Roller derby is a booming new sport in Australia, the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand and parts of Europe. It’s fast, full-contact – and uniquely focused on female empowerment.

Although there’s a strong focus on fun, with tens of thousands of players worldwide, there’s a growing portion of participants (and officials) dedicated to the development and promotion of derby as a serious and professional athletic endeavour.

It’s this mix of athleticism and feminism that makes the partnership of Beijing Roller Derby and UN Women so interesting. UN Women is supporting BRD’s first exhibition match on May 3, with the promotional byline:

Shining the Olympic spirit on gender equality.

Roller derby came to China in the mid 2000s and there are now leagues in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Although plenty of players are ex-pats, there are a growing number of Chinese women who see the sport as an opportunity to challenge gender norms.

The aesthetics of roller derby – which see players adopting alternative fashion, elaborate make-up and alter ego nicknames like Hurt Vonnegut or Achilles Squeal – parody the women’s rollerskating that was popular in the 1950s and 60s.

When I visited in November last year, I was able to speak to many of the women about their experiences. One research participant said she got involved in derby “to challenge myself. To challenge my limit”. Another Chinese participant shared,

I love sports, roller skating is a new sport in China, not a traditional one. Besides, roller derby is a sport that comes from western countries, it represents western culture. It is new in China, so I love it.

Another young Chinese woman, who had spent her school years in Australia, said,

I did mention to my father at one stage that I was really busy doing lots of different things and he was coming from a point of view of maybe you should stop the skating, so he’s not entirely behind it.

It became clear that playing a contact sport on roller skates was not the norm for women in China with one derby player stating,

the idea of a woman being athletic is strange but the idea of a woman being athletic hitting another woman is also out of this world.

The May 3 event is an opportunity for UN Women to promote China’s very first domestic violence laws, which came to effect a month ago. The law is designed to encourage reporting, in a country where DV is still sometimes seen as shame for the victim and family. Prior to this law there was very little protection for women, children and the elderly when it came to domestic violence.

The May 3 derby event will also promote UN Women’s #heforshe campaign. This campaign aims to engage all people as advocates and promotes gender equality as a human rights issue, not a “women’s issue”.

Being a “feminist” in China is an identity to be taken up carefully and privately rather than overtly and publicly. Last year, five women were arrested in China in the lead up to International Women’s Day for protesting sexual harassment on public transport.

This is ironic, given Mao and the Communist Party’s original emphasis on female emancipation, yet, as in many countries, being a “woman” (or girl) comes with certain restrictive norms. In China, despite women’s emancipation and important role in civic life, gender inequality continues, with pressures for women to marry, and very particular standards for beauty and acceptable leisure choices.

Yet the women I spoke to who are involved in derby, said that feminist ideas around gender fluidity, equality, democracy and empowerment were an important part of the sport. The roller derby exhibition will provide an opportunity for interested people to find out more about the sport, while also promoting UN Women’s agenda in China.

Contemporary roller derby has rejected traditional sport development models and markers of “legitimacy” such as joining national sporting organisations, or contracting out aspects of the business of the sport, instead trying hard to remain a DIY sport. The DIY ethos, also part of, for example, punk and hardcore music scenes, has a focus on empowering the people involved to be the producers of content.

The US-based Women’s Flat Track Derby Association recently published an open letter on their website making it clear that they rejected any claim made by the Fédération Internationale de Roller Sports (the international governing body for a range of roller sports) to govern roller derby.

Instead, the association asserts itself as the dominant governing body, and with that comes its particular focus on governance style and values – part of their slogan is “revolutionary”.

So how might locals in Beijing react to this UN Women sponsored event? Seeing women on roller skates knocking each other down, however athletically, is a far cry from the images of successful female gymnasts or swimmers usually seen in China.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics created huge momentum for investment in women’s sport in China and the results were fantastic. Invoking the Olympic spirit may provide locals in China a way of understanding and appreciating roller derby.

Sport, in all forms, is about cooperation and competition. Getting the balance right can be tricky, but in order to compete, there needs to be cooperation from various parties.

The partnership between UN Women and Beijing Roller Derby demonstrates the potential of derby, in giving Chinese women the opportunity to experience empowerment and express alternative forms of gender. There’s also room for the Chinese government to play a role in supporting the future of Chinese roller derby.

Article by Dr. Adele Pavlidis, Griffith University Sociologist, and Griffith Asia Institute Asian Century Futures Initiative Collaborative Research Scheme grant recipient.

This article was originally published in the Conversation.