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.

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