South Korea gender roles

In South Korea, there are traditions of a very hierarchical view of gender roles. At the same time, many young South Koreans are challenging the old traditions. Photo: Collage, Sergio and Dconvertini, Flickr.


South Korea's feminist struggle is being waged with a pen

In South Korea, there is strong opposition to gender equality. This is largely due to the hierarchical traditions of ideas that characterize the country's culture, says literary critic and professor Dongshik Kim. Now a new generation with a more modern attitude is taking up the fight, among other things with the help of literature.

I leave a noisy exhibition hall - where thousands of visitors have gathered for this year's edition of the Book Fair in Gothenburg - and step into one of the seminar rooms. Of this year's three themes for the fair, media awareness, South Korea and gender equality, the latter two fall on my table. 

Due to the criticism that is sometimes directed at feminist movements - that the issue of gender equality is driven from a white, Western upper-class perspective and excludes other groups - I begin to think about what feminism looks like in South Korea. 

In the Book Fair's catalog, I read how Helen Pankhurst, a British women's rights activist, feminist and author, answered questions about gender equality. She believes that the three most important problems today are violence against women, economic inequality and the fact that women are often judged by their appearance while men are judged on the basis of their actions and statements. Whether this is true in South Korea, I hope to find out during the upcoming seminar.

The seminar "South Korean feminism and its future" begins with a conversation about the photography that adorns the front page of the latest issue of the art and literature magazine NUMBER OF 10. Here is a laughing, slightly ruffled woman lightly dressed portraying a Greek goddess of love - but in traditional Korean costume. It's part of renowned South Korean photographer Park Youngsook's feminist photography. The speakers describe the meeting between the traditional Korean and the released woman as a recurring tension in Park Youngsook's pictures. This tension makes the photographs themselves a clear symbol of the feminist struggle being waged in South Korea.

During the seminar, Dongshik Kim, literary critic and professor of Korean literature, explains that the tradition of ideas, Confucianism, has long had a great influence on South Korean society. Within Confucianism, the family and its structure play a central role. The view of relationships is hierarchical, including between older and younger but also between men and women. As a woman, you should always submit to your father, your husband and your sons. These hierarchies must, in accordance with Confucianism, also be reflected on a societal level. As between ministers and their prince. 

Award-winning author Keum Hee Kim, who sits in the armchair next to Dongshik Kim on stage, believes that South Korean literature today rarely depicts the sexual liberation that Park Youngsook's photography plays on. women often encounter. 

Keum Hee Kim gives an example from everyday Korean life that she depicts in one of her works. The situation she describes is the taxi ride, when a woman - often young, well-educated at the beginning of her career - takes a taxi, often with an older male driver. It is not uncommon for the woman in this situation to endure both verbal and physical harassment. The woman, as a symbol of modernity, expects respect from the service provider because she is a paying customer. The man expects respect for his age and gender in the sign of the old tradition. Taxi travel can be seen here as a metaphor for South Korean society, but it is also a common situation. 

In this way, feminism finds its expression both in literature, here through Keum Hee Kim's award-winning fiction, but also in everyday situations in life. The author Cho Nam-joo writes about how there is often a gap between societal changes and everyday norms. In the novel "Kim Ji-young, born 1982", she describes the main character's thoughts about choosing a last name for her child, about pressure from relatives and about decision-making within marriage:

“There is so much that is changing in society. But the small rules, norms and habits that exist have hardly changed. Therefore, nothing has changed in practice. "

Despite this, there are signs that things are starting to change in practice as well, and not just in literature. In the wake of the #metoo movement, #NoMarriage emerged - a movement in which Korean women actively choose to abstain from marriage and motherhood. Marriage can here be seen as a tool for the hierarchies of Confucianism and a way of joining its traditions. Since the traditional female role is one of the main turning points of the feminist movement, this shows a break with the old traditions. 

The movement has also had political consequences. Fewer and fewer children are born in the country, which leads to an increasingly older population. South Korea also has a very large number of highly educated inhabitants. The combination of these factors leads to a shortage of labor, both in relation to the country's prevailing economic development and to the increasing need for care for the elderly. Pensions also suffer from reduced labor and an older population. 

The government has been running campaigns for family planning for decades, but has now started working feverishly to increase childbearing again. It seems to strive to maintain traditional societal structures and gender roles. As a counterweight, therefore, more and more feminist voices are being raised for, for example, better conditions for combining career and family.  

Author Keum Hee Kim says that the hashtag #NoMarriage, is a kind of declaration required to bring about change. She points out that young people's liberation from Confucianism and the old traditions are increasingly successful. IT and social media are good tools in the fight and are used extensively. When asked if literature can make a difference, Keum Hee Kim answers with a typical South Korean metaphor. Literature works more as a light than as a spotlight, she says. It can illuminate rooms that have not been illuminated before.

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