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In bars tucked away in alleys and at salons and bookstores around Shanghai, women are debating their place in a country where men make the laws.

Some wore wedding gowns to take public vows of commitment to themselves. Others gathered to watch films made by women about women. The bookish flocked to female bookshops to read titles like “The Woman Destroyed” and “Living a Feminist Life.”

Women in Shanghai, and some of China’s other biggest cities, are negotiating the fragile terms of public expression at a politically precarious moment. China’s ruling Communist Party has identified feminism as a threat to its authority. Female rights activists have been jailed. Concerns about harassment and violence against women are ignored or outright silenced.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has diminished the role of women at work and in public office. There are no female members of Mr. Xi’s inner circle or the Politburo, the executive policymaking body. He has invoked more traditional roles for women, as caretakers and mothers, in planning a new “childbearing culture” to address a shrinking population.

But groups of women around China are quietly reclaiming their own identities. Many are from a generation that grew up with more freedom than their mothers. Women in Shanghai, profoundly shaken by a two-month Covid lockdown in 2022, are being driven by a need to build community.

“I think everyone living in this city seems to have reached this stage that they want to explore more about the power of women,” said Du Wen, the founder of Her, a bar that hosts salon discussions.

Frustrated by the increasingly narrow understanding of women by the public, Nong He, a film and theater student, held a screening of three documentaries about women by female Chinese directors.

“I think we should have a broader space for women to create,” Ms. He said. “We hope to organize such an event to let people know what our life is like, what the life of other women is like, and with that understanding, we can connect and provide some help to each other.”

At quietly advertised events, women question misogynistic tropes in Chinese culture. “Why are lonely ghosts always female?” one woman recently asked, referring to Chinese literature’s depiction of homeless women after death. They share tips for beginners to feminism. Start with history, said Tang Shuang, the owner of Paper Moon, which sells books by female authors. “This is like the basement of the structure.”

There are few reliable statistics about gender violence and sexual harassment in China, but incidents of violence against women have occurred with greater frequency, according to researchers and social workers. Stories have circulated widely online of women being physically maimed or brutally murdered for trying to leave their husbands, or savagely beaten for resisting unwanted attention from men. The discovery of a woman who was chained inside a doorless shack in the eastern province of Jiangsu became one of the most debated topics online in years.

With each case, the reactions have been highly divisive. Many people denounced the attackers and called out sexism in society. Many others blamed the victims.

The way these discussions polarize society unnerved Ms. Tang, an entrepreneur and former deputy editor of Vogue China. Events in her own life unsettled her, too. As female friends shared feelings of shame and worthlessness for not getting married, Ms. Tang searched for a framework to articulate what she was feeling.

“Then I found out, you know, even myself, I don’t have very clear thoughts about these things,” she said. “People are eager to talk, but they don’t know what they are talking about.” Ms. Tang decided to open Paper Moon, a store for intellectually curious readers like herself.

The bookstore is divided into an academic section that features feminist history and social studies, as well as literature and poetry. There is an area for biographies. “You need to have some real stories to encourage women,” Ms. Tang said.

Anxiety about attracting the wrong kind of attention is always present.

When Ms. Tang opened her store, she placed a sign in the door describing it as a feminist bookstore that welcomed all genders, as well as pets. “But my friend warned me to take it out because, you know, I could cause trouble by using the word feminism.”

Wang Xia, the owner of Xin Chao Bookstore, has chosen to stay away from the “F” word altogether. Instead she described her bookstore as “woman-themed.” When she opened it in 2020, the store was a sprawling space with nooks to foster private conversations and six study rooms named after famous female authors like Simone de Beauvoir.

Xin Chao Bookstore served more than 50,000 people through events, workshops and online lectures, Ms. Wang said. It had more than 20,000 books about art, literature and self-improvement — books about women and books for women. The store became so prominent that state-owned media wrote about it and the Shanghai government posted the article on its website.

Still, Ms. Wang was careful to steer clear of making a political statement. “My ambition is not to develop feminism,” she said.

For Ms. Du, the Her founder, empowering women is at the heart of her motivation. She was jolted into action by the isolation of the pandemic: Shanghai ordered its residents to stay in their apartments under lockdown for two months, and her world narrowed to the walls of her apartment.

For years she dreamed of opening a place where she could elevate the voices of women, and now it seemed more urgent than ever. After the lockdown, she opened Her, a place where women could strike friendships and debate the social expectations that society had placed on them.

On International Women’s Day in March, Her held an event it called Marry Me, in which women took vows to themselves. The bar has also hosted a salon where women acted out the roles of mothers and daughters. Many younger women described a reluctance to be treated the way their mothers were treated and said they did not know how to talk to them, Ms. Du said.

The authorities have met with Ms. Du and indicated that as long as the events at Her didn’t become too popular, there was a place for it in Shanghai, she said.

But in China, there is always the possibility that officials will crack down. “They never tell you clearly what is forbidden,” Ms. Tang of Paper Moon said.

Ms. Wang recently moved Xin Chao Bookstore into Shanghai Book City, a famous store with large atriums and long columns of bookcases. A four-volume collection of Mr. Xi’s writings are prominently displayed in several languages.

Book City is huge. The space for Xin Chao Bookstore is not, Ms. Wang said, with several shelves inside and around a small room that may eventually hold about only 3,000 books.

“It’s a small cell of the city, a cultural cell,” Ms. Wang said.

Still, it stands out in China.

“Not every city has a woman’s bookstore,” she said. “There are many cities that do not have such cultural soil.”

Li You contributed to research.

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