[OUTLOOK]False arguments for patriarchyMarried for 20 years, Mrs. Lee has two daughters, ages 15 and 18. Her husband recently died of a heart attack. Soon afterward, Mrs. Lee found out that her husband had a 3-year-old son from an extramarital affair. According to Korea's Civil Act, the little boy automatically became the head of the family, even though he is a mere infant who does not even live with Mrs Lee and her daughters.
Mrs. Lee is one of many women caught in the web of Korea's patriarchal and patrilineal legal system. Her case is by no means an exception. The Korean Civil Act revolves around the principle of hoju or "family headship," which defines family structures along a male line. Paragraphs 778 and 984 of the Family Litigation Act stipulate that if the head of family dies, then the oldest son succeeds him. If there is no son, then the grandson takes over. The wife only becomes head of family if there are no sons or grandsons.
Because a woman cannot secure the family lineage, boys are considered more desirable than girls. Although illegal, ultrasound scans are frequently used to determine the sex of a fetus. As a result, an average of 30,000 females are aborted each year. Over the last dozen years an average of 113.2 male babies were born for every 100 girls and the numbers are even more lopsided if a family already has one or two girls. In 1994 the ratio of third children born into Korean families was a stunning 205.9 male babies to 100 female ones.
Social and citizen groups have recently begun to challenge the notion of the male head of family. Three years ago, more than 50,000 Koreans signed a petition by a grassroots organization called "Citizens for the Abolition of the Hoju System." The proponents of this initiative draw attention to the system's severe political, social, psychological, economic and demographic consequences. They have appealed to various legal entities, including the Family Court, in an attempt to have the hoju system declared unconstitutional. At the moment the Constitutional Court is debating the case.
Advocates for reform have managed to bring about some changes. Sons, for instance, are no longer legally entitled to the bulk of their father's wealth. A newly created Ministry of Gender Equality has promoted a number of important legal and social initiatives. An increasing (but still insufficient) number of private and state-funded organizations offer advice and support to women on issues as diverse as domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and divorce. But progress is slow. The Ministry of Gender Equality is grossly underfunded and the hoju system remains intact, despite President Kim Dae-jung's election campaign promise to abolish it.
Resistance to change is particularly strong among neo-Confucians, who occupy highly influential positions both as a political force and in the legal system. Neo-Confucians claim that more than 10 million Koreans support their cause. Represented by such organizations as Sungkyunkwan, they fear that the erosion of traditional values would lead to the destruction of the family as a key pillar of Korean society. And they defend their values fiercely. A neo-Confucian scholar who commented on a recent public presentation I gave suggested I and my family would be damned for generations for daring to propose the abolition of the hoju system.
But hostility often masks the lack of good arguments. Neo-Confucians claim that the concept of a male head of family is in the nature of Korean people and part of the peninsula's long and proud history. The facts suggest the opposite: today's hoju system is not only a very recent historical product, but also an external imposition -- it was forced on Korea during the Japanese colonial occupation. Even during the neo-Confucian-influenced Joseon Dynasty that lasted until 1910, women had more rights than now to assume the position of head of family. Things were even more complex -- and more equal -- during the preceding Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). A thousand years ago, a woman could perform an ancestor worship ceremony and sons had no automatic right to become the head of family. A 3-year-old boy, for instance, would never have been able to assume that position during the Goryeo or the Joseon Dynasty.
Challenging the legal system is only the first step in creating equality for women. Far more difficult is the task of altering the moral values that have sustained and legitimized the patrilineal legal code. It is important that this challenge be taken up not only by women's groups, but also by men. The latter have a particular moral responsibility to use their privileged position to press for change toward a framework that guarantees justice and equality for all Koreans.
The writer is a professor of law at Pusan National University.
by Kim Sang-yong