6.01.2011

What is the state of feminism in KOrea from your vantage point? Has the progression of women's rights resembled NA's at all?

I am so under-prepared to answer this question that it's not even funny. I'm just barely beginning to get my head wrapped around even the most basic social aspects of Korean society, so I have no idea how people expect me to tackle something like this. Give me another ten years?

So, as usual, I'm going to take one of your questions and completely not answer it and just use it to talk about whatever I want instead. Okay?

What I will say is this: I seriously resent people who make broad claims about how much they feel for Korean women and how horrifically sexist their society is. I resent foreigners who spread rumors amongst themselves about what a back-assed culture Korea has in regards to gender. For a lot of different reasons. Which means this is probably a good time for a list.

1. These accusations usually come from people who haven't taken the time to really get to know any Korean women. Or a variety of Korean women.

I've heard a lot of these diatribes about how sorry people feel for Korean women based entirely in rhetoric that foreigners pick up from other foreigners and repeat. It is one of those things that, for me, falls into the category of the expat echo chamber effect that Roboseyo addressed in regards to a completely different topic. You hear it most often from foreigners who have been here for a year or less. Or, in most cases I would say, no more than a few months. And every time I start to ask more clarifying questions, it becomes clear that they are not speaking from direct experience or knowledge -- they don't have any actual Korean female friends. They don't have more than a surface-level relationship with their female coworkers. They don't socialize with Korean families. They don't have a single Korean couple as friends. They've had no chance to actually observe these situations for themselves, or to hear Korean women discuss their own experiences. They haven't bothered to get the facts or form their own opinions -- they've just turned around and repeated what was told to them by someone else who had it told to them by someone else who had it told to them.

Or. It is also a favorite of foreign men to turn around and tell me, "My girlfriend is Korean and her boyfriend used to beat her." Or something similar. Well. That may be true. And her experience and opinions are absolutely valid. But she is not every Korean woman. And what I have to say about that is, how would American men like it if one American woman who had had one abusive American boyfriend told that anecdote to a Korean, and that Korean turned around and repeated to every other Korean they ran into in a bar about how sexist and oppressive American culture is, because they had this one example to give?

To me, it's a basic that you don't speak for other people -- especially when you are dealing with subjects of oppression. Which is why I might feel comfortable answering this question someday from my own perspective as a foreign woman living in Korea, or with anecdotes and opinions and conversations shared with me by my female Korean friends and coworkers. But I can't answer this question myself, from the perspective of a Korean woman living in Korean society. Because I'm not one. That's not my right. And it would make me sexist to presume that it was. And I don't respect it when other people try to.

2. I find the accusations to be incredibly self-serving.


I don't hear about how "sexist" Korean society is from many foreign women. Almost every time I hear this whole thing repeated, it is done by men. I think there are a couple of reasons for this. I'll come back to one of them under number four on this list.

But, the first reason is that a certain kind of man can use Korean culture's alleged inherent and brutal sexism against women as an excuse to get up on a high horse. I spent a huge chunk of my free time in my first two years here sitting around and listening to foreign men shoot the shit, and I cannot express how many times I've heard the conversation turn to how Korean women prefer to date white (they mean "Western", but they usually say "white") men, because Korean men are too sexist. Well, that may be true. Of those Korean women who prefer to date Western men. But what about the Korean women who prefer to date Korean men, who you've never spoken to on the subject, and who are the overwhelming majority? They don't ever make an appearance in these conversations, not even for the sake of balance. Because they are not convenient to these men's own representation of themselves as some kind of rescuers. I guess it's not enough for some men that their girlfriend wants to date them -- it has to be an issue of "saving" her. That's gross.


And when I do hear this mentioned by women, even then the context tends to be self-serving. IE, my female students are so oppressed within their society and I'm so glad that they've had a chance to meet me as an outside influence, and as someone (the only person) they can really talk to about it.

Bull. Women from all cultures definitely play a role in perpetuating their own oppression, and Korea is no different. You will always have mothers "teaching" their daughters how to "be a lady". You will always have infighting and other women attacking each other over the scraps from the table. But you can't place all women from any culture into that category. Young Korean women have older Korean women to look to, and to rely on. And they do understand their situation and their own culture, and they do support each other. I've even been taken into this fold a time or two myself. For example, the time a coworker made a completely inappropriate comment about my S line in front of everyone, which really embarrassed me at the time, and which I had no means of responding to with the nasty reaction I would have liked to, because he is a coworker, and I am a young female teacher. When we got back to the office, the other teachers (female) surrounded me and told me how appalling they had found the entire exchange to be, and they sat and gave me examples of times things like that have happened to them. Not least of all to reassure me that it had nothing to do with me being a foreigner. They know what the fuck is going on, and they know when shit is fucked up. And they are ready to step up and support each other when these situations arise.


3. The accusation, in and of itself, is usually pretty sexist and often used to perpetuate Western stereotypes about Asian women.

This one could be viewed as a kind of subcategory of the two above -- the problem with thinking of yourself as a "rescuer" of Korean women, or of negating Korean women's own awareness and influence on their own culture and on each other within their culture is that you are subjugating an entire culture of women to the category of helpless victims. Which is nothing new, in regards to Western stereotypes about Asian women.

The delicate Asian flower, meek and subservient. How do poor, poor Korean women ever hope to make it out of their helpless situations within Korean culture, when they are incapable of speaking out or standing up for themselves?

Well. I would imagine they will (and are) (and have been) doing it in the exact same way that Western women are (and have been) (and will). They will tell men 'no'. They will slowly fight their way toward more equal levels of respect in all realms, and their rights to their own choices, and their own bodies, and their own images. Because they are not weaker than us (Western women) and they are not more stupid than we are, either. And if we can do it, then so can they.

I've seen plenty of examples of this, myself. From my coworkers, from my own young female Korean friends, and most of all, from my "ajumma" class at work. Sitting down one afternoon every week for years to talk to a group of ajummas will teach you a lot about how wrong the stereotypes of Asian women as helpless or ignorant of their own oppression actually are. They are fully aware of what is wrong with their culture, and how to go about changing it. And these women, my ajummas anyway, don't take shit from any man about anything.

4. It's obviously very culturally elitist. And not in the way that you think.


I am not one who buys into the idea that I can't criticize a culture's obvious and unilateral faults just because I am not from that culture. Which is why, when people give it genuine thought and actually take the time to get to know the culture they are speaking about, and to speak with respect to the fact that they are not from that culture and do not understand everything, or make comparitive generalizations while negating the faults of their own culture, I don't have a problem with people discussing sexism within Korean society.

The Grand Narrative
is a prime example of this, in my opinion. And his efforts to thoroughly educate himself about a topic, as well as insert actual women's real life commentary and experiences into his articles are the reason why I don't find his speaking on subjects of gender in Korea to be offensive, either because he is a man, or because he is not Korean. I don't think he is in any way ignorant about sexism in the West, and I think he does his dead-level best not to speak for women, instead of bringing in their own accounts whenever he can. He listens to women and I get the feeling he listens to Koreans, as well.

So, that's not the argument that I'm going to make. The argument I'm going to make goes back to why I think I hear Western men reference sexism in Korea a lot more than I hear it out of Western women, and that is because Western men are having a chance to view institutional and societal sexism from the outside for the first time.

Western women tend to know better than to condemn Korea too harshly on these matters, compared to the West, because we've been dealing with a lot of the same things Western men are noticing for the first time in Korea back in our home countries for our entire lives. Being condescended to in the work place is nothing new to us. Domestic violence is nothing new to us. Rape positive culture is nothing new to us. Destructive body image related media is nothing new to us. Women being condemned much more strongly compared to men for all of the same behaviors is nothing new to us. It's just another day in the life. At times, the degrees and specifics are a bit off, but it's not anything we're noticing for the first time, and we know it's by no means particular to Korea.

But, lest the male readers think I am letting the women off the hook, I don't think this is by any means particular to Western men. Western women tend to get it, but they don't always. Because they also experience their own culture not as a culture but as "reality". And they experience Korean culture not as "reality", but as a culture. So, even though they have obviously experienced sexism in vast and various forms in their home cultures, they may not always class it as such. Just as not all Korean women will view their own society as inherently sexist, either.


At the end of the day, what I want to say is this: There are ome serious fucking problems with sexism in Korea. No one is (or should be) denying that. And no one should be afraid to talk about that. But, as always with topics of this kind, I think people need to be careful, to think things through as objectively as possible, and to come to the table with a few humble realizations, not least of all that they are an outsider in regards to Korean culture, they don't understand the inherent ins and outs of everything, they're not always getting access to the whole picture, and their own culture is by no means perfect. Do I think foreigners are incapable of spotting out sexism in Korea? No. It is, at times, quite blatant. And do I think that every commentary on sexism within Korean society needs to be qualified with a statement of, "I know it happens back home, but...." No, I fucking do not. And people who require such caveats irritate the shit out of me. That should be fucking obvious. But don't overdo it. And don't assume you are saying anything novel, or that you've cracked onto things within Korean culture better than Koreans themselves have. Because I can pretty much guarantee you that you haven't. Not in all cases, at least.

Ask me anything.

20 comments:

aprilantipodal said...

I find conversations about Korean society with my female Korean coteachers - especially outside of our workplace - are really, really interesting, because there are some real differences in some basic ideas about women's rights. Back home, the surest way to start a fight with a stranger about women's rights is abortion, because it's so divisive. My coteachers kind of shrug off abortion as not a world-ending Big Fucking Deal, but you know what does get BFD treatment from them? Divorce. I was really taken aback one day because my friend told me she was seriously considering disengaging from a close friend whose parents just filed for divorce, because clearly something was wrong with that family. Another friend of mine isn't telling our coworkers about her impending divorce because she's afraid of the social repercussions.

I wouldn't extrapolate big, Korea-is-like-this rules from anything we glean from our coteachers - who are themselves representative of a pretty narrow slice of Korean culture (educated, relatively well-paid, with excellent matchmaker prospects and guaranteed maternity for years!). I do hope that people get curious enough to actually take their coteacher out for a coffee or a beer or three and get to know them as people, and what their life is like.

andreac said...

Without meaning to make sweeping statements, or disputing the gender power balance in Korea and saying that everything is fine and dandy, there is just a "different" way of allocating gender "equality", I would make the anecdotal observation that there is a sort of popular representation in Korea that Korean women are 'scary, formidable opponents' who strike fear in the hearts of their respective others. Ajumma power is one representation of this. Of course, this doesn't negate the reality that their power is mostly confined to the 'domestic' circle, with regards to household expenses, their children's education etc, while the culture at work is far less permissive, etc. And obviously there is a problem if the popular representation suggests that women have more power than they actually do (socially, culturally, legally, etc) - because those risk being swept under the carpet, justified by superficial representations of non-discrimination. I just wanted to point out that within certain contexts, the power balance is reversed - although it is of course the limitedness of these contexts that is ultimately constraining - but neither is the picture that they have nothing going for them entirely accurate. (Nor am I saying that that is the picture this post in painting)

As msleetobe mentions in one of her posts, life in Korea may still be permissively pro-female... up to a point: http://msleetobe.wordpress.com/2011/04/30/on-equality-at-the-crosswalk/
This example actually reminds me some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments I’ve had in the seminar section of my presentation class. While discussing problems and solutions with regard to gender discrimination in small groups, I’ve overheard again and again by female students that Korea is a good place for women because boyfriends carry girlfriends’ bags. Seriously, over and over again. On good days, I hope that this means that my girls have not had to face any serious obstacles in their lives thus far. Girls are just as educated as boys. University age women don’t have to do military service which seems to allow them more chances to travel, study abroad, and enjoy life in their mid-20’s. Therefore, maybe at this point, life seems pretty pro-female….until getting a job requires weight loss and plastic surgery, or female team members start being excluded from decision making or senior positions, or before they get fired for having a child or find themselves overwhelmed by the double burden. Perhaps, (thankfully?) for today’s Korean girls, they are able to get into their 20’s without significant gender barriers, but there must be still the knowledge of what is coming as most of the female students in the class we’re talking about parenting in, wrote in their most recent assignment that they have no plans to get married either because they don’t think they can be a career woman and a wife, or because they think the burden of marriage (their words) is incompatible with modern womanhood.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

Fantastic post. Thanks for writing it. I think that it's hard to get a grasp on feminism in Korea, for a lot of reasons.

1. because as with so many other social processes, it's happening either simultaneously, or in a different order, than it happened in "The West"

2. because the sheer speed Korea developed leads to a HUGE generation gap which throws a wrench into any discussions -- England was an agrarian society 300 years ago; Korea was mostly agrarian in 1920. And the pace of change isn't slowing down at all.

3. Because it's hard to get a straight story about it, between Koreans who like to generalize their experiences with "Koreans are..." "Koreans like to..." and non-Koreans who ALSO like to generalize their experiences with "Koreans are..." "Koreans like to..."

but...

By sheer force of numbers, the amount of females passing the bar exam, and the civil service exam in particular, are eventually going to shake things up in a big way. The chaebols, I bet, will be the last to effectively change. And the generation that's our age -- just finishing university and getting their legs under them in the workforce right now-- is miles different even than those who came a dozen years before. It's an exciting time to be watching social changes in Korea. Ten years ago, it was rare to see skirts go above the knees, I'm told. Look at the video for a Kpop girl band in 2002 on youtube. Look how differently they dress, and how differently they posture. Then watch a 2NE1 video. I met a woman in 2003 who lied to her parents for 3 years rather than tell them she divorced her abusive husband. Now... there's a magazine targeting divorcees.

http://www.koreaherald.com/national/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20110324000755

"Age 30 anxiety" was about seven times stronger then than it is now.

Who knows what things'll be like in 2020.

al said...

Very thoughtful and insightful post, but, at the risk of sounding like your grandmother, were all those "fucks" really necessary? It seems they detract from what you have to say rather than adding to it.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

There were only five, but three in the last paragraph, so they stuck in the final impression.

동수 said...

Wow, such a provocative topic ㅋㅋ Makes you want to type in something but you just don't know where to begin with. ㅋㅋ
FYI, women's sufferage in S.Korea
began on the 10th of May, 1948 by the constitutional rights.
Not bad if you consider the fact that these Korean ladies really haven't fought for it(No Sarcasm or discrimmination intended!) compared to others such as Germany:1919, France:1944, Switzerland: 1971!!!, U.S.A: 1920(I recall it for white women only-not sure), and UK:1918 which incidents such as the "Derby" took place. As a K.male who studied women's studies which currently is of no personal use to me in making money money money (/ㅜ _ㅜ)/ , the perspective from which I have noticed in regards to gender equality in S.Korea is rather requested out of surpression and then GIVEN to women(which I'm sure a lot will want to beef with me about for having written so) than announcing its deprived God given rights and reclaiming it. Like all blocked pipes, when there's a blockage, it will burst in unpredictable ways(no sexism intended just a figure of speach). The way I see the current gender equality of S.Korea is the same. It's definitely improving into ways where the past surpression against women is know backfiring to Men. Some laws and rights have been recently made to unjustly surpress the men severly to preserve the rights of women. Some are still the same. Nevertheless, it's good to know that there are foreigners who look deep into Korea at times like these where justice and fairness is ambigiuous to all due to rapid changes. I can only hope for a world where no laws should have to protect and divide individual equality because everyone is already aware of it!.
P.S. Love your posts^-^

동수 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
동수 said...

Hmmm... Come to think of it, it's intimidating to have self-observing people like you INP(This is a compliment don't take it the other way around ^-^) carefully digging into S.Koreans and yours. Now we can't take the advantages over those horse-riding folks who have no idea of their own imprisonment weighed by their self-made fantasy burdens as "saviors." Darn it. You should stop enlightening people. We still have a lot to exploit from those folks. ;)ㅋㅋ
FYI, most asian folks know this, and psychologically accepts this for export(not human but empathy) issues. The human minds works in mysterious ways.^-^

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

Dongsu: you are right that one of the dumbest, most arrogant errors that some non-Koreans make is thinking that Koreans aren't aware of the social problems in their own country.

I've met a few older men in Korea who feel like feminism has come far enough in Korea, thanks (before a Korean woman steals his promotion, probably), and rather than call them out, the rest of the people at the table share knowing looks... but you can meet their privilege-denying counterparts in most countries.

Gomushin Girl said...

There's also the totally erronious assumption that there are no dedicated Korean feminists fighting to improve things - which is total BS. There's lots of women here in SK who are both aware of the problems (which, sorry boys, are not going to be solved by having foreign men step in to save Korean women) and working hard to change things. There's feminists and feminist thought and activists everywhere . . . but it's really easy to wander through your day ignorant of the work Korean women are doing in the area. How many random folk from Alberta or Georgia or Brighton or wherever go about looking for feminist activism when they travel abroad, unless they're activists already? And that brings us back to the prickly question of how many people who suddenly become aware of gender inequality here were involved in actively opposing it in their hometowns?

I'm no Picasso said...

Aprilantipodal -- Good points all around. Sitting around with your coworkers outside of work can be really enlightening, even if it is a very particular cross section of society. And it can sure make understanding the workplace a lot easier at the very least.

Andreac -- Again, great points. Just last night when I showed this post to Busan, he came out with the "in Korea, Korean woman very powerful" thing. I explained why I didn't think it was quite that simple. To put it a bit mildly. But it's one of those things I cracked on to really early as being something I'm going to have to understand a lot of things about Korea in general first in order to understand completely. The entire concept of gender appropriate spaces is completely different here, in a lot of situations. It's going to take a lot of time for me to sort all of that out (if ever), which is why I didn't think it was wise at all for me to try to answer the original question.

Rob -- I go round and round about that exact same thing with Busan. He constantly moans about how "boring" Korea is and how I must be tired of learning about it by now, after my meager 2.5 years. I tell him all the time... I feel like Korea is a new place almost every morning when I wake up. Between the thousands of years of history and the speeding bullet pace of social change, I don't think there's any danger of me getting "bored" trying to understand Korea.

But I think especially the generation of women (Gold Misses) who are hitting 35 now who (at least in my work place) are increasingly just refusing to even consider marriage because of the restrictions it will place on them in their lives and careers are already probably making a few people rethink things.

Dongsu -- I think your comment about women in Korea not so much demanding, but asking for and being given equal rights is an interesting one and definitely something I'm keen to know more about. In fact, I'm just keen to know more about it all in general.

But it's a sure thing that times are always changing in Korea, and one way or another, I'm excited to see where things will go. I feel like right now is a really exciting time to be here, and that a lot of lessons can be learned about progress and humanity in general, because of the speed at which Korea has been and is continuing to develop.

As for poor Al.... I don't mean to sound like your grandmother or anything, but I think falls a bit under the category of bad manners to stop in on someone's blog and criticize their writing based on your personal preferences.

Also, I guess you must be new or something, but I hate to tell you that if you found the level of four letter words in this post offensive or off putting, you really just don't stand much of a chance around here.

동수 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
I'm no Picasso said...

Dongsu -- I think you may have misunderstood -- I don't think Gomushin girl was directly addressing you. I think she's just adding a general comment.

Likewise, I wasn't saying you made demands. I was commenting on your comment about women asking and receiving rather than making demands. Which is an interesting idea to me.

동수 said...

My bad my bad~ ㅋㅋ
I guess I was the moron hehe:)
I believe you may be correct ^-^
But just wanted to pass on clear information which was too long hence, I deleted it.
I should get back too work ㅠ _ㅠ

I'm no Picasso said...

Haha no problem. And not a moron, no.

동수 said...

Darn it. I logged in again ㅜ _ㅜ
That's it I'm a slacker. This blog is so addictive.

JSyi said...

Just wanted to say what a fantastic post. It's always interesting to hear opinions from an new perspective, like that of a foreigner in Korea, but an examination of the perspective like this I find very insightful. I think Hames at The Grand Narrative said something similar, but I will definitely be coming back often to compare any new thoughts and observations on the subject against this post.

I'll of course have to rename the title so I can remember what the post is actually about. ;)

Gomushin Girl said...

Ack ~ late to the game and never even saw the comment, but I would like to confirm that it was NOT directed at Dongsu! Entirely a general sort of response ^^;;;

DottedSocks said...

I've never been to Korea, and I don't know a single Korean person so I have no idea what the society is like in real life. I have only watched bucket loads of kdramas, variety shows, movies and other Korean television, I've listened to Korean music and read the lyrics. So in short I only know what the Korean mainstream media is portraying. Which is gender inequality. Period.

Here is an especially good post on this inequality in Kdramas:
http://outsideseoul.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-other-f-word-feminism-versus-korean.html

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