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.