SEOUL, South Korea, Sept. 1 (IPS) – A powerful feminist movement is sweeping South Korea. While women feel empowered to stand their ground, men retaliate.
When South Korean archer Ahn San won two gold medals in just two days during the recent Tokyo Olympics, the response the 20-year-old received at home was mixed. Some of the men got angry and said her medals should be withdrawn. why? Because her short hair was a sign that she was a “man-hating” feminist.
As strange and surreal as it may sound, the attack on An is a grim reminder of gender stereotypes rooted in economically advanced, yet highly gender-discriminatory South Korea — and the massive pressure on women and girls to appear and act ‘feminine’. It’s also another episode of the escalating culture war between the country’s outspoken feminists – and anti-feminists seeking to silence their voices.
South Korea is the world’s tenth largest economy, a tech giant that’s home to Samsung, the world’s largest smartphone maker, and a cultural force K-pop stars like BTS have a global following. But despite all the economic and technological developments, the deeply rooted patriarchy and gender discrimination have not changed little.
South Korea ranks 102nd in the world for gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum. The country’s gender wage gap is the widest among the advanced economies of the OECD member countries.
It has been consistently ranked as the worst place to be a working woman in The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index. Women make up 19 percent of parliamentary seats, roughly on par with North Korea.
Typical South Korean beauty ideals for women include pale and glowing skin, a youthful “childish face,” long, bright hair, wide eyes, a thin nose, and a thin body (almost 17 percent of South Korean women in their twenties are underweight, compared to less than 5 percent for their male counterparts, according to a 2019 study).
The pressure starts early: More than 40 percent of elementary school students wear makeup, and the number rises to more than 70 percent of middle school students.
Run away from the corset
But the women began to resist. A strong wave of feminism has swept the country in recent years, allowing many women to speak out against sexism, assault and defamation like never before.
Since 2018, women have banded together to root out several sexual harassers, including a popular presidential candidate, in one of Asia’s most successful #MeToo cases.
Tens of thousands took to the streets for months in 2018 to demand a tougher crackdown on so-called ‘spycam porn’ crimes that secretly depict women in public spaces from workplaces to public toilets and sharing footage online.
They have successfully campaigned to end the abortion ban. Part of that awakening was the so-called “Escape the Corset” movement, which aims to defy pressure to follow strict beauty ideals.
The women and girls who joined the campaign cut their hair, ruined their makeup, and refused to wear tight, uncomfortable or uncomfortable clothing, instead opting for something more comfortable and practical. Since then, short hair has become a political statement among many young feminists.
However, the wave of awakening also led to a strong reaction from men who – like many around the world – believed that women had gone too far, labeling many feminists as “man-hating” and should be punished.
More than 40 percent of elementary school students wear makeup, and the number rises to more than 70 percent of middle school students.
The backlash has come to a head since May when members of several popular male-to-male online forums began crying out “hate” over add-ons that use a finger photo, a general gesture to indicate something small.
In a campaign that many likened to a McCarthyan witch hunt, they claimed that whoever makes the picture should be a feminist and make fun of the size of his genitals. Although there was no possibility of any political plot, many of the accused companies and government institutions – including the National Police Service and the Ministry of Defense – quickly apologized for hurting the men’s feelings and removed the images from their posters.
Even these internet mobs have political backing; Lee Joon-suk, a young member of the right-wing People’s Power Party, rose to prominence by amplifying a conspiracy theory on a “misunderstanding” finger gesture, and eventually became the party’s leader in July.
Feeling supported by a powerful politician and encouraged by groveling apologies from corporations and government, the online mob moved on to their next target – an Olympic star whose appearance did not fit their traditional female model.
‘Why did you cut your hair?’ Asked on her social media, Ann replied, “Because she’s comfortable.” The answer was not enough.
A campaign has begun to extract an apology from An for being a feminist, with some even calling for the Korean Archery Association to withdraw gold medals from the “man hater.”
But the women fought back. Lawmakers, activists, artists, and thousands of ordinary women rallied behind Anne, many of whom have shared photos of their short hair on social media as a show of support.
As the cyberbullying targeting Anne intensified, many women across the country watched Anne win another gold medal – becoming the first female archer in Olympic history to win three gold medals in one match.
Haun Joong is a journalist and former correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Seoul. She is the author of “Flowers of Fire,” a book about the #MeToo campaign in South Korea.
Source: International Politics and Society (IPS), published by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Unit of World and European Politics, Hiroshimastrasse 28, D-10785 Berlin.
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© Inter Press Service (2021) – All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service