The daddy dilemma

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The daddy dilemma

I used to think it was absurd when I heard women complaining about their vulnerable positions in society," Lee No Hyung-bum says. "I said to my girlfriends, 'Hey, a minority is just a minority. You don't become a minority just because you are a woman.'"

That was then. Mr. Lee No has turned his thinking 180 degrees since he started raising his own daughter. The father of a now 15-year-old girl started using both of his parents' family names, and he became a devoted member of the local men's group, Fathers Who Love Their Daughters ("Ttal Sarang Abeoji Moim" in Korean). The 200-member group provides support for fathers who would like to overcome the burden of traditional sex roles in Korean families. In a society where men are expected to be stoic breadwinners, the idea is novel, almost radical.

Recently the group's five-member board got together for their monthly meeting to discuss plans for their Korean Father's Day Festival in May. It will be the group's first major public event since they started meeting last summer.

As the meals arrive at "Mother's Garden," a charity eatery in Jangchung-dong, near central Seoul, the five men are cozily gathered around a small room to talk about work, challenging notions of masculinity and sometimes new kimchi recipes. The restaurant, which trains single, laid-off mothers how to run small businesses, is often packed with members of civic groups holding meetings and discussions over lunch or dinner.

Gwon Myeong-soo, a psychotherapist and the oldest father in the group, offers a suggestion: "I think we should have a session in the festival where our daughters get to list their complaints about their fathers."

Mr. Lee No likes the idea, and fires back, "Oh good. We should call that program 'Let's Sue Our Fathers' and have the girls' fathers stand on stage while the girls are speaking."

More beers arrive at the table and the men's voices begin to split in the air. "I am not sure if my way of being or trying to act like a good father actually means the same thing to my daughter," says Kim Joong-ryol, an environmental activist raising a 5-year-old daughter. "I guess the biggest trick for me is to be a good father and equally try to be a good man outside the home." The crowd nods.

"I am the eldest son in my family, and the star of my small hometown. What else do you expect from a man?" Jeong Chae-ki, a professor of education at Kangwon Tourist College and a leader of Fathers Who Love Their Daughters, says with a sigh.

The only father in the group who isn't raising a daughter, Mr. Jeong says he often finds himself tiptoeing around sensitive discussions of gender issues. "Being a father is about playing a role. Often, the scenario is already given before you choose. You just need to follow the lines," he says. Before joining this group, Mr. Jeong was a founding member of the now more radical men's organization, the Korean Men's League. He worked there as a senior adviser for a few months, but he decided to leave when the league became more involved in attacking women's groups than in serving men's practical needs. He believes Korea's fathers need support groups, such as for those who are in emotional turmoil or for networking among other men in the midst of their mid-life crises.

There was a time when it was an insult to say to a Korean man, "Go home and take care of your child." Men who couldn't provide for their family were considered "incompetent," even useless. Times have changed, but attitudes toward gender roles and responsibilities haven't changed that much.

Lee Ok, the chief counselor of the group's Men's Hotline says, "Certainly, the economic crisis in Korea gave a wake up call to many men. Back then, nobody cared about how they felt, only what they produced. Men realized all of a sudden that they have been valued as a wallet and nothing else."

Unlike the United States or Europe, where the men's movement has been in swing since the mid-1970s, almost right after the peak of the women's movement, Fathers Who Love Their Daughters is one of the first progressive men's groups in Korea to attempt to raise social awareness about the changing roles of the fathers in Korean families.

The group has been particularly active in trying to abolish hoju-je - the family registry system that forbids mothers to be recognized family heads or heirs to property.

In addition to their public activism, the men in the group reject traditional assumptions that men should be the family head or sole breadwinner. Instead they attempt to share responsibilities and privileges with their partners and families.

While they agree on many subjects, there are some disagreements, particularly on the group's name. Some believe the name shows the group hasn't quite escaped the family-centered mind-set. Mr. Jeong believes that there is still a lingering longing for patriarchy within the group. Even the seemingly innocuous word "father" ("abeoji," in Korean), used in their group name, carries the nuance of male domination and power in Korean.

One of the recent related debates that came up in the meeting was how their festival in May should be named. Mr. Chae and a few other members preferred to use "Men's Day Festival," since the members were all men before they were fathers. But the majority in the group preferred "Father's Day Festival" and "Dad's Festival," because they sound more appealing to the general public, an important aspect to building public interest in their family event. Tentatively, the group compromised with "Father's (Men's) Festival."

Fathers Who Love Their Daughters may have unconventional ideas, but they are not as political or radical as other groups in Korea. Some conservative men's organizations are still preoccupied with the biological differences between men and women and their strict gender distinctions. On the other extreme, there are a few groups clamoring for women to be required to serve in the military just as Korean men do. Compared to them, Mr. Jeong says his group takes a moderate path.

"There have been some flaws," says Mr. Jeong. "But we are hoping to provide an appropriate, symbolic father figure in Korea so that our daughters and sons can live without the unequal power relations."

by Park Soo-mee

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