great respect for the women who participate in the same campaigns. They are often more active, brave, and resilient than men. Wu said that he was particularly inspired by the already mentioned example of Shimu, i.e., the wife of Tai Ji Men’s Shifu, Dr. Hong, who without having committed any crime was also detained and discriminated in many ways, yet always stood firm for conscience and justice.

Fletcher Wu speaks.
Fletcher Wu speaks.

Tricia Huang, who works in international sales for a leading Taiwanese company, first reported how the practice of Qigong as a Tai Ji Men dizi helped her in her life and career. She then offered a useful summary of the Tai Ji Men case, noting how many illegal actions were performed by Prosecutor Hou and other rogue bureaucrats to persecute the movement’s Shifu and his dizi. Huang also noted how the support of international scholars significantly encouraged Tai Ji Men dizi in their long fight for justice.

Tricia Huang’s testimony.
Tricia Huang’s testimony.

Hong Yu-Yi, a university student in Chemistry, noted how his field is plagued by lack of conscience and honesty, with several well-known scandals involving researchers who falsified their data to advance their career. This sad situation helped him understand how crucially important are the teachings of Dr. Hong about maintaining the conscience as one’s constant compass, and always refusing to act against conscience. Hong expressed both his gratitude to his Shifu for his teachings, and the hope that others, including politicians and bureaucrats in Taiwan, may be inspired by them and act with conscience. 

Hong Yu-Yi speaks at the webinar.
Hong Yu-Yi speaks at the webinar.

Marco Respinti, an Italian scholar and journalist who serves as director-in-charge of “Bitter Winter,” presented the conclusions of the webinar. He asked himself how “women,” “violence,” and “freedom of religion or belief” are concepts related between themselves. He answered that women are often at the receiving end of violence not so much because they are physically weaker than men, but because society is still dominated by power relations where men are privileged. It is also a fact, Respinti said, that in many cases women are more active than men in propagating religious and spiritual ideas and fighting for freedom of religion or belief. For this reason, they are often the first to be harassed and persecuted. This is also true in the Tai Ji Men case in Taiwan, as several incidents mentioned during the webinar demonstrated, Respinti concluded.

From the final video.
From the final video.

The event concluded with a video featuring beautiful images of Tai Ji Men dizi demonstrating for human rights and promoting peace, love, and conscience throughout the world.