I was aware that gender inequality existed in the world, but before moving to Korea it seemed like a distant issue. I only became a conscious feminist after living in Korea. Feminism is not to be confused with women seeking more power than men, it is simply advocating equality of genders. Feminists (can be both men and women) want females to be treated equally and receive the same opportunities as males. I have personally experienced more sexist encounters in 1 year of living in Korea, than I have in my whole life in England. Most incidents were harmless, but one encounter really opened my eyes.
One summer evening, I was invited to dinner by my friend and a few of her acquaintances. It was a perfectly fine occasion, until people started leaving and there were only a few remaining. 3 guys, 2 girls including me, all aged 20-30. A conversation about education unravelled into the value of women. I was plunged head first into the most jarring opinions of women that I had ever experienced. In the most polite and nicest way possible, I was told that a girl’s appearance and male partner dictates her worth.
It started mild enough with comments such as, “a pretty girl is like gold” and that, “there is no use for ugly girls”. When I explained that a girl’s value is not solely on her looks, everyone including the other girl said, “a pretty girl is more precious than a smart girl” and, “if a girl is pretty, all is forgiven”.
Things took an ugly turn. One guy pointed at the girl next to me and said, “this kind of face will not catch”, implying that she was bait and that her looks were not attractive enough to be taken by a man.I frantically tried to defend this girl and preach to her how valuable was, but she took the side of the guys and told me that my standards are too low. She looked like a perfectly normal girl. When I argued that a girl can choose to stay single, they responded, “and die alone?” and, “that’s what girls say when their pride is hurt”.
That’s when the topic of sexism and gender inequality really kicked in. No matter how hard I defended gender equality, it did not shake their views. I was told that for a woman to be safe, wealthy and live a happy life, it had to be provided by a husband. I may have just been talking with people who have controversial views, and are only a small pocket of society. These people may have gotten carried away. Nonetheless, at that moment I realised that a few Victorian ideals are very much alive today.
The Vicious Cycle
Other than this incident, I have met a lot of fantastic girls who naturally revert into submission when around guys. I was naïve enough to think that all women would want gender equality, because it meant having equal power, money and freedom as men, but I have noticed that many are not keen on the idea.
The power imbalance is romanticised and the norm in Korean modern culture. Girls grow up dreaming of a man with care taking abilities. If this stayed in the fairy tales, then no harm done, but people buy into this. A man telling his girlfriend to not wear attractive clothes (because other men may find her appealing), or forcefully dragging her by the wrist is viewed as romantic.
While Korean society has adapted to European chivalry ideals, for the West this is old. Will a woman only love a man who can provide her with everything? And, will a man only love a woman who is willing to be obedient and only support his lifestyle? It is easy to simple blame the embedded patriarchal society as a whole, but there are smaller issues which contribute to the problem today.
Sexism Or Something Else?
Gender inequality is definitely not ‘one size fits all’. Every country and culture has their own strains of sexism which have filtered uniquely through their history. Korea’s gender problem is different from the West. The root of today’s sexism is of course based off the past, where men were the breadwinners and women looked after children. This historical custom was 99% of the world, which highlights that this is an international issue, but while other countries move forward to equality, what is keeping Korea stuck in its tracks?
The compulsory military service could be a factor as all Korean men must go to the army for 21-24 month, while women don’t. The role of the man may not be entirely shaped by going to the army, but it is defining a rite of passage. This is followed by society’s expectations of a man. Leading up to and after being in the army, a man is reminded of what a man should and should not do. This creates a distinctive divide between boys and girls. It is something that is expected of all men to endure, and women are not involved.
Is it the close family culture where only sons carry the family name? Traditionally women were given to the husband’s family. Although this is not in practice, family values are still very strong. Girls are taught home-making skills to be a good wife. If one does not conform, married life could be difficult. I was the only person at university who could iron properly, because I had been trained since I was 12 by my mother for ‘my future husband’. My brother had no such training.
Is it the workaholic ‘hurry hurry’ culture? Nowadays cut throat jobs in Korea require 10+ hours of work a day, which makes building a family and being a full time worker impossible. So women naturally bow out of work when they get married or pregnant, creating a M-shaped work force. A side effect of this is not hiring women of a certain age or pressuring them to leave so that they can be replaced by unattached men.
Oppression Of Men And Women = Equality?
South Korea may look like a first world country, but for residents it is still a developing country. A lot of the struggles that women face are problems for men too. If both genders are treated badly, could this be considered a depressing form of equality?
The hierarchical society involves the 1% with power and the 99% anonymous workers. Women are commonly oppressed by male seniors as women are rarely promoted to positions of power. However, juniors both male and female undergo the same difficulties; doing things that they don’t want to do and being required to sacrifice.
Girls are expected to become mothers and follow societal norms. Boys also have expectations from family. While the expectations are different, boys and girls are constantly reminded of what they should do and have to do. The pressure to fit into a mould based on gender is something both genders go through. I am sure the restrictions I felt as a girl, who could not do this and that, is similar to the burden of boys being told what to do.
All Bad News For Females?
There are advantages and disadvantages of sexism in Korea. South Korea has ‘men-rights’ groups which fight against feminism. The main reason why these groups exist is because they feel that women reap benefits, and use their gender for special treatment.
During childhood, girls are commonly treated better than boys at school and by adults. They are often more lenient with girls, especially when it comes to corporal punishment. Boys are put through much harsher punishments because it is assumed that they can handle it, while girls do not experience this as much. During my brief stay at a Korean Saturday School and my experience at Korean academies in London, I noticed these differences first-hand. Being late would mean raising arms for girls and doing the plank for boys. In class, naughty boys were hit on the head or had their hair pulled, but girls were only threateningly pointed at.
Then in the teens and 20s, girls receive benefits from boyfriends and male friends. Commonly, the male pays for the meals, dates and lavish gifts. It is seen as more chivalrous and romantic if the guy tends to the needs of the female, however nice or horrible they could be. The woman can treat the man, but there is no big societal pressure. I know some girls who insist on paying themselves, some remain passive and thankful and some think it is the obligation of men.
Although sexism influences girls everyday throughout their youth, it is mainly at adulthood that it rears its ugly head. If a woman is married to a man who wants to provide for his wife, the woman is in charge of the household work and family, including in-laws and the baby, alone. The wife is unlikely to have a job as a mother. If a woman chooses career, promotion will be competitive and her position will mostly be subservient to men, even if the woman is well-educated and qualified.
Like most countries in this world, South Korea is a well-established patriarchal culture. I am unsure if I should diagnose my approach to sexism in Korea as culture shock, or if my thoughts are the widely accepted views of other Korean females too. Being intolerant of sexist remarks and gestures has marked me as a feminist (which isn’t necessarily a good thing). Women who fight for equality in Korean society are easily judged as aggressive, rude and unfeminine, when all they want is to be treated equally and receive the same opportunities. Korea has been making progress, very small and slow, but progress none the less. I am glad that my experiences have made me more aware of sexism, and I hope that others do too.
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