Korean Women Need to Stand as One for Social Change

Last week I criticised the image that Psy is projecting to Korea and the world, but his most recent video does include some buffoonery based on the unfair treatment of women in a patriarchal Confucian society (if you can fight your way through the vulgarity of it all).  I don’t think anyone will really notice and I don’t believe his work will have any bearing at all on highlighting the issue, but perhaps we should give him some credit for at least recognising the situation and making at least a thinly-veiled attempt to bring it to the public eye.  Far from improving the lives of women, however, the video may actually have the opposite effect.

Lets now get off the subject of Psy and deal with an issue that runs rather closer to my heart, especially in Korea.  It is important to me because it includes roughly half the population (that should be enough, shouldn’t it?) but in Korea I do find that I have a greater affinity for the fairer sex rather than the men, my favourite Korean person in fact my favourite person in the world (sorry for the vomit in the mouth) also happens to be a woman, my wife.  Korean society is not in the habit of treating women as equally and with as much respect as I am used to back home, so I become a little irritated with matters on their behalf.  Much of the time, however, I feel that I have more sympathy with them than they have for each other and I am more upset with their treatment than they are with it all.  This is with the exception of my wife, who is wonderfully intolerant of much of the inequality shown in Korea from various sources.

I like Korean women, they are usually much friendlier than their male counterparts and they do retain quite a bit of charming femininity.  I find most of them open-minded, interesting to converse with, and I generally feel a much more comfortable atmosphere around them than with the men.  Perhaps this is all simply a personal thing and others will have completely different experiences and opinions, but it is fair to say I usually think they are quite charming and likeable.  There is just one thing that I really dislike, however, and this is their total inability to stand up for themselves and make the situation better for all women in their country, even the other women that are close to them or that they have interactions with on a daily basis.  It seems as if they are almost their own worst enemy in keeping themselves in subjugation to the men.

Maybe it is part of the culture in this part of the world, but it does surprise me how genuinely unsympathetic and uncaring women can be for each other in Korea.  Empathy, sensitivity, and a caring attitude are all qualities that you expect to be slightly stronger within women than in men but it has always amazed me how quickly these can be forgotten by the women of Korea and how they can turn on each other in situations where – if they showed a little solidarity – they could make each others lives a lot easier.

A pattern that continually appears to emerge in relationships between women in Korea is that of vengeful behaviour, it goes something like this, well, this is what I have had to put up with, so she is going to feel it at least as bad as me or this is the tradition so I’m not going to help her, she is going to have to accept it and get over it like everybody else.  It is tough to explain this without a couple of examples, so here are two, one from the workplace and one from the home:

The hierarchy in the workplace is something particularly damaging to women’s rights in Korea because, although more women are holding more top positions in companies, there are still not many, so women will always be far more likely to be lower down the pecking order and they are already in a vulnerable position because of this.  Younger women are not only forced to be submissive to the men but also to older women in the same company and it is these older women in particular that can make their lives a misery.  In a previous post on Bullying in Korea I explained how the older nurses in my wife’s hospital would pick on those younger than them and purposely make their lives a nightmare, sometimes pushing them to tears.  These older nurses would have had it exactly the same way when they were younger, but instead of understanding the pressures of being a new young nurse and offering a helping-hand or shoulder to cry on, they do the opposite and give them the same treatment as they received out of a strange sense of fairness and spite.

Within the family setting a similar attitude is present when it comes to dealing with the in-laws (Si World as it is known in Korea).  My wife and I sometimes watch a program on Korean TV about the strained relationships between in-laws, especially with regard to daughters in-law.  Not only does trouble often brew between the mother and daughter in-law but also it very often seems that the sisters in-law can be almost just as much of a pain in the neck.  Daughters in-law can be expected to do quite a lot of household chores and perform other duties when they visit and in many cases it seems that their sisters in-law deliberately make their life harder for no other reason than enjoying watching them suffer under their obligations.  They are supposed to suffer, that is the duty of a daughter in-law and no one is going to give them an easier time and least of all someone who would understand how they are feeling the most and someone who might be in exactly the same boat when she goes to her in-laws.  This is simply an attitude that I cant fathom.  Why not go the other way and be helpful and kind-hearted, but it seems very few actually do.  The same peculiar family politics between the women is present within my own Korean family, especially with the different in-laws.  If they are not actively working against each other to make life more difficult for each other, they are often faking pleasantries with each other and then talking ill of them behind their back.  Bitchiness is hardly a trait unique to Korean women, but all the rules and duties present within Korean society and the family seems to multiply the troubles.

You could say that commitment to duty is an admirable thing, but quite frankly, following ones duty in Korea simply plays to the advantage of men and consolidates their power over women.  The way women are treated, especially at work and nights out for example, is unacceptable and if it is against the Confucian tradition for a woman to stand up for herself and say no to singing a song at a noraebang because she is told she has to by her male work colleagues, having another glass of soju, staying out later than she would like, or sitting uncomfortably close to a lurching older man who is trying to put his hands on her, then to hell with that tradition.  Where I live in Jeollanamdo, there are still a number of nightclub establishments where women are forcibly grabbed by the arm and taken to men’s tables and private rooms if the men desire to speak with them, all they have to do is ask the waiter to drag a girl over for them.  Unless they are in the club with their boyfriend or husband they don’t have a choice in the matter and placing a young woman in a private room with a bunch of drunken men is more than creepy and insulting, it could be dangerous for the woman concerned.

Women are equals and should be treated as such.  However, if you accept and behave as if women are equals then the whole tradition of respect culture comes crashing down and shown up for what it really is, unequal by definition and prone to let those of higher status infringe on the rights of others.  To do away with nearly two thousand years of Confucian tradition (and about 700 hundred of strong cultural influence through the Joseon Dynasty) is what the women of Korea are up against, so perhaps it is no surprise they are still struggling to make an impact on society for better treatment.  In Confucian thought a virtuous woman is meant to uphold the ‘Three subordinations’: be subordinate to her father before marriage, to her husband after marriage, and her son after her husband dies.  Men can remarry and have mistresses, but women must always remain faithful even after their husbands’ death.  With this is mind it is easy to see why men are still thought of in higher regard.

To stake their claim for equal rights the women of Korea have to stop being their own worst enemy and bickering with each other over their duties and their petty jealousies.  When any group of oppressed people stands together for equal treatment, whether it is black people, gay people, or women, history has shown that progress is inevitable because what is morally right, reasonable, and logical is on their side.  There is no good argument against their fight, there are only bad ones, and saying this is the way things have always been done is the worst one of the lot.  If the women of Korea could realise this and get behind a movement or group with a charismatic leader, 50% of the population would be impossible to stop and progress would be made.

Right now, all women have got on a national level is the 여성부 (The Ministry for Women’s Affairs), which has a pretty poor reputation in Korea at the moment as a section of the government mainly concerned with being meddling killjoys and banning anything that resembles a penis or a vagina.  Of course they must also have Park Geun Hye’s presidency as another tick in the box, but it would be foolish to think that this really will improve things greatly for women in Korea.  Benazir Bhuttos reign as Prime Minister of Pakistan did not drastically effect the rights of women in that country (which has much greater problems than Korea in that area) and I don’t expect Park Geun Hye will have any significant effect either.  It is up to the ordinary women of Korea themselves to affect social change but, from what I have observed, they cant even stand together in the workplace or within the family home so I am left skeptical about any meaningful change in the near future for the country as a whole.

It is difficult to help those that wont help themselves, but those from other countries can put pressure on others to change their ways if the people within these countries want change.  Without this foreign influence looks much more like sticking their nose into matters that is none of their business, which is exactly how Korean society might see things.  When someone eventually does stand up and make themselves counted in Korea they must be supported by those in other societies because they are going to need all the help they can get, there is a lot of work to do.