The Asian Voice

Despite bickering, feminism remains relevant: Korea Herald columnist

The writer says leaders should think about long-range plans to alleviate the distress of the youth of both genders, rather than appeasing any one side for political gain.

Women wearing masks walk in a shopping district in Seoul, South Korea, on July 9, 2021.
Women wearing masks walk in a shopping district in Seoul, South Korea, on July 9, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - "Is feminism such a problematic word that we should avoid using it?" I asked my staff at Koreana. I suggested "Feminist Narratives" as the title of the magazine's special focus on acclaimed female film directors. To me, reframing the title to avoid poking a small number of misogynists was not justified.

I believed the filmmakers' projects have had the same objective: to delve into subjects that have always been ignored, overlooked or understated in a deeply patriarchal Korean society. I didn't doubt that their scripts were related to feminism, whether it be the movement or just the ideal. Their aim was to give women a louder voice and improve their lives.

Misgivings were widespread. My colleagues said the title should not sound provocative and run the risk of being engulfed in a prolonged imbroglio. I finally relented and the title became "Women's Narratives: A New Wave in Korean Cinema," which I believed was neutral.

Nevertheless, pressing questions remain. Have women in this country achieved full equality and feminism has outlived its usefulness? Do Korean women today hold more power than men, as some anti-feminists insist? Is the playing field now tilting against men, not women?

The debate at Koreana occurred in the wake of the suicide of a female noncommissioned Air Force officer. What did her death mean? Why should the young woman, a master sergeant with promising career prospects, take her life?

Eventually, the nation learned that she was sexually assaulted in February, about three months before her death. Her assailant was a fellow officer. She immediately reported the attack, but the entire chain of command buckled.

Instead of military justice, the officer suffered secondary traumatization amid systematic attempts. Her colleagues and superiors handled her case with silence and cover-up. It was only after her family made a public appeal that procedures began hurriedly to arrest the accused and start an investigation.

Last week, some three months later, another female military officer took her own life - this time in the Navy. She was allegedly driven to death in what appears to be a mirror case of the Air Force officer's fate.

According to media reports, the 32-year-old petty officer was sexually harassed by a senior colleague in late May. She notified her supervisor immediately after the incident, but without filing a formal report, wishing for the case to be settled quietly. It appears no proper action was taken between then and Aug 7 when she finally informed the commander of her unit about her case.

A formal report was filed on her request two days later. She was transferred to another unit on the same day but was found dead in her newly assigned base three days later. President Moon Jae-in ordered a thorough investigation, and Defense Minister Suh Wook apologized to the dead officer's family and vowed to improve the military's reporting and response system on sexual crimes. Just like before.

Of course, no system works if the levers are not pulled. The question lies in how our military perceives its female members -- how it respects the basic rights of servicewomen. The repeated sexual offenses in barracks and the incredibly irresponsible response by the chain of command doesn't only bespeak lax discipline in our military. It underlines the long way to equality in human dignity and rights that still lies ahead for women in this country.

The torrent of invective heaped on archer An San during the Tokyo Olympics revealed another face of anti-feminism, or how women of this country face gender-based abuse and pressure.

Despite her brilliant performance that earned three gold medals plus breaking a record, the 20-year-old was denounced for having short hair. Some sexist detractors even demanded her medals be returned. Do they suggest female Olympic athletes should include fashion modeling in their training? Short hair is common among female athletes. It is simply practical.

As the archer herself replied to a hostile commentator, it's more comfortable - and no doubt convenient in training and competition. Moreover, whether an athlete or not, everyone can choose their own hair or clothing style. Labeling someone based on appearance and inciting hatred cannot be justified under any pretext.

There is no doubt that "feminism" isn't universally welcomed. Polls in various countries have found that many people, including young women, don't identify with the term even though they support equality of the sexes. The reluctance largely stems from the stereotyping of feminists as being "antisocial, self-centered, unattractive, or man-hating."

In Korea, many young men, especially those in their 20s, appear to believe that feminism is no longer about gender equality, but discrimination against men. Fueling their anger most of all is compulsory military service. Unlike their father's generation, most young men today don't seem to feel their 18-21 months of military duty is owed to the country, but regard it as a waste of their time.

They complain that during their absence, women take away their opportunities in society and the highly competitive job market. Contrary to their belief, however, the tables have not been turned so clearly. Korea ranked at the bottom, at 31.5 per cent, in the OECD's 2020 gender wage gap. In the percentage of women in parliament, Korea was third lowest after Japan and Hungary, with 17.1 per cent. These disparities are alarming given that the nation has almost closed the gender gap in education.

It must be recognized that adding to the frustration of young men is a double-digit unemployment rate, or gross underemployment, among young adults and skyrocketing housing prices. Against this backdrop, leaders of our society, especially those in power across party lines, should think about long-range plans to alleviate the distress of the youth - of both genders - rather than appeasing any one side for instant impact on elections. Feminism, after all, is about the equality and full humanity of both women and men, as Gloria Steinem famously said.

  • The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.