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Feminism in Korea

FrigginSushi's picture

Feminism in Korea

            Though the United States is not a perfect country, the nationalism that’s been engraved in our history and in our citizens has flourished into the type of thinking that leads most North Americans to think that America is a place where people from everywhere are represented and have the freedom to speak out for or against whatever they choose speak out about. Ideas of Feminism are only relevant in a place as “open” and “accepting” as America. America: the country that gives voices to those who cannot speak. So, when the word Feminism is spoken, places like Korea and Iran aren’t what come to mind. Along with the war history between America and both these countries, Americans would normally not be able to relate Korean politics and Iranian politics to our own because of the differences we’ve associated between America and the rest of the world. America is different. Women here are able to be feminist. What is Korean feminism any way? Does that even happen there? And what about Iran? Certainly not, women aren’t allowed to go outside without head scarf on in Iran; they probably don’t even know what Feminism is. In our shallow American pride, we do not see outside of our nationalist bubble, but Korea’s history along with stories like Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography “Persepolis” show that Feminism isn’t just a western idea.

            Korea’s history is, actually, a lot like America in the sense that, by separating from China and Japan, Korea was able to develop and shape their own national identity. In this separation, Korea turned to religion to unify the country. Shamanism started as cohort of tribal groups that believed in praising their tribal ancestors. Women were “as free as in other tribal societies” (Jayawardena, 213). They had flexibility in the different types of societal roles they could play such as priest, diviners, healers and even shaman themselves. In order to stand strong against China aggression, their separate tribe transitioned into kingdoms (Silla, Paekche, and Koguryo), where later, Silla became the head kingdom. In the 4th century, Buddism entered Korea, in order to unity the separate kingdoms, which essential kept the same ideals in women from Korea’s original Shamanist religion. What really changed Korean women’s place in society was the wave of Confucianism that took over during the 6th century. Berthrong and Berthrong, in their book Confucianism: A Short Introduction explain Confucianism as “a whole way of life. It was an ideology; it was rituals and social customs; it was an education curriculum; it did have spiritual dimensions; it did have strong philosophic opinions.” (Berthrong, 9) and to the Koreans, they opened themselves whole-heartily. Confucianism, which the most different of the religions Korea embraced, emphasized the importance of a patriarchal family where the wife must be subordinate. No longer could she be the priest or the shaman. The life of women following Confucianism could be summarized as the woman’s role of obedience or “the rule of three-fold obedience”. The three folds were a woman’s relationship with her father in childhood, her husband in marriage, and her son in old age were all ones of obedience and the subordinate. (Y. Kim, 44). Similar to American women during most of American history, women of Korea were to possess virtues of filial piety, loyalty, chastity, and fidelity, whereas the virtue of women revolved around either controlling her body or taking care of her family. Though Confucianism isn’t as popular any more in modern Korea, as now Christianity has risen as the dominant religion in Korea, it still carries a big role in Korea’s societal structure.

            Just as Confucianism set women’s liberation back, Christianity and modernization gave women hope and in some ways, started a type of feminism that is still relevant today. Korea’s goals of modernization where influenced by western principles and lead them to Christianity. In order to advance socially and economically into the modern age, women were encouraged by Christian/Catholic missionaries to become educated and join the work force. Though there were many people who believed otherwise, holding true to their Confucianism roots, women still fought for the societal rights that were originally theirs too when their country followed Shamanism and Buddhism. The fight against traditional views is still going on now, being moved forward by current movements to get more women into the workforce.

            In the autobiographical comic, Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi uses her own drawings to illustrate not only her life, but, in her own way, the type of resistance of the traditional female roles in Iran that feminism stands for. Through an unconventional way, Satrapi uses her experiences as a child like not wanting to wear her head scarf to school to voice her own opinions on the customs of her country at the time. By using her history to speak about the history of her country, she is giving herself agency in a society where women don’t have enough agencies. She is speaking to a generation of readers who may or may not agree with her, but can definitely hear her through her powerful images that let you see just enough into her life story growing up in the type of society that breed this inner resistance and rebellion in women who are blocked from that same society.

            Whether it’s in the United States, Iran, or Korea, Feminism is a global issue that is about giving women voices to speak out about the repression that’s been rooted in tradition of our countries past. It is not something that is only for women in countries where freedom rings loudly, but it’s something for women with voices like Marjane Satrapi and the women of modern Korea too.


Works Cited

  1. Berthrong, John H., and E. Nagai-Berthrong. Confucianism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2000. Print.
  2. Jayawardena, Kumari. "Women and Resistance in Korea." Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1986. Print.
  3. Kim, Yung-Chung. Women of Korea: A History from Ancient times to 1945. Seoul, Korea: Ewah Womans UP, 1976. Print.
  4. Son, Angella. "Confucianism and the Lack of the Development of the Self Among Korean American Women." Pastoral Psychology 54.4 (2006): 325-36. Print.


FrigginPizza's picture

Please don't stay in 70-80s

I found your references are quite outdated and was quite surprised with your comparison of Korea vs Iran. I wonder what basis you chose two countries to compare. Do you know how many women candidates were there for recent preseidential election? It's Four out of seven. Do you know the diverse standpoints of different Korean feminists as in continental/ anglo saxon western culture from radical, liberal feminism to eco feminism in Third Fem wave? Hope you dig out more before spreading the words when it's rather book-learned with limited resources on your hand.

Serendip Visitor's picture

you don't know about the 'recent' korean feminism

South korea is turning to feminist-driving country like New Zealand. Man started to avoid marriage. And young parent want daughter for their new child. I have a lot of 'recent truth' about feminism in Korea. But I can't cause my english is pretty short. But you can dig it.

Anne Dalke's picture

3-fold obediance, evolving....

I hope you can post your web event on-line, rather than let it remain as an attached document (which is harder to access or search).

sekang got to this project before I did (!), so I had the pleasure of exploring the contemporary world of the Korean Gender Reader --and its account of "Korea having such dubious honors as: the lowest birthrate in the world" and "the largest wage gap between men and women in the OECD"-- alongside your more historical overview of the roles of women in that country. So of course now what interests me is the gap between the two stories.

What strikes me in the narrative you construct is the important role that religion played in Korean women's lives, from shamanism and Buddhism (in which they had some independent agency), through the 6th c. introduction of the patriarchal limitations (=  3-fold obediance) of Confucianism, to the current Western "Christian" (?) focus on work and education. How might we reconcile your story--that there are "current movements to get more women into the workforce" with James Turnbull's report that Korea has "the lowest percentage of working women in the OECD"?

Do you want, for next month's project, to add a contemporary update to your historical overview of "feminism in Korea"?

sekang's picture

something I think you'll find interesting :)

Hi frigginSushi.

It's a blog about feminism in Korea, including k-pop stars, plastic surgery issues, dieting issues, etc.