“I am not a feminist, but I believe in gender equality.” Many people start by informing people that they are not feminists before claiming for gender equality. In fact, the second half of the statement is completely in line with the first half. Since when did feminism become a taboo word in the society? Why are people so afraid of being referred to as feminists when goals of feminism offer people better life both for themselves and their loved ones? WHAT IS FEMINISM?
▲ Illustration of an imaginary doenjang-nyeo. Provided by daum.net.
Derived from the Greek word misogynia―a combination of misein and gyne, which mean hate and woman― misogyny refers to an unreasonable hatred of women. It is distinct from male chauvinism, which attempts to patronize and denigrate women in the belief that they are inferior to males. Misogyny is an emotional prejudice based on mere dislike and often even fear toward women.
Misogyny is by no means a phenomenon restricted to one area or period of time. Its emergence dates back to ancient Greece and it has continued into the modern era. It appears in various forms in different societies, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) is no exception.
The –Nyeo Frame
▲ Song Min-ho of WINNER uses misogynist lyrics in his performance during the Show Me the Money 4. Provided by ytnnews.com.Ongdalsam, the comedian trio, including Jang Dong Min apologizes for making misogynist remarks. Provided by star.ohmynews.com.
It is hard to grasp the meaning of the Korean word, kimchi-nyeo (nyeo means female) through direct translation. Kimchi-nyeo is a term used to refer to and express hatred toward women who depend on men financially and believe it to be their rights to ask for such financial support. It is Korean slang devised by netizens who abhor women of particular physical features or personalities. “Asking for excessive financial support for men is not right, but that does not mean men can just use the word, kimchi-nyeo, to refer to all those women who they do not like,” said Han Seung Yun (’15, Media and Communication). “Moreover, just because some girls tend to carry the traits of a kimchi-nyeo does not mean that all women are like that. The funny thing is, when a man makes a mistake, people just blame that person; but when a woman does, people frequently invent a nickname to sneer at women in general.”
Doenjang-nyeo is a similar word, which refers to women, who spend extravagantly on expensive brand-name products and become obsessed with a high-end life style. “Honestly, I think no one really has the right to criticize someone’s use of money,” Song Nahyun, a Yonsei University (YU) student continued, “And these days, I heard some men call women who drink Starbucks coffee a doenjang-nyeo. They have definitely gone too far.”
Beyond Online Communities― Misogyny Penetrates Cultural Consciousness
▲ State of women in ROK. Provided by the global gender gap report.
Misogyny is penetrating Korean cultural consciousness as some entertainers and artists ignorant of sexism make inappropriate comments in public. Such comments stirred up criticism last year when Jang Dong Min, a Korean comedian, made a misogynist statement on his podcast radio show. During the show he put down women in general by saying things like, “A woman’s brain will never live up to a man’s because they’re dumb,” “XXXX(sexual swearword)”, “What I cannot stand is when a woman is not a virgin,” and “Women are dumb because they tell their boyfriends about their sexual history.” Though Jang ended up apologizing officially to the public, his reckless statements were enough to alarm was misunderstood and denigrated. The situation concluded with Mino’s Facebook apology to all those who were offended and phone calls of apology made by YG Entertainment and Mnet to the outraged Korean Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (KAOG).
Though both incidents ended at last with the public apologies by the celebrities, similar cases tend to constantly occur, one after another, in different forms. Such recklessness of many entertainers and artists in Korea cannot but be seen as an indicator of how ignorant Koreans in general are about sexism and misogyny.
Professor Kim Hee-Kang (Department of Public Administration) says that the trend of Korean misogyny tends to carry more violence than misogyny in other countries. “The social status of women in Korean society went through a radical change within a very short period of time. On the way, it seems like men happened to feel comparative deprivation as they lost the sense of superiority they had in the former patriarchal society. I think misogyny is a way men express their comparative deprivation toward women, who are still socially disadvantaged,” explained Professor Kim.
State of Korean Women’s Rights on the Global Scale
▲ State of women in ROK. Provided by the global gender gap report.
Unsurprisingly, the Global Gender Gap Report 2015 by the World Economic Forum (WEF) revealed Korea to be one of the worst places for women to live in the world. Korea overall ranked 115th among 145 countries. According to the data, the state of women’s rights in Korea is similar to that of women in the Arab Emirates, which was in 119th place, Qatar in 122nd, and Bahrain in 123rd.
The state of women in each nation was measured accordingly to four criteria: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. The scores for each nation were decided on a scale of zero to one―one stood for complete gender equality. Iceland was at the top of the list, scoring 0.881, with Norway just behind at 0.850. Yemen and Pakistan have been the lowest for years with Syria ranking just above them.
The results show that Korea has a comparatively gender-equal environment in the fields of education and health, scoring 0.965 and 0.973 in the two sectors. On the other hand, Korea displayed low achievement in gender equality in political empowerment and economic opportunity, scoring 0.107 and 0.557. “Korea is at the tailend among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries regarding the state of women’s rights. The wage disparity between the sexes, the glass ceiling, and the percentage of women in highranking positions serve as indicators,” said Professor Kim.
What Exactly is Feminism?
▲ Illustration of an imaginary doenjang-nyeo. Provided by heforshe.org.
Just like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in her book We Should All Be Feminists, most people imagine feminists as women who hate men, who don’t wear bras and makeup, and who argue that women are superior to men. The word feminism certainly has a negative connotation for many, especially in South Korean society. Although global feminist movements such as the United Nation’s (UN) HeforShe campaign promoted by Emma Watson or the speech by last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai are improving public awareness, most people still do not understand what feminism really is.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, feminism is “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” Feminism aims for gender equality, which is why women’s rights seem to be more strongly advocated in the current feminism movement—women are not treated equally. In today’s world, gender can be a life and death matter for girls and women—in places where they are beaten to death in honor killing because they were raped and in places where girls’ breasts are seared with heated rocks because grown breasts can arouse sexual feelings in men. Protecting women from violence and promoting their bodily autonomy are two of the main values of feminism.
While feminism fights against such inhumane acts, it also aims for ideological achievement in the gender area, to change people’s perceptions. The HeforShe campaign by UN Women, for instance, aims to “engage men and boys as agents of change for the achievement of gender equality and women’s rights,” by encouraging them to take action against discrimination faced by women and girls. It changes the perception that only women can be feminists—no, anyone can be a feminist, regardless of one’s gender, or any other qualities. Overall, feminism tries to fix the inclined gender scale. Feminism has its foundation in humanism, in the belief that everyone deserves to be respected.
Thus, feminism also tackles the liberation of men; women are not the only ones harmed by fixed gender roles. Patriarchy has vested a heavy burden on men to be “manly,” to be courageous, fearless, and breadwinners. Feminists argue men to also get out of the man box, and to cooperate for gender equality. It is not the problem limited to women, and there are certainly limitations when only one gender stands up for change. When perceptions slowly change, it can clearly make some difference, just as feminism developed rapidly during the past few decades up to the point where feminism is considered as one independent academic study.
A History of Feminism
▲ Quote by Emma Watson in HeforShe event.
Modern feminism began as the suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is called the first wave of feminism, when gaining women’s political rights was the most important goal. Otherwise known as suffragettes, first-wave feminists marched on the streets, wrote for the media, and achieved women’s suffrages in most counties of the West. Second-wave feminism moved from the political to social and cultural rights of women. In the mid-20th century, feminists worked for changes in family and rape laws to expand the rights of women—as during that time many women could not work without a husband’s permission and since the 19th century marital rape was not considered a crime—although it has still not been achieved in many nations. Most of these movements have occurred in the West, where feminist movements began relatively earlier than the rest of the world.
Third-wave feminism, starting from late 20th century in the U.S., was a response to the past failures and achievements of the first and secondwave feminism movements. In third-wave feminism, feminists have tried to redefine feminism, as in the past it had been almost exclusively for educated middleclass white women. Third-wave feminists refused to be “feminine,” just as secondwave feminists decided what was womanly and wasn’t, arguing that there should be no fixed gender roles or qualities. Furthermore, the rights of homosexuals were included in the gender talks, and sexuality itself was reconsidered in the debate.
Among third-wave feminists, gender itself has been an important subject of debate. Some consider that there is no inherent difference in the nature of gender, thus claiming there should be no distinction between genders while others see important distinctions. Hence, the diversification of feminism since the emergence of third-wave feminism was inevitable. Standpoint feminism, which believes that feminism should do much more to address worldwide issues other than gender equality, and post-feminism, which believes that gender equality has already been achieved but is not antifeminism are part of that discussion.
With the development of cyberspace, cyberfeminist movements and networked feminism are also paving the way for women’s rights. “#iamfeminist” tags are now easy to see on the Internet, and feminists are communicating via networks all around the globe. Internet has connected feminists to produce more delicate feminist movements than the past. Starting late, feminism in Korea is now growing. Starting with the UNNInetwork in 2004 to more recent radical movements, more and more stages of discussions are being held in the cyberspace, such as the use of podcasts. Feminism in Korea is expanding its potential and influence in various political areas.
The history of feminism has treaded a thorny path, and it is still in most nations. Modern feminists have been labeled the disgraceful title feminazis just because they asked for equality. Prejudice and the unthinking condemnation of feminist works also stop many activists from engaging in political activities. Death threats are not uncommon. Since Korea has one of the strongest patriarchal cultures in the world, it is hard for Korean feminists to move things forward. It was only when the radical mirroring movement Meghalia shocked to the Korean feminism society last year that an open discussion of feminism discourse and misogyny became possible.
What Specifically Can Feminism Solve?
▲ Man box. Provided by cloudfront.net.
1) The Man Box
In his TED speech, Tony Porter, cofounder of men’s rights advocate group A Call to Men: The Next Generation of Manhood, have the concept of the man box. A man box is an invisible box that limits men to patriarchal masculine values, and conveys misogyny by considering women as negative and subordinate beings. Porter said in his speech, “My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.” This demonstrates how genders cannot be separated and the importance of men’s role in redefining gender roles. Feminism aims for emancipation of both bipolar genders from traditional gender roles.
▲ Suffragettes of first-wave feminism. Provided by bbc.co.uk.
2) The Woman Corset
The woman corset is one of the most important issues dealt with current feminism. Corset is a garment that was worn by women in the past to “hold the torso into a desired shape for aesthetic purposes,” mostly to please men. As the corset itself suggests, women corset symbolizes the limitations society puts on women because a woman has to be womanly. It includes restrictions on women’s skirt lengths, social frames on women’s expenditures and external appearances, as well as overall misogynic perceptions in society. Under patriarchal values, women are educated to be subordinate beings who should not seduce men by problematic attire or attitudes.
This also relates to mansplain, a combination of man and explain, which describes the situation in which a man tries to teach a woman by using their social superiority or gender power. Women have accepted mansplaining about their nature, way of life, and actions because they perceived mansplain as a natural consequence of their misconduct. Woman corsets are everywhere—that female terms historically entail negative connotations of being weak, dependent or inferior shows their ubiquitousness. Feminism is trying to free break women from the corsets that prevent them from being whom they really are.
▲ Women in corset. Provided by blogspot.com.
3) Queer Issues
Feminism’s ultimate aim is gender equality. The use of gender here does not include just women and men, but also the many genders in between—queers who do not define themselves as a certain gender, or LGBTs with diverse sexual tendencies. For instance, Womenlink, one of the oldest Korean feminist groups, participates in queer parades regularly and also has constant meetings to discuss the rights of queers. Some third-wave feminists believe that gender is only one part of oneself and cannot be all that describes a person. Thus, they want everyone regardless of their gender, to be treated equally, dignifying the human entity itself; queers are not an exception.
Goals for Korean Feminism
▲ 2016 Poster of Womenlink. Provided by womenlink.or.kr.
Korean feminism still has a long way to go. While it has to fight the cold reception from Korean society, it also has needs to construct a core force of movements. Current Korean feminism is mostly an aggregate of individual feminists rather than a group or force. It is true that every individual feminist pursues different values towards gender and that it is hard to bind them under limited categories. However, such dispersed force has shown its limitations in solidifying the meaning of feminist actions. A recent example can be the Meghalia movement that aimed to raise awareness to the prevailing misogyny in Korean society, which lost its original aim within a short amount of time. While early feminist groups like the UNNInetwork have a strong purpose and corresponding actions, the goals of more recent feminist movements are quite unclear.
Professor Kim said, “Albeit it is hard to divide idealistic feminism. Since realistic feminism movements always follow, ideological development should run parallel with realistic feminism.” She added that Korean feminism should expand its traditional role as an enhancement movement of women rights to an overall rights movement supporting the social weak—feminism inevitably relates to social justice.
Some Korean feminist groups are already acting for humanitarian purposes. Womenlink aims to fight the anti-democratic constituents of Korean society, as it sees that the core of gender discrimination lies in the anti-democratic structure which oppresses human dignity. Aiming to attack social injustice itself, Womenlink argues that tackling this issue will eventually emancipate women of every social class and occupation from their corsets. Not every Korean feminist group will have the resources to expand their sphere of action this far, and interpretation of the more imminent issues to solve may not accord among feminists. Nonetheless, the fact that humanitarianism lies under feminism would have to be remembered by many.
The Institutionalization of Feminism in Korea
Kim Hee-jung, the former minister of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF), has conducted various projects in an attempt to institutionalize feminism in Korea. The Korea Gender Parity Task Force, in which Kim served as co-chairperson, devised a system called the “best family friendly management certifications.” The project started in 2008 and provided various incentives and government certifications for companies that conduct polices that guarantee the work-life balance of both men and women workers. In 2008, only 14 companies were involved, but now the project includes 956 companies.
▲ Stereotypes on women. Provided by the Elle magazine.
Two-track support for paternity leave was another project led by the Gender Parity Task Force. The project’s first track attempts to decrease the financial burden of paternity leave by providing 100 percent of a father’s first month’s salary through governmental aid instead of providing only the current 40 percent. The second track frees fathers from worries that their leave may negatively influence their companies. The government does this by aiding companies in need of temporary replacements for employees on paternity leaves.
The series of projects by the Gender Parity Task Force has brought some visible changes to the Korean society. Currently 100 private companies, public organizations, and 17 government ministries are participating in the task force, by committing to implementing gender equality in all areas, including employment, work-life balance, and female representation. Moreover, the Gender Parity Task Force brought a change in conception of women in our society, in that companies have started to consider women as essential to their long-term development and success.
Though some things have changed for Korean women, Minister Kim said that there is still a lot more left to be achieved. “To narrow the gender gap and ensure women get the same opportunities as men, we need to implement the 4Rs: recruitment, retention, restart and representation for women, at the same time considering how a woman’s life takes shape,” she said.
In Korea, women tend to do well when they first enter the workforce. However, things start to change when they have children─many women are left with no choice but to leave the labor market. Later, when they decide to return to it, they discover their opportunities are limited and their chances of being promoted are low.
MOGEF came up with two resources to resolve this problem. The first was to establish the Women’s Resources Academy, which aims to increase the number of female managers. The academy attempts to provide customized training to women to help them make improvements that are necessary in order to meet the standards of the employers. Another resource is the Women’s Resource Database, which will match qualified females with appropriate jobs. Qualified women will be registered in the database and then recommended as candidates for various government committees or public organizations. The ministry plans to fill at least 100,000 positions using this system.
The newly-appointed minister of MOGEF, Kang Eun Hee, plans to design systems that are basically an extension of what the former minister has done. Her 2016 action plan endeavors to eradicate the blind spots in the compatibility of work and family by strengthening support for work-places that need healthier workfamily balance, and further encouraging small and medium businesses to take part in the changes.
“Although it is impossible to interpret societal phenomenon without consideration of genders, feminism argues that interpreting society in a gender perspective is extremely rare,” wrote Jung Hee Jin in The Challenge of Feminism. Gender perspective was once taboo as a tool for explaining society. However, as long as people define themselves by their gender, raising this issue is essential. This is what feminism aims for. Their efforts and achievements cannot be disregarded—it is those people who brought changes, and made place a better place to live, those who stand up for social injustice. Thorny path it may be, but it is a path worth stepping on. This is feminism.