Feminists battle a culture of misogyny
“MY LIFE IS not your porn,” read one poster. “We should be able to live, not survive,” declared another. The women brandishing them in the centre of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, wore red clothes and large sunglasses. They had covered their heads with baseball caps or broad-brimmed hats. The headgear and glasses serve partly to ward off the sun, but mainly to make the protesters unrecognisable to men who might be hostile to their cause: the fight against molka, videos which are filmed using cameras hidden in public toilets, school changing rooms or even women’s homes, and then posted on the internet. The cameras, disguised as clocks, pens or light bulbs, are bestsellers. Police register thousands of cases every year, but perpetrators are rarely caught and punished. The protesters (pictured) believe that this is because officials do not take women’s concerns seriously. “Stop the unfair sexist legal system,” runs one of their chants.
The red-clad women, who have turned out in their tens of thousands on several occasions since the spring and are planning their final protest of the year in late December, are the most visible part of a wave of activism against sexism in South Korea, where spycams in toilets are not the only problem vexing women.
Despite its material wealth, South Korea was ranked 118th out of 144 countries last year in the World Economic Forum’s measure of equality between the sexes. The average South Korean woman makes only two-thirds as much as the average man. Several cases have come to light recently in which companies deliberately and systematically discriminated against female job applicants, even though that is illegal. A group of male executives at KB Kookmin Bank, for instance, lowered women’s scores and raised men’s on a recruitment test, to ensure more men were hired. The case wound up in court, but the executives received only suspended sentences; the bank was fined a mere $4,500. Although young women are better educated on average than their male peers, many of them are pushed out of the workforce after having children, either for lack of good child care or because companies simply will not take them back.
In terms of appearance and behaviour, women and men are held to wildly different standards. A newsreader caused a scandal earlier in the year when she chose to read the morning news wearing glasses, rather than contact lenses. Many firms, it subsequently emerged, had an informal ban on female employees wearing glasses. A YouTube star who used her make-up tutorial channel to announce that she was giving up make-up to join the “corset-free” movement, which challenges unrealistic beauty standards, received a torrent of online threats.
Abuse from actual or would-be romantic partners is rife. A survey by the city government in Seoul found that four-fifths of women had experienced controlling behaviour (such as boyfriends telling them what to wear or whom they could meet). More than half had suffered unwanted (physical) sexual advances and nearly two-fifths outright violence. “Misogyny is still common sense in South Korea,” says Yun Kim Ji-yeong of Konkuk University in Seoul. “People do not accept that women are worth the same as men.”
But women are increasingly challenging this conviction. It is not just the anti-spycam protests. Many are cropping their hair, crushing their eyeshadow and throwing away their lipstick—and posting videos of their rebellion online. Emboldened by the global #MeToo movement, a string of prominent women have spoken out about experiences of abuse. Young South Korean women, long wary of using the term “feminist” in conversations with parents or boyfriends, are starting to make their voices heard. “I definitely spend more time talking to my friends and my parents about these things than I did two years ago,” says a 20-something student.
So far, tangible results have been few and far between. In September Lee Yoon-taek, a theatre director, was sentenced to six years in prison for sexual assaults on nine women during acting lessons. In another prominent case, Ahn Hee-jung, a former provincial governor, was cleared of a rape charge in August. The judge cited his accuser’s efforts to find his favourite breakfast on the morning after one of the alleged rapes as an indication that the encounter must have been consensual. Criminal complaints about sexual discrimination or assault remain vastly more likely to ruin the reputation and career of the victim rather than the perpetrator. A recent move by Seoul city hall to roll out daily anti-spycam checks of public toilets in the city may reassure some women (as well as keep bureaucrats busy). But it does not get to the root of the problem.
More personal than political
Many activists emphasise the importance of shared personal experience in strengthening the movement. Kim Han Ryeo-il, who set up a feminist café and bookshop in Seoul’s Gangnam district last year, says she wanted to create the kind of place she wished had existed when she was a single mother in dire straits after a divorce years ago. Her café hosts weekly meetings for women to talk about feminism.
A feminist co-operative in Sannae, a small village in a socially conservative region, has similar aims. The centrepiece is a meeting spot named “Salon de Mago” after a goddess of female creativity, which overlooks the village’s main street. Women from the area drop in to talk about conflicts with fathers and husbands and, often, domestic violence. Drawings and cartoons in which they have recorded their experiences are dotted around the room. Some depict rape scenes. “It’s a safe space for people to express themselves,” says Tali, one of the activists. Besides running the café, the women provide sex education in local schools. They also offer a discussion group for men, even though most of the male attention they get is hostile. “They say we are dividing men and women,” says Eerie, her colleague. A flyer on the table describes the insults and threats the women have received in the course of their work.
Ms Yun Kim believes the individual focus of the movement is its strength. Bottom-up organisation, via social media and word of mouth, makes it unintimidating and easy to join. She thinks the anti-spycam protests have drawn such crowds because they speak directly to women’s daily experience. “If you cannot even be safe from intrusion in the bathroom or in your own home, then where are you safe?”
Yet the focus on personal experience may impede feminists from seeking alliances with other groups battling social conservatism, such as activists for gay rights, or indeed sympathetic heterosexual men. The organisers of the recent anti-spycam protests, for example, specified that only “biological” women should take part. Yet such alliances may turn out to be crucial politically. Speaking out about mistreatment is one thing; changing a culture is another.