Culture

Why Korean Women Are Hesitant To Label Themselves Feminists

‘Maybe I’d say I’m a feminist if I wasn’t in Korea, but there’s a certain stereotype and stigma that comes with the title here.’
February 17, 2020, 3:17am
korean women, feminism, women's rights, international women's day, seoul, witch, protest
South Korean women dressed as witch hold placards supporting feminism during a protest to mark International Women's Day in Seoul on March 8, 2019. Photo: JUNG Yeon-Je / AFP

Sira Park, 29, is a Seoul-based cafe owner. She cares a great deal about women’s rights but does not identify herself as a feminist, particularly not in Korea. Instead, she calls herself an equalist.

“I don’t want to be called a feminist here in Korea. Maybe I’d say I’m a feminist if I wasn’t in Korea, but there’s a certain stereotype and stigma that comes with the title here,” she said.

Sira is not the only one who seems to think that way. A fair share of women I know here in Korea, all who are successful, independent, and supporters of women’s rights, will rarely talk about feminism publicly. I see many Instagram posts with hashtags such as #empoweringwomen, #womenpower, #girlsrule, but rarely the ‘F’ word.

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Another incident involves a K-pop girl group Apink’s Naeun who uploaded a photo of herself on Instagram which showed a phone case with the phrase “Girls Can Do Anything.” This picture went viral and brought intense backlash with many labeling her as a feminist. Eventually, she deleted the photo from her account.

This behavior is noticeably very different from that of my friends in the US who don’t have to walk on eggshells before adding hashtags such as #feminism or #feminist. It shows that there’s still a long way to go before feminism can be discussed comfortably in Korea, without implications of gender war, misogyny, and misandry.

Even for myself, someone who has lived in the US for many years, the interpretation of feminism in Korea makes me uneasy.

Here in Seoul, saying I’m a feminist might put me at risk of being viewed as a person who is okay with misandry. I’ve realized that the concept of feminism may differ drastically depending on where you live and how you’re exposed to it. Today, numerous Korean women align themselves with the “Four No’s,” pushed by the nation’s radical feminist movement – no dating, no sex, no marriage, and no child-rearing.

“Feminism in Korea looks different compared to Western countries because it’s led by radical feminism,” YunKim Jiyoung, a feminist, philosopher, and professor, told VICE in an interview. In the past, Korean feminism didn’t have much of a voice, until 2015, when young feminists from online communities brought attention to radical feminism.

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This new wave – strikingly different from the US or Europe where post-modern and liberal feminism are mainstream – was steered by online communities namely Megalia (coined from online MERS gallery and the feminist novel Egalia’s Daughters), Womad (from the words “women” and “nomad”), Jjook-bbang café, and Yeo-seong si-dae (women’s generation). The nature of each community varies in degree, but they have each and collectively served as forerunners in championing women’s rights and putting feminism on the radar in a conservative Korean society, said OhSe Rabi, the author of That Feminism is Wrong.

Among the online communities, the most recognized website Megalia became a culture of its own, adopting a mirroring method to reversely portray the types of misogynistic comments male-centered communities had used. Famous mirroring samples included referring to Korean men as Hannam-choong (male pest), Jotsplain (dicksplain, a reference to mansplain), and Gisaengchoong (parasite, referring to male fetus) among others.

Megalia’s intent, according to a former user who refused to be named to avoid affiliation with the site, was not to provoke hatred but to show the kinds of derogatory behavior women had endured online.

“For guys, it was the norm and they didn’t understand why it made us angry. But when we mirrored them, they got angry,” the former user said, explaining that she eventually left the community because she felt uncomfortable with the heightened use of misandry.

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The controversial website was shut down in 2017, following widespread complaints.

Sadly, the common use of mirroring methods in Korea have led to a widespread misunderstanding that if you are a feminist, then you are likely to harbor some resentment towards men. Here, the term feminist or feminism is commonly associated with online communities that practice severe mirroring methods instead of the ideology itself. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to find men (or women!) who advocate feminism in Korea because of its history with misandry. And it’s almost impossible to find a community where both men and women come together to support feminist movements.

According to OhSe, Korea’s short history in feminism and the lack of awareness among society and media is why people rely on radical communities’ methods as a representation of feminism.

But professor YunKim raises another point. She told VICE that misandry is a concept that’s being used by many media outlets to blind the efforts of radical feminists.

“Feminists are being presented as misandrists to be silenced and to have their efforts for gender equality stigmatized,” said YunKim. “Instead, people should focus on the positive changes that new-wave feminists have brought about.”

Korea’s radical feminists and online communities’ efforts have indeed been successful. They have contributed enormously to the transformation and emergence of feminism in a male-dominant country. Online communities have worked together both online and offline to shut down SoraNet, an illegal porn website which featured spy-cam and rape videos, among others. Other causes it has supported include the fight for pro-choice against the ban on abortion, protests against sexual violence and discrimination, and fundraisers for comfort women victims.

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YunKim emphasised that all of these issues were reported globally due to its originality and potential for drastic change.

“I believe that Korea’s feminism will be at the center of fourth-wave feminism as radical feminists have originality, and a drive that exceeds older generation’s expectations,” YunKim said.

While OhSe may not agree with the radical approach, she too applauds Korea’s young and radical feminist communities for their success in bringing feminism to light.

“It’s undeniable that feminism has gained much success in South Korea. The whole country is now in ‘female mode’. Feminists have won this fight,” said OhSe.

However, she emphasized that a change of direction is necessary for feminism to achieve permanent success in Korea. If it continues as status quo then it will only contribute to gender conflict and hurt feminism in the long run, she stressed.

“We have to work together, both women and men, to reconstruct the voice of feminism in Korea. Using mirroring to justify misandry is a wrong approach. Countering hatred with hatred is no different from responding to gender inequality with another gender inequality,” OhSe said.

“If we can do that, then feminism will no longer be an uncomfortable topic for everyone in our society.”

Maybe then we’ll see many more #feminism hashtags on Korean social media.