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Taking to the streets to fight misogyny : Organizing online, young women turn anger into action

SECOND IN A TWO-PART SERIES

Jan 05,2017
Young women came out to the streets chanting “My body, my choice” on Oct. 15 in front of Bosingak, central Seoul. They wore black, as pictured below, to mourn the loss of their reproductive rights. [YONHAP]
On Dec. 30, a person dressed as a red “Baby Vending Machine” walked back and forth in front of the Ministry of the Interior’s building in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. When a passerby pressed a button on the box, a paper was released which read: “I’m sorry. I’m not a baby-making machine. I’m a human being.”

The 20-something woman inside the box, a member of BWave, a coalition of feminist groups online, said that the group decided to create the box to criticize how this country sees women as mere baby-making machines.

What troubled them was the “Birth Map” created on Dec. 29 by the Ministry of the Interior. The website, using shades of pink, included information on starting a family, giving birth and raising children. It all seemed helpful for the public, but the problem was that amongst the information, it also ranked towns and cities across the country by the number of women who are of childbearing age - or more bluntly, fertile.

According to the ministry, the map was created to “show what kind of services and benefits are available in 243 different local government zones across the country, to induce competition between local governments, and to inform the public with statistics regarding marriage and pregnancy.” It was a part of the government’s plan to tackle Korea’s low fertility rate.

Top: The Ministry of the Interior’s controversial “Birth Map,” left, that was introduced Dec. 29. A few hours after introduction, the ministry closed the website saying it will repair to reflect corrections. Above: BWave, a coalition of feminist groups online, holds a one-woman protest while wearing a red “Baby Vending Machine” to “criticize how the government sees women as mere baby makers.” The demonstration has been going on at Gangnam Station and in front of the Ministry of the Interior in central Seoul. The protester hands out a flier reading: “I’m sorry I’m not a baby vending machine, but a human being.” [CAPTURE FROM THE MINISTRY OF THE INTERIOR WEBSITE,BWAVE]
However, they went too far.

“The country that’s always been so discrete went overboard this time and disclosed too much information,” said Kang Seung-ji, 30, who said she was furious upon seeing the map that “just shows you how this male-dominant country sees women as merely baby-making machines.”

Women like Kang began posting comments online, writing “Did they think that men would flock to a town with more childbearing-age women?”

“By revealing such a map showing where its most fertile female citizens live, what did the government want us to do?” posted another woman on her blog, who says she’s of childbearing-age. Referring to the indicator which shows that a large number of women of childbearing-age are living in Seoul and Gyeonggi, but the area has a low birthrate; the blogger said, “it feels like the government is talking around the map, saying ‘hey you fertile girls in Seoul and Gyeonggi, what are you doing not giving birth?’”

Only a few hours after opening up the website, the ministry closed it saying that it will “repair the website to reflect corrections.”

The Korea JoongAng Daily tried to contact officials for comment, but they were never reached.

A number of foreign press outlets, including The New York Times, reported the incident, saying that the government’s idea to reverse the downward trend of Korea’s plunging birthrate, “didn’t click with many.”

Professor Kwak Keum-joo in Seoul National University’s psychology department said, “It didn’t come from ill intentions, but the government seem to have gone overboard.”

“This speaks volumes of the current atmosphere of this country. It just proves how far we are from becoming a developed nation,” she added.

A spokesperson from BWave said, “In developed countries, to solve low birthrates, the society bears the responsibility together, while the government secures jobs for women, and both men and women take responsibilities in raising children.”

“But in Korea, rather than trying to approach it that way, they are just pushing women to give birth, raise them on their own and shift [all of the] responsibilities to women,” she added. “This is why we can’t stop coming out onto the streets and speak out.”


Coming together

This is not BWave’s first time to publicly raise their voice.

The group has been holding protests, but have not received much media attention, having been overshadowed by the large-scale demonstrations that have been going on every Saturday in central Seoul since Oct. 29 against President Park Geun-hye. Inspired by the pro-choice marches held in Poland dubbed “Black Monday” that took place early October, a coalition of women’s rights activist groups, who call themselves pro-choice activists, launched their own “Black Sunday Korea” protests. The group, composed mostly of young women in their 20s, demands full legalization of abortion in Korea. They wear black to show that they are mourning for their reproductive rights, according to the group. Using social media, they asked women who sympathize with their cause to show support by turning up to the protest wearing black, or to post pictures of themselves wearing black with a hashtag: #mybodymychoice.

At the Oct. 23 protest being held in front of Donghwa Duty Free in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, about 150 young women were protesting under heavy rain, shouting out the rallying cry “my body my choice.” It was their second demonstration - the first was held on Oct. 15 in front of the Bosingak bell in central Seoul and was attended by about 500 women.

“We are not connected to any political activists,” said a spokeswoman of the group. “About four to five feminist groups on a portal site Daum identified with the issue and decided to come out on the streets.”

The following Sunday, more women joined the protest and organizers decided to collect signatures from passersby to urge the government to drop their plan of strengthening penalties for doctors who carry out illegal abortions. For four hours, about 250 signatures were collected, according to the group.

When asked if they managed to collect any signatures from men or saw support from male passersby, the woman on the signature-seeking desk said, “There were some older men who showed discomfort and cursed as they went past.”

“Most signatures are from women, but some who walk by with their boyfriends made them to sign as well,” she added. “Except that, there have been no male supporters.”

Meanwhile, young female protesters continued their chants.

“We are not incubators,” shouted a woman leading the chanting on a microphone.

“We are not incubators,” repeated the crowd.

“My uterus is my opinion,” again yelled the leader. “My uterus is my opinion,” the crowd repeats.

When passersby took out their smartphones to take pictures, the girls shot them an angry look yelling, “Don’t take pictures!”

The group has held a total of four Black Sunday Korea protests, collected 11,090 online signatures and 651 from offline. There are two upcoming protests, one on Friday in front of the Ministry of the Interior to express anger against the government’s Birth Map and another one on Sunday in front of exit 10 at Gangnam Station, to demonstrate for the full legalization of abortion in Korea.



Demanding choice

These young Korean women are angry.

What made these young women to take their anger to streets?

According to the spokesperson of the organizers, which includes some of the most radical feminist groups online such as Womad, they are angry because the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced last September that it will revise a bill and step up the penalties for illegal abortion. If revised, doctors who conduct illegal abortions will get their license suspended for a year, up from the current one month suspension.

In Korea, abortion is illegal with the exception of a few cases such as preventing a threat to a woman’s health or in the case of rape, but it is only allowed within the first 24 weeks. If a woman is found having undergone an illegal abortion, she is subject to a year in prison or a fine of up to 2 million won ($1,665).

Hong Seung-hee, 37, a social activist and artist who revealed that she had an abortion in the past said during the protest on Oct. 15 that “it’s not only up to women to use contraception. No matter how careful you are, you can get pregnant. But it’s only women who get fingers pointed at them for undergoing an abortion.”

The revised bill was to be enacted Nov. 2, but after facing a strong backlash from some obstetricians and women’s activist groups, the health ministry decided to drop the plan and maintain the current penalty of a one-month suspension for doctors.

The protests were supposed to be a temporary one organized by a coalition of different online groups, but they decided to make it permanent and formed an organizing committee, BWave, after their third protest.

“After fierce protests, the government said it will drop the plan to stiffen penalties on doctors, but we believe we have to continue voicing our arguments,” said the spokesperson from BWave, who requested not to be named or described in any manner. She said that feminists like themselves suffer from sexual harassment, verbal abuse and become subjects of mockery by anti-feminist male groups once their identities are revealed.

“In order to fundamentally improve the status of women in Korea, we must continue to speak out and demand the full legalization of abortion,” the spokesperson said.



The catalyst

According to experts, the starting point of the collective public action by activists was the murder case that took place near Gangnam Station last May, in which a 34-year-old man stabbed a 24-year-old woman to death because he had been “belittled” by women.

This crime, although police concluded that it was a random crime by a man suffering from a mental illness and not a hate crime against women specifically, is what feminism professors believe to be the main spark of this collective action. On top of that, the disappointing responses from men after the crime infuriated these women even more, causing them to raise their voices.

“It seems like these young women who have always felt uncomfortable with the male chauvinism that’s deeply rooted in our society, were encouraged to come out…” said Kwak from the Seoul National University.

While the mourning of the victim was still ongoing at exit 10 of Gangnam Station, another incident took place at gaming company Nexon in August, fueling anger in women.

The game company faced fierce criticisms after firing female voice actress Kim Ja-yeon for tweeting a photograph of herself wearing a T-shirt that read “Girls do not need a prince.” The T-shirt itself wasn’t the problem. But, because it was being sold by Megalia, a feminist group online, to raise money to finance lawsuits against Facebook who had been deleting Megalia members’ pages upon complaints.

Nexon said it decided to fire Kim and delete her voice from games after floods of complaints made by male users of its online game “Closers.”

Such events made radical feminist groups step up their man-hating comments, mockeries and bashing misogyny on Internet community sites, which in some cases, went too far. Megalia members, especially, use the so-called “mirroring” tactic and parrot misogynistic comments made by those on male dominant web forums, but replaced the words referring to women.

Men who were exposed to such comments responded sensitively. They created anti-Megalian pages to express hatred, rebuked webtoons that showed hints of female superiority and demanded that singer Ahn Ye-eun, who supported Megalia publicly, make an apology. It even made the minor opposition Justice Party withdraw a statement that allegedly sided with Magalia after criticisms and defections of some of its party members.

Meanwhile, many frowned at the confrontation between young men and women online, and criticized the women for fighting hate with hate.

Experts say the actions of the young feminist groups may have been extreme, but that it makes sense for them to be angry, explaining that women in Korea are prone to sexual assault and that the country has been suffering from deep-rooted gender inequality.

According to feminism writer Jung Hee-jin, Megalia was created in an attempt to resist against the random hatred expressed by far-right men’s forum Ilbe.

“I want to ask what this country did to protect women who became victims of verbal abuse from this particular group of men,” wrote Jung in the newspaper Hankyoreh.

According to a figure from the National Police Agency, the number of date crime cases increased from 6,675 in 2014 to 7,692 in 2015 and that 79.9 percent of the victims were women. The Supreme Prosecutors’ Office also revealed that sexual assault cases more than doubled over a decade, from 11,551 cases in 2005 to 29,863 in 2014. The cases where young females under 20 years of age were victims, also increased drastically from 714 in 2005 to 2,564 in 2014.

It doesn’t stop there.

According to the Glass Ceiling Index created by The Economist last March “to show where women have the best chances of equal treatment at work,” Korea ranked the last, at 29th, among the 29 OECD countries that were evaluated. The Economist came up with the index by combining “data on higher education, labor-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights, business-school applications and representation in senior jobs.” Each country’s score is a weighted average of its performance on nine indicators and Korea got an overall score of 25 out of 100. The OECD average is 56.

“I don’t think that the girls decided to come out in front of the public just because of the abortion issue,” said Professor Kwak from Seoul National Unviersity.

“Our society is experiencing the period of transition, from a patriarchal society heading towards a society of gender equality. That ought to create conflicts between men and women. But still there are so many instances where women feel unequal in this society and I think they are taking this opportunity to plead for gender equality.”

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]


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