What It’s Like To Be A Woman In South Korea, Where Anti-Feminism Is Rampant: NPR
South Korean women take part in a march in support of feminism during a protest to mark International Women’s Day in Seoul on March 8, 2019. Anti-feminism has been on the rise, spurred on this year by President Yoon Suk Yeol . Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images hide caption
toggle caption Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images
South Korean women take part in a march in support of feminism during a protest to mark International Women’s Day in Seoul on March 8, 2019. Anti-feminism has been on the rise, spurred on this year by President Yoon Suk Yeol .
Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images
South Korean feminists plan to hold nationwide protests against gender-based violence this weekend, the first to occur simultaneously in multiple major cities since the pandemic.
It is a response to an anti-feminist wave that has swept across South Korea, creating a tense gender war where talk of women’s rights is taboo and men say they are now victims of gender discrimination.
The pandemic had halted most public gatherings, but with restrictions being eased this year, feminists are returning to the streets in greater numbers.
In October, thousands of people from across the country flocked to Seoul to protest President Yoon Suk Yeol’s plans to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Civic, labor and social groups, including the United Korean Women’s Associations, joined forces to call on the government to promote women’s rights.
The feminist organization Haeil (“tsunami” in Korean) is leading protests in the cities of Seoul, Gwangju and Busan on Sunday.
An administration that feeds anti-feminist sentiment
The South Korean women’s movement has made leaps and bounds in the past five years, creating one of the most successful #MeToo movements in Asia. The move removed senior public figures accused of sexual misconduct, including the mayor of Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city.
But now some men think things have gone too far.
Yoon won the presidency earlier this year on a platform that accused feminists of misandry and appealed to young men who feel they should bear the brunt of Korea’s growing economic insecurity and shrinking job market. Policies aimed at increasing economic opportunities for women and closing the gender pay gap have fueled resentment of young men towards women.
Anti-feminists have taken to social media and online communities to spread their belief that Korean feminists are radically male-hating. A YouTube channel with more than 500,000 subscribers uploads videos targeting feminists as “mentally ill” radicals promoting female machismo.
Yoon has continued to push her anti-feminist agenda in recent months, insisting that she will go ahead with her campaign plans to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. The ministry was established in 2001 to provide resources for girls experiencing sexual and domestic violence and to ensure that policies do not discriminate on the basis of gender.
Yoon blamed ministry officials for treating men as “potential sex offenders” and increasing gender inequality.
“Abolishing the gender ministry is about strengthening the protection of women, families, children and the socially weak,” she told reporters in October.
What is it like to be a woman in South Korea?
Shoppers walk past cosmetics shops in the Myeongdong district of Seoul in 2019. Women in South Korea are held to a standard of beauty that many consider unfair and inappropriate. Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images hide caption
toggle title Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images
Shoppers walk past cosmetics shops in the Myeongdong district of Seoul in 2019. Women in South Korea are held to a standard of beauty that many consider unfair and inappropriate.
Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images
Over the past two decades, South Korea has continued to boast the largest gender pay gap among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. As of 2021, the gender pay gap in South Korea was 31%, more than double the OECD average of around 12%. For comparison, the wage gap is 16.9% in the United States.
South Korean women largely must choose between career and family, and The Economist’s glass ceiling index ranks it the worst OECD country for working women in 2022. Strict maternity leave policies in the workplaces are one reason for South Korea’s alarmingly low fertility rate. to 0.8 children per woman, the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank.
Aside from discrimination in the workplace, women are held to a standard of beauty that many consider unfair and inappropriate. There is a stigma against women who don’t wear makeup or have short hair, said Yusu Li, a member of the Haeil women’s group.
Danbi Hwang, another Haeil member, said that if women don’t wear makeup to work, coworkers ask, “Are you feeling okay? Is something wrong?”
“They respond by directly attacking the appearance of women,” he said.
The “escape the corset” movement took South Korea by storm in 2019, a rejection of the country’s beauty standards and social pressure to conform.
But these social expectations towards women still exist. In one notable case, at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, South Korean archer An San, who won three gold medals in Tokyo, became the target of online abuse by anti-feminists who claimed her hairstyle indicated she was a woman. radical feminist.
A witch hunt against feminists, or any woman who speaks out on gender issues.
People organize a rally in support of feminism in Seoul in February. Many feminist activists have to operate anonymously for fear of death threats. Ahn Young-joon/AP hide caption
toggle subtitle Ahn Young-joon/AP
People organize a rally in support of feminism in Seoul in February. Many feminist activists have to operate anonymously for fear of death threats.
When even one’s hairstyle can become the subject of verbal abuse and hateful accusations against men, many young women in South Korea are afraid to speak out about women’s rights.
Ellen Kwon, 25, said many young Koreans look down on women for being passionate about gender equality.
Kwon, who has spent half her life in Korea and the other half in the United States, said she would not talk openly about gender issues with her Korean friends.
“I know how the boys will react,” he said. “I know you’re going to say, ‘This is another girl talking about gender issues again.'”
“Femi,” short for feminist, has become a derogatory label for anyone who speaks out about gender discrimination and women’s empowerment in South Korea. Hwang from Haeil said that asking someone if she is a “femi” in Korea is the same as asking if she has a mental illness.
“This kind of rhetoric is censoring women’s voices, especially when they try to support gender issues,” said Jinsook Kim, an Emory University professor who studies misogyny and feminism online. “Many women can’t talk about gender issues in public spaces, and don’t even talk to their close friends, because they don’t know what their friends think about it.”
This is why many feminists work online, anonymously. Many of those who do not receive death threats on a regular basis, leading some to leave the country.
With a lack of public figures who openly advocate for women’s rights, young Korean women are struggling to find their role models, Kim said.
In the corporate world, women only hold about 21% of management positions and only 5% of executive positions in South Korean companies. The policy reflects a similar composition. In the legislature, only 19% of seats are held by women. And, according to Kim, there are very few feminist professors teaching in Korean universities.
“It’s hard to say there is hope when you look at the overall situation,” said Li of Haeil. “But what gives me hope is my fellow feminists, friends, seeing women like me who have short hair without makeup and the women’s rights protests showing that we are not alone.”