The Tai Ji Men case confirms that women tend to suffer more when freedom of religion or belief is denied. There are similar cases in Argentina.

by María Vardé*

*A paper presented at the webinar “Violence, Women, and Freedom of Religion or Belief: Honoring the Women of Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on November 25, 2023, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on November 28th, 2023.

Women from Christian, Hindu, and other religious minorities march against violence targeting them in Pakistan, which includes forced marriages, abductions, rape, and even homicide. From X.
Women from Christian, Hindu, and other religious minorities march against violence targeting them in Pakistan, which includes forced marriages, abductions, rape, and even homicide. From X.

The fight for the eradication of violence against women has been going on worldwide for many years. Women, both because of their physiological condition and of different socio-cultural development, have experienced greater difficulties in defending and enforcing their rights. The mere fact of being a woman means being at a physical integrity risk, and even today, in certain social environments, less access to key resources for subsistence, in addition to other resources such as prestige, political power, and decision-making. This situation makes women more vulnerable to all types of violence.

In fact, numerous international reports on human rights and religious freedom have emphasized in recent years that the effects of discrimination and persecution based on religion or belief are more destructive for women. What these studies indicate is that defamation and persecution of religious minorities often have a varied ramification in different types of violence against women, from discrimination or segregation to unequal access to justice, rape, forced marriage, and even murder. What we see is that in different societies, gender inequality overlaps with other inequalities, leaving women from spiritual and religious minorities at a greater risk of violence.

On this occasion, I offer some examples of how institutional violence and the misuse of laws in contexts of religious or spiritual intolerance led to violence against women. The 1996 raid on various Tai Ji Men Academy headquarters and private homes of its disciples (dizi), due to the false accusations of prosecutor Hou Kuan-Jen, generated numerous instances of physical and psychological violence for the female Tai Ji Men dizi. For example, Peng Li-Chuan was detained incommunicado for forty days by order of prosecutor Hou, mistreated, and illegally interrogated, without any care for her psychological or physical integrity or that of her family (including her seven-month-old son), who only learned of her whereabouts six days after the arrest.

The raids and media slander, with headlines linking the Tai Ji Men academy to grotesque accusations, led many female dizi to suffer discrimination and mistreatment by their families, friends, and schoolmates, to the point of breaking off relationships —and also creating the risk of domestic violence. Several dizi even lost their jobs and their reputation due to the public scorn. All of this generated great suffering and sadness in these women, leading in some cases to serious health problems and even death, as in the unfortunate case of Wen Hsiu-Chen.

Women and girls of Tai Ji Men protest in Taipei.
Women and girls of Tai Ji Men protest in Taipei.

But this is not limited to the events of 1996. Dong Heng-E told how she was physically attacked by security guards when she tried to approach the director of the National Taxation Bureau of Taipei, leaving wounds all over her body. She also mentioned the pain and humiliation she suffered for years when she tried by all means, but unsuccessfully, to make the authorities understand that the Tai Ji Men academy was not a cram school but a martial arts and qigong menpai whose Shifu (Grand Master) received gift rather than tuition fees.

More recently still, in September 2020, after Taiwan’s Administrative Enforcement Agency and National Taxation Bureau illegally auctioned and confiscated the land intended for building a self-cultivation center for Tai Ji Men, another dizi, Ms. Huang, decided to exercise her right to question the matter in a peaceful protest, without violating any laws. Peaceful protests are a legal form of expression in Taiwan and in all democratic countries, yet Ms. Huang was illegally detained and interrogated for hours for carrying a sign criticizing the officials involved in the auction.

These latter examples, in which women are censured and even humiliated, can be compared to certain phenomena in other countries. In the last 15 years in Argentina, many women have been categorized by judges, prosecutors and state psychologists as victims, against their will. This has been put into practice under a framework of thought which considers that since women may be vulnerable because of their gender, certain decisions in their lives cannot have been made freely. This is true even when women deny any kind of coercion. This phenomenon has been extended in recent years to participation in religious and spiritual groups, the most famous case being the Buenos Aires Yoga School (known as BAYS).

Nine female BAYS students, after being mistreated and humiliated in massive raids that took place at the institution’s headquarters and in the private homes of numerous students, were labeled by three prosecutors as victims of human trafficking by their spiritual teachers through the alleged abuse of their vulnerability. These nine women have emphatically stated at every possible opportunity that they are not victims of exploitation and that they joined BAYS voluntarily because they felt that their lives and personal relationships had been improved by practicing the school’s philosophy. Moreover, the totality of the forensic psychiatric and psychological expert opinions has yielded findings of excellent mental health and lack of vulnerability. But the prosecutors, who continue to label them as victims, argue that these women cannot understand their role because they have been brainwashed and, therefore, their testimonies cannot be taken into account.

BAYS members, mostly women, in the café in Buenos Aires where most of the movement’s lectures were held.
BAYS members, mostly women, in the café in Buenos Aires where most of the movement’s lectures were held.

In addition to this violation of the right to self-determination, the enormous sensationalist media coverage of the case caused these women to lose their jobs and many of their personal and family relationships were affected or lost. This case, like those of many Tai Ji Men female dizi, demonstrates that women are easily abused when they try to raise their voices, and that they are frequently exposed and questioned about their private lives and choices. The violation of the right to privacy is compounded by the fact that such exposure generates a series of social and occupational repercussions that very often severely affect the lives of these women.

I shared these examples, which are only a few of many, because they are representative of different forms of violence and discrimination against women, but they are also inspiring. Currently, the nine female BAYS members have filed a complaint against the prosecutors who labeled them as victims and silenced their voices—something never seen before in Argentina. The female dizi of Tai Ji Men are ever-present in peaceful protests, in artistic demonstrations, and in the international fight for human rights and justice for Tai Ji Men. All these women have proved themselves tenacious and brave, all the contrary to being vulnerable and weak. They are a model for all of us.

We can have different approaches to feminism; as a matter of fact, scholars and academics are now talking about “feminisms,” in plural. But whatever branch of feminism we stand on, there is one common thing we all must defend: the freedom of all women to choose and create the life they want. This, of course, must include freedom of religion or belief. Contrary to what many might think, freedom of religion or belief can help against discrimination, and thus against gender inequality and violence against women, by allowing women to freely follow the spiritual path they desire. This necessarily implies the freedom of expression of their ideas.

It is imperative, today more than ever, that we listen to the teachings of Tai Ji Men Shifu, Dr. Hong, who invites us to care for and safeguard equality between men and women with responsibility, respect, and conscience, and to reject all forms of violence against women.