Tragedy in Seoul brings misog­yny to light

The Myanmar Times - - Views - HYAEWEOL CHOI news­room@mm­times.com

ON May 17, a 23-year-old woman was stabbed to death by a 34-yearold man at a uni­sex toi­let near the Gang­nam sub­way sta­tion in Seoul. What shocked the public most was that the vic­tim was a to­tal stranger to the as­sailant.

His sole mo­ti­va­tion for the crime seemed to be his pro­fessed ha­tred of women. He told the po­lice that he had been hu­mil­i­ated by fe­male cus­tomers at a bar where he worked as a server, and that prompted him to com­mit the crime.

The mur­derer was re­ported to have been di­ag­nosed with schizophre­nia years be­fore. The po­lice and some com­men­ta­tors at­trib­uted the mur­der to his un­sta­ble men­tal con­di­tion. No mat­ter what the ac­tual causes were, the public re­sponse has fo­cused on the misog­y­nis­tic anger ex­pressed by the mur­derer, which has laid bare deeper is­sues em­bed­ded in gen­der re­la­tions in con­tem­po­rary South Korea.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter news of the at­tack went public, peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly women, started to write mes­sages on Post-it notes and put them on the wall near one of the ex­its at Gang­nam Sta­tion. Soon this ad hoc me­mo­rial was cov­ered with more than 1000 Post-its. Those memos re­veal a range of emo­tions – anger, fear, sad­ness.

One woman wrote of the vic­tim, “You are me.” “I am scared be­cause I am a po­ten­tial vic­tim,” wrote an­other. “Women have been sub­jected to dis­crim­i­na­tion. Now we have be­come sub­jected to mur­der.”

An­other said the in­ci­dent should be un­der­stood not just as an in­di­vid­ual tragedy but as “the symp­tom of a sick society”.

“How many women in our coun­try are free from phys­i­cal hu­mil­i­a­tion, rape or the threat of death?”

The public out­cry and mourn­ing in re­sponse to this hor­ren­dous act of vi­o­lence against a woman made it clear how strongly women iden­ti­fied with the vic­tim. The in­di­vid­ual re­ports of dis­crim­i­na­tion and sex­ual or ver­bal abuse – whether do­mes­tic, at school or in the work­place – con­tained in these notes re­flects how per­va­sive the ex­pe­ri­ence is for South Korean women. This in turn cre­ates a sense of sol­i­dar­ity.

Those brief mes­sages con­veyed not only dis­tress and emo­tional pain but also a strong sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity for cre­at­ing so­cial change to­ward jus­tice. One woman’s tragedy brought to light the un­spo­ken in­jus­tice that all women have to bear and mag­ni­fied both the old and new chal­lenges they have to face.

South Korea has re­cently wit­nessed a rapid rise of misog­yny on so­cial me­dia and in the real world. Com­pe­ti­tion for jobs is get­ting tougher and tougher. Women’s grow­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in the labour mar­ket has caused men to be an­tag­o­nis­tic to­ward them, although in re­al­ity the ma­jor­ity of women work­ers are at the bot­tom level of the mar­ket econ­omy hi­er­ar­chy.

Even though women are much more likely to be rel­e­gated to “ir­reg­u­lar po­si­tions” in the job mar­ket, they are still blamed for the lack of job op­por­tu­ni­ties for men. In the do­main of South Korean pop­u­lar cul­ture, terms like “soy­bean paste girl” – a young woman with a Star­bucks cof­fee cup in her hand who ob­sesses about Western brand-name lux­ury items – are cir­cu­lated as a way to ridicule and dis­ci­pline Western­ised women.

In the midst of mas­sive global flows of in­for­ma­tion, im­ages and tastes, women are ex­pected to ex­em­plify South Korean tra­di­tions that ide­alise fru­gal­ity and in­dus­tri­ous­ness in women. Con­ser­va­tive re­li­gious lead­ers and me­dia-savvy pro­pa­gan­dists have been ruth­lessly mo­bil­is­ing the public through dis­torted rep­re­sen­ta­tions of women and their life­style.

This in­creas­ingly vis­i­ble gen­der bash­ing oc­curs de­spite the progress that has been made in the do­main of gen­der over the past few decades. Un­der the pro­gres­sive pres­i­den­cies of Kim Dae-jung (1998-2002) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-07), a series of land­mark laws were pro­posed and im­ple­mented.

Per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant of all was the abo­li­tion in 2005 of the male-cen­tred key­stone of fam­ily law known as the “fam­ily head sys­tem” (Ho­juje). Un­der Ho­juje, only men could be des­ig­nated the house­hold head, a po­si­tion whose author­ity was re­quired for a range of ev­ery­day ad­min­is­tra­tive tasks. That law en­shrined male-cen­tred gen­der re­la­tions that re­pro­duced and re­in­forced un­equal eco­nomic and so­cio­cul­tural prac­tices. Its abo­li­tion was a water­shed event, shift­ing gen­der dy­nam­ics to­ward more equal and demo­cratic re­la­tion­ships be­tween women and men in the fam­ily and society.

Women’s labour par­tic­i­pa­tion has grad­u­ally im­proved, reach­ing 50 per­cent in 2013. Af­ter the most re­cent na­tional elec­tion, women rep­re­sen­ta­tives formed 17pc of the Na­tional Assem­bly, the high­est level in South Korean his­tory, though still con­sid­er­ably lower than the OECD av­er­age.

The pop­u­lar (or no­to­ri­ous) im­age of “al­pha girls” in the me­dia, re­fer­ring to women who are suc­cess­ful, ac­com­plished and am­bi­tious, is in­dica­tive of the rise of women in the public sphere. And an active LGBT move­ment and the rise of mul­ti­cul­tural fam­i­lies have be­gun to desta­bilise het­eronor­ma­tiv­ity and the no­tion of “nor­mal” fam­ily and hu­man re­la­tion­ships in South Korea.

But while this im­pres­sive progress is cause for cel­e­bra­tion, there is a real dan­ger of ig­nor­ing con­tin­u­ing, un­der­ly­ing is­sues. For ex­am­ple, elect­ing one woman as head of state can give peo­ple the im­pres­sion that, when it comes to gen­der equal­ity, the mis­sion has been ac­com­plished. But does that elec­tion of one woman re­ally open the door? How many coun­tries have had two, three or more fe­male heads of state?

Many more op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able to women in var­i­ous sec­tors of society have led peo­ple, es­pe­cially young South Kore­ans, to ques­tion the rel­e­vance of fem­i­nism for their lives. But the mur­der of one young woman in Seoul and the sto­ries that fel­low women shared in re­sponse to that vi­o­lence are a pow­er­ful re­minder that progress in gen­der equal­ity is tan­gled up with the per­sis­tent gen­der norms and prac­tices of old, as well as new chal­lenges in the present.

– Asian Cur­rents

Hyaeweol Choi is pro­fes­sor of Korean stud­ies and di­rec­tor of the Korea In­sti­tute at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

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