Korea’s feminist voices go from the classroom to the street : Fighting patriarchy, the new wave is angry and vocal about issues

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Korea’s feminist voices go from the classroom to the street : Fighting patriarchy, the new wave is angry and vocal about issues


A participant at an abortion legalization rally held in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, holds up a hand-written sign reading, “I am not a means of childbirth,” on July 7. [NEWS1]

On Saturdays, the streets of central Seoul are often filled with rallies both large and small demanding attention to a wide range of interests. Two protests that took place on July 7 made headlines in newspapers across the country - but apart from both being focused on women’s issues, they could not have been any more different.

A demonstration calling for the legalization of abortion held in Gwanghwamun Square was filled with people of all ages and genders sitting peacefully under the flags of 16 different feminist groups who jointly organized the gathering. Clad in black, the protesters all held the same picket sign reading “Abolish the criminalization of abortion.” The dance crew QcanD, made up of queer women, gave a performance during the event before the nearly 5,000 participants started marching to the Constitutional Court nearby.

On the other hand, a rally near Hyehwa Station in central Seoul took place on the main road in Daehangno and was filled with young women dressed in red who covered their faces with masks and sunglasses and held hand-made cards with messages reading: “Female guilty, male not guilty, stop sexist investigations,” “Women change the world” and “My life is not your porn.” The performances held in between speeches openly mocked Korean men, including President Moon Jae-in. The organizer, an internet community based on web portal Daum named “Uncomfortable Courage,” counted the number of participants at over 60,000, while police reported that there were 16,000 people in attendance.

Feminist activists did not have a major platform in Korean society in the earlier years of the new millennium, and many women refrained from proudly calling themselves feminists. But after a 23-year-old woman was stabbed to death in May 2016 by a man in a bathroom near Gangnam Station in southern Seoul, a movement was started. Ever since, feminism has burned brightly and furiously with each day. For the first time in their lives, many young Korean women felt that their lives were being threatened solely because they were born female.

Two years have passed and feminism has now become a fierce ideological battleground where new issues spring up everyday. And while feminism spreads across Korean society, bringing to light topics that had been overlooked in the past, it still remains unfamiliar territory to many people with its diverse branches confusing to follow. From the first women’s studies lecture at Ewha Womans University in 1977 to the thousands of women taking to the streets of Seoul and online, understanding the development and current geography of feminism offers insight into the heated discussions taking place every weekend.

Into the new world

Feminism bloomed quite late in Korea compared to the western world, where progressive thinkers of the 19th century set the foundation and whose names and works served as an important tool for what followed: first with the liberal feminists who asked for equal rights for all of humanity, then the radicals who saw patriarchy as the root cause of all oppression against women. Modern history in Korea is bruised with wars and dictatorships, during which the seeds of feminism struggled to take root until the 1970s.

Female factory workers participated in the pro-democracy movements and banded together to ask for equal rights, but their arguments failed to create fundamental discussions on the patriarchal oppression of femininity, according to late sociology Prof. Jang Mi-kyung from Chonnam National University in Gwangju.

“Feminist movements came forward with pro-democracy movements against the authoritarian regime, while also representing female laborers’ issues,” reads Jang’s explanation. “Issues like anti-authoritarian uprising, establishing labor unions and higher wages were at the surface, while things like maternity and sex crimes were pushed back. Back then, female laborers and female activists lacked the awareness of liberating females, and it was difficult to carry out female liberation movements as things like the right for survival, human rights, pro-democracy and anti-authoritarian movements were desperately needed.”

Then in 1977, the first women’s studies lecture in Asia opened at Ewha Womans University, an academic attempt to look into the lives of women, not from the male perspective but from the female standpoint, which had not been considered before. Female professors and women’s institutes who had taught people outside of academia sought to create an intellectual foundation for female citizens.

“When the lecture opened, students would line up outside [the building] starting at 5 o’clock in the morning to enroll in the first ‘Women’s Studies’ class,” according to a 2005 news article from the Ewha Womans University press office. “It was a sensational class back then. The lecture was taught by a team of professors, who touched on a variety of issues such as women’s literature and history, and they tried out new methods such as discussions, drama and interviews.”

Ewha Womans University was also the first to establish a women’s studies graduate course in 1982 and appointed Jang Pil-hwa as the nation’s first women’s studies professor in 1984. “With Prof. Jang Pil-hwa, the women’s studies department began to take shape. The women’s studies department that was set up within the graduate school made deeper research into feminism possible,” reads the article.

By setting up an academic foundation, discussions on feminism began to bloom. Organized women’s groups soon followed in the 1980s, many of which survive to this day and act as important figures in the feminist scene, including the organization that became the Korean Women’s Development Institute and the organization which later became Korean Womenlink. The Korea Women’s HotLine was founded in 1983, and many others sprang up across different fields in the coming years, each bringing to light women’s experiences both in the workplace and the domestic sphere.

Feminists in Korea

In the 1990s, Korean feminism began to take the shape in ways that resembles what it is today. Women’s organizations from the earlier years focused on what could be changed for women, mainly in the professional sector. Much of their actions remain at the forefront of issues to this day.

The Young Women’s Christian Association, founded in 1922, is perhaps the oldest surviving women’s organization in Korea. Another important organization, the Korean National Council of Women, was founded in 1959. The two organizations have worked for the empowerment of Korean women for decades, but in methods that are much more moderate and peaceful compared to those who came after it. The biggest item on their agendas is ensuring that women can participate in all sectors of society and demanding that high-ranking positions in the government are 50 percent female.

In the 1990s, women’s organizations sprang up in different fields after the immediate authoritarian issues were gone, mainly focusing on female sexuality and equal rights. Women’s organizations pushed for the passing of a sex crime act in 1994 and the amendment of an anti-prostitution law in 1995. Gender inequality within the domestic sphere, discrimination experienced by women and maternity leave policies were pressing issues at the time.

Korea Women’s HotLine, Korean Womenlink and Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center remain some of the biggest names in the Korean feminism movement to this day. The organizations are constantly working on issues such as sex crimes, sexuality in the media, prostitution, abortion and other urgent issues of modern society - problems that had previously only been raised by radical feminist thinkers but are now frequently discussed and debated topics in the general public.

“Radical feminists rejected the idea of femininity as asserted by the patriarchal system,” explained researcher Choo Ji-hyun who studies gender criminology at the Korea Institute of Criminology. “They sought to reveal how power dynamics work in the gender issues and fought against it. And many of the problems [posed by feminist organizations now] are similar to those from the radical feminist groups of the past, as well as how they have developed. But it’s hard to say that Korean feminism is downright radical.”


Over 60,000 women attended the Hyehwa Station rally in central Seoul on July 7, according to organizers, demanding that police investigate male and female criminals equally. [NEWS1]

Today’s feminists

Compared to the generation of feminists born out of the democracy movements of the 1970s and ’80s who distinguished themselves by either fighting for eliminating inequalities at home or at the workplace, the fairly recent wave of feminism which began in 2015 is divided by whether to embrace differences in sexuality or to be exclusive to cisgender women.

Although it no longer exists, the latest feminist wave came with a website named Megalia that was established in June 2015. It started off as a section within a web community known as DCinside, which is divided into subcategories of different subjects. It came independently with a separate website that openly called itself feminist and was perhaps the first web community to do so. The members were mostly women in their 20s and 30s who expressed their rage towards the patriarchal society they lived in and took part in what became known as mirroring, or taking the hate speech they had endured from men for years and flipping it around to mock men.

In December 2015, members of Megalia began to debate over whether or not to include members of the LGBT community as part of their feminist movement. Some members referred to sexual minorities - especially to the gay and male-to-female transgender communities - with insults, while the managers of the website prohibited such vocabulary. Those who only saw biological females as the rightful holders of the feminist flag came together under the name “Womad,” while the rest of the moderate users dispersed into different internet communities of their own.

Womad users refuse to be called feminist and go by the label of misandry and female chauvinists. “Womad isn’t a feminist [site], but a place of misandry,” reads a post uploaded on July 5. “We don’t hate men for a purpose but just as a sport. And this isn’t a radical feminist site that wants to ensure the rights of women. We want to turn over society so that vaginas rule [the country]. We’re a female chauvinist site.”

Regardless of their self-proclamation, Womad is at the core of all heated discussions surrounding feminism in Korea these days, more so because of their aggressive and provocative actions towards whomever they perceive as part of the conventional social order. For instance, a member posted pictures of a Catholic sacramental wafer painted with insults as well as pictures of her burning it on July 10. The incident aroused rage from the general public, and feminist groups were divided even further on July 13 after a post containing a photo of a fetus that appeared to have been artificially separated from the womb appeared on the site with a message reading, “I’m not sure how to take care of this. I don’t know whether the stray dogs outside will eat this.”

“The two driving forces of Womad are anonymity and flexibility. Some [of the members] define themselves as radical feminists while others refuse to be classified under the word feminism,” explained Prof. Yun Ji-yeong of the Institute of Body & Culture at Konkuk University. “It is difficult to define them into one feminist group. The misandry they insist on is actually impossible in a male-oriented society. But the reason they still insist on saying so is because they want to resist the conventional social structure in which men are the only complete versions of success.”

The Gwanghwamun abortion legalization rally, on the other hand, was a display of feminist solidarity that was attended by a mixture of people who readily call themselves feminist. Since the abortion issue lies at the center of many feminist organizations, participants from a diverse pool of feminist organizations unified under the goal of decriminalizing abortions, but on different grounds. Some see the lack of access to abortion as a means of oppression, while others believe that access to abortion is a human right.

But, according to Prof. Yun, this does not mean that one is right or the other wrong. “Dividing one type of feminism as right and other as wrong, good feminism and bad feminism, is forcing the feminist movement into the male order. This goes by the logic that peace is the only face that men allow, and that feminism cannot liberate women without the permission of men.

“The reason radical feminism is so popular among younger women is because it carries the awareness to the inequalities they experience, and because it asks for a change that uproots those problems. It’s not an attempt to adapt to the male-oriented society to a certain point and stay there, but to scrutinize every detail to create new family structures, new relationships, new life cycles, new residential methods and new power dynamics.”

“The activist movement for the socially weak touches on the grounds of what people had taken for granted, and people inevitably feel uncomfortable,” said Prof. Lee Na-young of sociology at Chung-Ang University to the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It means that inequalities have become so universal, and also proof that it needs to be changed now.”

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]
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