Tragedy in Seoul brings misogyny to light
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.