Personal Narrative Feminist Intervention in the Rise of "Asian" Discourse
AJWS Vol. 3 No. 3. pp. 127-156.
< Personal Narrative Feminist Intervention in the Rise of "Asian" Discourse¹>
Department of Sociology
translated by Um Young-rae
On the Concept of "Asian Patriarchy"
I am opposed to the title of this conference, "The Rise of Feminist Consciousness against Asian Patriarchy," and especially the words, "Asian Patriarchy." Therefore, I shall start my discussion on the theme that was originally given to me by the organizers of the conference, i.e., "Overcoming Asian Patriarchy and Prospects for the Future," by explaining at some length why I feel opposed to it.
Some years ago Malaysia and Thailand jumped into capitalistic development, and more recently, China started wriggling along. Now even those countries which were socialist, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, have joined in and all of Asia seems to be involved in the strong wave of capitalistic development. In the midst of this changing situation, views such as "Asia will soon be the center of the world," or "Confucian tradition is highly compatible with capitalism," are gaining currency in South Korea and its neighboring countries. Mass media have begun to emphasize the importance of cooperation among Asian countries as also the revival of traditional cultures. It does not take long, however, for one who travels across Asia to note that Asia cannot be categorized into a single homogeneous group. It is especially difficult for South Koreans to understand multi-racial countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia, because racial and cultural homogeneity have been central to their nationalism. Furthermore, it is not easy for South Koreans to understand the long colonial history of other Asian countries. Nonetheless, there is a fairly strong movement for binding Asia into one, and there are forces that have `found Asia' and want to determinedly hold it together as a single massive entity. The pertinent question here is, do we, feminists, belong to those forces?
It is not difficult to identify those who belong to the camp that want to emphasize Asia as a single unit. But it seems to me that there are two major groups who emphasize Asian unity:one group consists of anti-Western nationalists who basically want to overcome their dependence on the Western world, and the other one includes the capitalists who think that endorsing Asian solidarity will help open up new markets. Feminists cannot help but feel uncomfortable with both of these groups.
Feminists of the Third World have realized that in natio-nalism, men have tried to give concrete entity to the nation, often by confining women as personifying national traditions. Often they sustain the bleakness in their lives by holding women hostage.² Even now, many men who are considered to be "progressive intellectuals" disapprove of "modern" women, accusing them of being Westernized. They have not been cooperative when women tried to develop in their own arenas. Now that men are trying to recover their damaged egos as patriarchs, it is natural for them to wish that women remain nationalistic beings. This phenomenon is particularly relevant given the fact that modernization has occurred in the midst of a hostile relationship between nationalism and modernism so far, and one which has not been the fruit of a healthy union between the two.³
Women who have started making new demands are a nuisance not only for nationalists but also for capitalists or developmentalists whose ultimate goal is economic growth. Capitalists would like women to remain members of an industrial reserve force who will either serve as shields in the economic war or as faithful slaves who take care of invisible chores silently. The "Confucian Culture Theory" that Asian elders, including Lee Kwan-Yew, the prime minister of Singapore, try to propagate allegedly respects women by emphasizing the harmony of yin and yang. The truth is that in practice it does not. Instead, in their discourse, patriarchal autho-ritarianism is glorified as the driving force of Asian capitalism, in conjunction with a revival of neo-conservatism and justification of gender discrimination.
On this matter, however, the differences within Asia should not be overlooked. A recent study by Mary Brinton about labor force participation of Taiwanese and South Korean married women brings out this point very well.⁴ The pattern of labor force participation of South Korean married women has a very typical M-curve, whereas Taiwanese women tend to continue working outside home regardless of the length of marriage (Brinton, 1993;1995:1103). Also, the increasing number of women who receive higher education has not resulted in increased labor force participation of women in South Korea, whereas these two factors are significantly correlated in Taiwan. Even though South Korea and Taiwan show a marked similarity in that both went through compressed industrialization and moved from peripheral countries into central countries through an export-centered industry, the two are quite different in the pattern of women's labor force participation. Brinton suggests that the difference is due to differential industrial structures established by the two countries since the 1970s. While South Korea experienced capital-intensive and conglomerate-centered industrialization, Taiwan had labor-intensive and minor enterprises-centered industrialization. In Taiwan, women entered the labor market on a large scale as the demand for labor increased greatly beginning in the 70s, and in this process, traditional cultural factors that discouraged women's working outside home have been modified considerably (Brinton, 1995:1124).
In contrast to Taiwan, South Korea had an industrial structure in which a man's income could support the entire family, and the gender dichotomy that women stay home and men work outside remained intact. In this sense, South Korea and Japan are similar. In both countries, economic activities in the public sector are monopolized by men (I think this may be related to the tragedy that more and more men in their thirties and forties are dying from the strain of overwork in both countries.). Even now, South Korean employers prefer to automate work processes or increase working hours to make up for the shortage in the labor force, rather than employ women. If we follow Brinton's logic, Japanese and South Korean women have missed an opportunity to enter the labor force on a large scale. This also implies that the dichotomy of public versus familial arenas was reinforced instead of being abolished during the period of rapid economic growth.
In the 1970s, many South Korean men left home to earn money in other cities or countries for an extended period. During this time, families were restructured with women at the center, as their familial responsibilities increased greatly. Ever since, there has never been any opportunity to re-restructure families. Of course, the number of college students increased drastically in the early 1980s (Brinton, 1995:1106), but the increase was politically intended rather than being linked to the economy, resulting in little change in women's employment. A new labor market for college graduates was created, but the positions went to the newly-generated pool of male college graduates. Once again, South Korean women missed what would have been a great opportunity to form a critical mass as workers. As a result, South Korean women still have to fight for basic rights to participate in the labor force and their situation is much harder than that of Taiwanese women. Naturally, South Korean men have to endure long work hours, yet they want women to stay home, and when they hire women they expect them to be merely ornamental in the office or to serve as men's assistants.
Hiring announcements for female office workers sent to girls' commercial high schools often demand that the prospective employee should be at least 160 centimeters tall and good-looking. Sometimes a personnel manager visits schools to "pick up pretty girls just as they pick up apples," said a high school teacher. There has been little sanction against this kind of blatant sexism, which may be part of a backlash against feminism and the revival of neo-conservatism. In a recent lawsuit over a sexual harassment case filed by a female graduate assistant against a university professor, the high court decided that the defendant was not guilty, overturning the decision of a district court. The final ruling read "... the judgment should be made from the perspective of an average person with common sense." Many men view this as a victory for the men's side. , the High Court of Justice decided that the defendant was not guilty, overturning the decision of a district court. The final ruling read “… the judgment should be made from the perspective of an average person with common sense who regards the relationship between men and women as a cooperative and harmonious one. The feminist perspective, which regards the relationship only as an antagonistic and combative one, should be rejected.” [footnote: The judicial decision by judge Park Yong-sang of the High Court of Justice on July 25 regarding the sexual harassment case involving Professor Shin Chung-hyu and his research assistant Woo]. Many men viewed this as a victory for the men’s side.
We know all too well that the `discourse of Confucian culture' or Asianism tends to silence powerless groups, especially women and minors. We also know that it is imperialistic (Choi, 1996). There have been some discussions that the forces that emphasize Asianism or the Asian-Pacific area the most are Australia, the United States and Japan (Dirlik, 1995). We also come across another group of people who try to bind Asia into a single entity when we travel across the continent:these are persons of Chinese descent who are interested in the smooth flow of capital. Also, when we watch satellite TV, especially NHK (Japan Broadcasting Service), we receive the feeling that there is another dimension to Japan-centered Asian solidarity, formed by Japanese people in Japan and those who remained in other Asian countries after World War Ⅱ. The situation is so complicated and unpredictable. This is why I feel opposed to the title of this conference. If I had been asked to give a title to the conference, I would probably have named it "Asian Feminist Alliance/Network against Global Capitalistic Patriarchy." My guess about why the organizers, whom I know well personally, decided on the title, "The Rise of Feminist Consciousness against the Asian Patriarchy" was part of a double strategy. In current-day South Korean society, `globalization' and `Asia' are two very popular words. People are, however, getting tired of the word `globalization' because the current civilian government has used it too frequently without meaning much. Nonetheless, many people are still very much interested in `Asian solidarity.' The sponsors of this conference must have considered that using the word `Asian' would improve their chances of receiving financial support and media attention, and if possible, they would develop this conference into a counter-narrative, thereby putting a damper on the movement that seeks to glorify `Asian traditions.' I suppose they may also have considered that by emphasizing `Asia,' they would avoid making Western experience central to the discussions.
I was initially hesitant when I was first asked to write a paper on the theme of "Overcoming Asian Patriarchy and Prospects for the Future," but eventually decided to come to this conference. I came because Professor Chang persuaded me, saying that I could simply talk about what I have been doing, and also because I wanted to meet feminists from other societies. However, I agreed to come on one condition, that I would write in Korean. So far, I have written papers in English whenever I have been to international conferences, but have since decided not to write in English any more. While on sabbatical in America last year, I came to realize how writing in English, which is not my language, restrained my thinking. My decision not to do so any more will have two implications:it either means I will not go to international conferences any more, or that I will get my papers translated.
I used to go to international conferences on women's issues frequently during the early 80s. But subsequently I found myself going abroad less and less often, and the most important reason for this was that the conferences tended to be centered around the Western world. This was not simply because the West has more power than the East, but it seemed inevitable for Western feminists to lead the conferences because they had accumulated experiences and theories in feminism. When I spoke at international conferences I felt like a squealer, telling my sisters who live in powerful and so-called rational countries about my country's irrational patriarchal men, or about the hostility of nationalists who blame the powerful imperialistic whites as being the source of all problems. These are unintended undercurrents, but not very pleasant for me. Even when we did not end up with such situations, participants found their experiences far too different from one another to provide or receive help in solving their particular problems. Thus naturally, I came to believe that going to international conferences was a waste of time and that investing my time in local meetings and sharing our wisdom for addressing local issues is more meaningful.
The other reason for which I do not feel comfortable at international conferences is that of language. I do not like the subtle power relations formed around fluent English-speakers. Those who do not have any problems with language, i.e., those who are from English-speaking countries or from former colonies of Britain usually lead the conferences. One of my father's favorite jokes regarding international conferences is that the best moderator of an international conference is one who makes the Indians speak less and lets the Japanese speak out. Do Indians speak `too much' because they love conferences? I do not think so. This is partly so because they have a huge pool of intellectuals trained in the Western way and they have been exposed to such conferences ever since the colonial era. However, I think the most important reason for their fluency in English is that they speak it beginning in childhood. I have also studied in the United States for my graduate degree, but it still takes a lot of energy for me to write in English because it is not my mother tongue. I therefore feel it is extremely difficult to hold a fruitful international conference unless the differences in linguistic ability are taken into full consideration.
It is because of reasons that I have outlined above, that I am writing this paper in Korean, rambling as I always do, and I know the translator will complain about missing words, vague expression and lengthy sentences. Soon, I am going to organize an international conference where the official language is Korean. Alternatively, I would like to go to conferences where there is high-quality translation and interpretation systems available, so that all participants can speak their minds freely. I am therefore not saying that I do not want to exchange information with scholars in foreign countries. In fact, translation and information systems have advanced greatly and I can readily access the work of my foreign sisters through books and the Internet.
Recently I spent a sabbatical year at Stanford University in the United States. While I was there, I attended a feminist conference on "Women, Culture and Differences." The participants' sensitivity about white hegemony was very acute and made this conference rather different from other international conferences. White people tended to take the position of observers and spoke very carefully when discussing Third World problems, while non-Westerners got involved in heated arguments among themselves, revealing considerable differences in their perspectives. I presented a paper on "Colonial Modernization and Formation of South Korean Women's Subjectivities." Many white feminists listened to my presentation with interest, seemingly reminded of their own past feminist struggles, but they did not voice their opinions, because the unspoken rule was that no one dared to challenge `the native feminist.'
Instead, I was criticized by a Japan-born feminist who had gone to college in Japan, received a doctoral degree in the States and was working as an assistant professor at a U.S. university at the time. She was quite indignant at my choice of words, such as, "we" or "you, American feminists," and said, "There are no such things as `American feminists' here. What gives you the right to lump us together in a single category? I am neither Japanese nor American." I understood that she meant to criticize my tendency to generalize and I could only respond as follows:"You may not be Japanese, nor American, but it still remains a fact that you make a living out of teaching American students at an American university and you may have the alternative of going back to Japan if you do not like your life here. There certainly is a position you take and there still are countries called Japan and the United States." She rejected me readily as someone taking a middle-class, elitist, heterosexual, nationalist position and I felt sorry that we feminists had to waste our energy on this kind of confrontation. Nonetheless, it provided me a good opportunity to observe feminist society within American academia caught up in identity politics.
As a feminist who completely practices localism, living in Seoul, South Korea, and teaches at a university in the Shinchon area, where there are five universities, I am going to talk about what kind of projects I have been planning recently, what kind of relationship I would like to have with sisters from other countries, and on what occasions I have felt that we needed these relationships in order to conceptualize `Asian feminist solidarity.'
Themes for Asian Solidarity
I have been involved in a feminist movement group, "Alternative Culture," since 1983. Women's studies courses emerged among the most popular classes at universities during the 1980s. This trend is still continuing and we are having a hard time with too many students wanting to attend women's studies classes. The feminist movement my group had been leading was a campaign for enlightenment that emphasized women's autonomy and sisterhood. The messages delivered from my women's movement group were: “Women have rights also. Women should work outside the home. Do not submit yourself to injustice, because when you do, you fail and our society fails with you." The media responded to the movement rather enthusiastically, and thus, feminism and the "women's rights movement" became widely popular. During the 1980s, the nationalist movement geared itself for reunification of South and North Korea and within it the theme of overcoming monopolistic capitalism had been very prominent but tended to be a male-centered force, while women were actively demanding human rights for themselves and trying to find their own voice. The eighties were indeed the period when discourse on `social justice' was forcefully launched in South Korea. The enthusiasm started cooling down quickly in the early nineties. Laborers and the `people' who are the subjects and the object of any movement, started to suddenly disappear, including the women. Activists were thus lost. This was probably because we had overlooked the possibility of resistance generated in the process of developing women's egos. I then came to realize that it was not right to believe that the citizens of erstwhile colonial countries had been lucky in supposedly getting an ideal constitution as a `gift,' thereby skipping a stage in the women's movement which is where Western sisters fought for women's suffrage. The women's movement is a process of forming new subjectivity and nurturing its strength, thus no stage of the process can actually be skipped.
I could not help but ponder over the weak foundation of the women's movement in non-Western and formerly colonial societies which had never struggled to achieve suffrage and therefore lost an opportunity to learn how to organize women for institutional reformation. The feminist movement that we have led delivered the message of self-actualization to women, but it failed to get them ready for the difficulties of the on-going struggle to achieve the goal. Women who had just graduated from college, marched into society fearlessly, but soon they ran into the huge wall of gender discrimination and collapsed. Also, as competition in the work place is getting more and more intense, `smart' women decide to stay at home on a full-time basis even earlier. Having witnessed feminists struggling so hard, women are increasingly wanting to distance themselves from feminism.
Forming Female Subjectivity: Diversity and Division
At this point, I will dwell briefly on the process of the formation of women's subjectivity in a society rapidly swept into the vortex of Western-centered global capitalism, without going through indigenous capitalistic development. Based on the case of South Korean society, I will try to show how men and women related with each other and how they formed modern subjectivity while experiencing `forced, compressed and unequal development.'
For a long time I have been struggling with the issue of mother power in the South Korean patriarchal family. When I went to the United States to study right after graduating from college in 1971, I was surprised to see many American women paying so much attention to men. They were so dependent on men while all Korean women I knew at home were self-confident and did not expend so much energy in attracting men's attention. So I thought South Korean women were much more self-reliant than American women. Indeed, women's domination in the domestic arena is incredibly pervasive in South Korea. In a recent paper, architect Kim Jin-ae pointed out that the physical space of contemporary South Korean housing is `over-dominated' by women, and there is little room left for men (Kim, 1995). Women attend schools separated by gender from childhood up to the college years, and even after getting married, women confide in one another, hang out together, and share information regarding financial management. Gender-segregated educational settings have also produced some elite women who have taken the plunge into men's world fearlessly and committed themselves to a professional career. Married women stayed in a domestic world as household managers and mothers, but they wielded tremendous power because the family has been a most important unit in South Korean society. It was only natural for me to feel sorry for the American women who seemed to be preoccupied with men, because I grew up among women who were powerful mothers and who had a strong female subculture.
Initially, I thought a women's movement could rise very successfully in South Korea, if mother power and female subculture were activated in the movement. However, it did not take very long for me to realize that motherhood for South Korean women is excessively instrumental, and that many mothers are far too faithful to patriarchy to change. These women had been committed to keeping their families intact during the stormy and chaotic era of colonial modernization that lasted a few centuries. They had especially invested a lot in their sons and being faithful to the patrilineal tradition. In the short term, they knew well how to make the system work for their own interests. All too often we find that a woman's enemy is another woman. Mothers who have sons are opposed to affirmative action for women or the setting up of quotas for female employees and they fiercely protect absurd marriage-related institutions.
The powerful identity of the mother that had been formed during the turbulent years of change was further reinforced during the time of rapid economic growth. At the same time, things became diversified by class and generation. Mothers who had struggled for the survival of their families started putting all their energy into improving their families' social status in the 1970s. They would do anything to move up into the middle class. When they were successful in doing so, women's status also was advanced and these women were called samonim (madam) distinguishing themselves from lower class married women (ajumma). Samonims would spend huge amounts of money on their children's private education, which eventually created an enormous private education market. They have also invented complicated and expensive wedding rituals. There are still many women, who along with their husbands, live in relative deprivation because of the expenses incurred by them on their children's private education and marriages. A lot of the energy of able and greedy women went into the enhancement of their social status. Therefore, the newly developed culture of the middle class is very materialistic and modernization in South Korea has not resulted in a new civil society. By the same token, it failed to create a narrative of gender justice. Women who lived through the era of rapid economic development became extremely powerful mothers within their own families. Structurally, they remained vulnerable and powerless in society. Their accomplishment as mothers and household managers was tremendous, but their energy did not go into forming an identity as autonomous citizens.
The younger generation rejects these women of their mothers' generation. Young people did not experience poverty, and they despise these un-stylish mothers (ajummas) with their permead hair, who are often shamelessly aggressive, self-confident but tremendously adaptable. Young people in contrast tend to find gentle, lovable, dependent women from the Hollywood movies attractive. A while ago, there was an image of dignified women with strong personalities, which we as feminists would find desirable. Now most young women want to be `feminine' and want to marry able men and live their lives as consumers. They belong to the generation of consumption, advertisement and mass media. They perceive themselves as sexual subjects, and invest tremendous amounts of time and energy into polishing their appearance and on dating. This is the emerging crowd of so-called `missy'5) housewives who want to look like unmarried college students and fashion models (Cho, 1995). These middle class women of the new generation are busy keeping themselves young and attractive, whereas their mothers had struggled hard to move up into the middle class. Class inequality among women is growing deeper and conflicts between mothers and daughters are becoming increasingly serious. The culture of young middle class couples is conspicuously centered around heterosexual relationships.
Feminists who have been busy enlightening themselves and others about the `attractive life of independent women' are dismayed by this situation. Young women who once explored feminism, looking for a new lifestyle, swearing to never live like their mothers, are now entering the enormous system of consumer capitalism. That choice seems much more attractive, newer and easier to them and feminists now must fight against not only feudal patriarchy or patriarchs created by the process of colonial modernization, but also by modern/postmodern patriarchy. The independent women who once had time for the feminist movement are far too busy surviving on their own, in the competitive late-industrial society, where problems are accumulating, but the activists are disappearing.
Through the process of modernization, female subjectivity has been diversified, but is still confined within a larger frame. The family remains a sacred unit and women develop their subjectivity primarily as mothers within their families. Women are not ready to build solidarity among themselves, because they are committed to the tasks of upward mobility and enhancing the status of the family as a unit, all in the name of the `family' and the `nation.' Family is women's priority, and they identify with their children, refusing to stand up alone as individuals. In contrast, daughters reject their mother's world, and they are rapidly changing into postmodern subjects. Many visitors to Seoul say that all South Korean women look like fashion models. Indeed, their faces are made up with thick white foundation, and with the same lipstick color. Recently, an expert who creates new lipstick colors was interviewed by a newspaper, and mentioned how well her new color, called `Sexy Number One,' sold.6) A friend of mine who is a journalist at a daily newspaper confided to me recently that since 1994, her boss has been telling her not to write articles on gender equality or feminism, but to fill the women's section with food, clothes and make-up.
I call this situation `Colonial-Postmodern.' People are becoming busier and at the same time, are getting mixed up. They are realizing that history does not always imply progress and economic growth does not guarantee a happy life. While earlier it was a time of want generated by hunger, now is the age of greed generated by advertisements. People are busy gratifying private desires which have suddenly been discovered by them. Young people want to look conspicuously different from others, but they are neither interested in living differently nor in building a secondary group of their own generation. They want to play within their own group at an exclusive cafe that discriminates against people by age and appearance. They distinguish themselves for the sake of distinction, whenever possible. Maybe they want to live in an anonymous city, being faithful only to their emotions. The film, `Chung King Express', by director Wong Kar-Wai was exceedingly popular among young people, and I suppose it reflects a change in emotions of the younger generation. What they hate the most is meddlesome adults, their moralizing and scolding. They are sick and tired of being preached to and they are overwhelmed by the power of money, therefore they are busy polishing their body which is theirs alone, or they take to hiding in their own space.
I feel that this is a bewildering situation, overtaking people as they enter the consumer society without resolving contradictions created in earlier stages of colonial capitalist development. At this point, sharing our experiences with feminists from Asian societies which have gone through colonial capitalism becomes necessary. I think the characteristics of colonial modernization are the outcome of unequal development, in which the family is held in pledge, while individuals display superficial transformation as though they are responding to general social change.
Now we may start with deconstructing motherhood, which is controlling and instrumental in a way that sustains the institution of the patriarchal family. In order to discuss Asian solidarity, we should begin to dismantle motherhood as an institution, and start building a new family based on `motherhood as experience' (Rich, 1976). Could these two projects happen at the same time? Right now the story, "Wet Fallen Leaf" is popular in South Korea as it once was in Japan. The wet fallen leaf refers to a man of retirement age who has come back home from work. He clings to his wife desperately, and is hard to get rid of. It is thus not surprising that the divorce rate of couples in their fifties and sixties is increasing in South Korea, as women are leaving their husbands after marrying their children off. They seem to decide that they need no longer put up with their low-quality marriages as their children are gone. One of the most popular joke series that is current these days is about "the bold man in his fifties." A bold man is one who talks back to his wife, who comes home late and asks his wife to serve dinner, who wants to accompany his wife when she goes out, who questions his wife on what she has bought when she returns from shopping, or who asks his wife who is calling when a man telephones her. Another joke goes like this:in earlier years, a wife took care of everything when the family moved to a new home, and all a man had to do was to find the new home with the address after the moving was done. But now a man in his fifties hops into the moving truck hurriedly, because otherwise his wife would gladly leave him behind."
It seems as though an age of revenge has begun. These women in their fifties have enormous power and a decent financial status, but resentfully are finding their past years of life unrewarding. Could they become the subjects of the women's movement? The hitch is that their identity is confined within a strict dichotomy of family (private) versus public. Middle class women are especially obsessive about their socio-economic status, and they invest much of their energy, time and money in showing off their status. How can these women be changed? A How can these women be changed? Are they too old to learn to ‘love’ and identify themselves with women and willing to share their resources with other women? Currently, I am trying very hard to find ways to build solidarity with women in their fifties and sixties. The women's movement should be diversified in its style, in order to respond to different needs of women divided by generation and class.
In order to make the change in the women's movement possible, we need to consider another characteristic of the Third World, i.e., the superficiality of cultural change. The whole country seemed to be swept by the waves of new women's consciousness through the mass media. During the 1980s it seemed to be the fruit of an active feminist movement, but since has turned out to have been exaggerated very much. At that time, the ruling class and conservative people decided to support the women's movement because it was much less threatening compared to the radical anti-government movement that was rising actively. Now that the feminist movement has gained some power and women have started to voice their opinions in and outside their homes, a strong backlash has also started. This backlash is very powerful and well-armed, and one example is the sexual harassment suit I briefly mentioned earlier.
The curriculum at female laborers' schools in the 1980s consisted mainly of the labor movement, women's movement and popular art activities related to those. But young female laborers of the 90s seem to be more interested in make-up and dating. Universities, factories and department stores are full of women of the new generation who put on heavy make-up on their faces, show off their exaggerated femininity, claim without scruples that they have never been discriminated against because of their gender, or want to live their lives according to their individual desires, separating themselves from anything collective. Now feminism is floating about as though it is a commodity out of fashion. How can feminism avoid being reduced to a superficial fad but remain a durable commodity that serves women's daily lives? Feminists now should try to learn strategies of survival in the market.
I regretfully think that feminists have been too easy-going in a sense, especially, as they have not tried hard enough to learn the mechanics of the power structure. Feminist psychoanalyst Jean Shinoda Bolen (1984) discussed different types of women in her book, Goddesses in Every Woman. She pointed out that there are women who know what power is and know how to play games with men, whereas there are autonomous types who would rather work alone, and yet other women for whom sisterhood is primarily important. Women who can survive in a political world or any other established institution are likely to be the ones who know what power is, but tend to lack sisterhood. So here is a dilemma we must deal with.7) Male-centered organizations do not nurture women and they do not even try to do so. Even at Yonsei University, a forerunner of coeducation in South Korea which just had its fiftieth anniversary of co-education, there are professors who say publicly, "Yonsei will perish soon because there are too many female students."
The world is governed by violence on a daily level, as well as by institutionalized violence, and women live their lives repressed and hemmed in by it. According to a written rule at banks, when a female worker carries a cash box, a male worker must accompany her. Divorced or single women are still exposed to various kinds of rough treatment from other people all the time. There must be a lot to gain for many men by maintaining this society as violent and dangerous, by emphasizing the gender differences in aggression and productivity, and these must be the reasons because of which many a man still does not want any change.
Nevertheless, it is true that there will be a solution in the long run. We may need to see that "the glass is half-full, rather than half-empty," as the fortune-teller friend of Fanny Fink said in the German movie, "Nobody loves me." We may need to pat ourselves on the back and recharge ourselves while making a hole in the wall of reality. Now we are back at the issues of marriage and family, and the absence of civil society. It is time to realign our movement and challenge the institutions, starting with the legal system.
Working in Solidarity and Traveling Together
Recently a movie, Dogday Afternoon, was shown at theaters in South Korea, and many women went to this movie and laughed and clapped wildly. This movie depicted an incident on a hot summer day at an apartment complex. In this movie, a man who was beating his wife violently in front of an apartment building gets caught by a bunch of women and is beaten severely by them. He dies on the way to the hospital, and the women who were involved in the beating escape to the top of an apartment building. While they are there, holding out against the police, the women come to realize the meaning of violent maleness and thus, they learn to relate with other women, help one other and finally build solidarity among themselves. The producer of this movie said, "I decided to make this movie because in the feminist movies produced so far, victims try so hard to tell their stories in such articulate and serene ways. I thought it was ridiculous." This remark poignantly shows how limited and restricted the feminist enlightening language has been. Many feminists living in Seoul, in this year of 1996, think that it is indeed time for a radical reorientation to take place.
In a feminist camp that was held a while ago, we discussed new orientations and strategies for our feminist movement in relation to the Alternative Culture activities. The following is a summary8):
1) We will launch a narrative on subjectivity formation through modernization. We will start a comprehensive discussion beyond the dimensions of narrow rationalism and individualism presumed by Western modernity. There will be a special focus on subjectivity formation in the historical context of colonial-capitalistic development. The purpose is to move beyond the limitations of institutional politics and open up the new dimension of politics of ordinary life. It is necessary to create a new language of the movement that includes body and mind, reason and emotion, verbal and nonverbal language, and thus move beyond each dichotomy. Thereby a counter-narrative to instrumental rationalism and militarism will be launched.
2) We will discard universalistic assumptions, and try to understand subjectivity formation. We will acknowledge the substantial gap between women's and men's experience of life, and develop a politics that does not intend to abolish the difference but starts from the difference. Also, we will acknowledge the gap between generations and classes among women, and develop a `politics of difference.'
3) We will intervene in the processes of social life both as consumers and producers. We will not complacently remain `amateurs,' but nurture professional activists out of our group. We will not perceive women as mere `victims' but will focus on empowering women, both economically and politically. We will endorse `media activism,' and utilize mass media actively.
4) Specific programs under diverse themes will be developed, as also face-to-face and local small group activities such as in after-school programs and sponsoring of a feminist cafe. We will encourage women to use electronic mail systems more actively in order to overcome geographical limitations. Further, we will enter the politics of the information-era through cyber-space. We will not separate play from work, but try to play and lead the movement at the same time. We do not want to be workaholic feminists. We want to be feminists who know how to enjoy life. We will often find time to feast together.
5) We will support coeducation in order to challenge the ideology of gender separation, and try to designate `take-your-daughter-to-work day' and `teach-your-son-housework day' in order to abrogate gender stereotypes. We will utilize those characteristics of Korean culture that emphasize family. We will support the building of women's clinics that respects women's dignity, especially maternity clinics where baby girls are welcomed wholeheartedly. We will also start a movement to changes the current men-only compulsory military service system into a voluntary service system for both men and women.
While exploring reorientation in ways stated above, I looked back at my encounters with Asian friends. I will talk about the meetings with five different feminist friends to discuss specific projects I would like to undertake along with my Asian sisters.
I met Ms. Hara Hiroko in 1982 in Seoul, and we talked about having a Japanese-Korean feminist meeting. She explained at the time that in Japan, feminist conferences of famous foreign scholars were regularly held for the sake of the mass media, and were intended to educate average Japanese men and the press. She added that there were smaller meetings for feminists themselves, and told me that those meetings would be good for us. The plan has not been actualized so far, because we got busy with other business, and also because we could not find an appropriate theme for such a meeting. Maybe this conference today is the actualization of the meeting we talked about ten years age.
The second person is Ms. Ueno Chizuko. Five or six years ago, I visited Japan for a month and I had the opportunity to meet feminists in the Kyoto and Tokyo area. In one such meeting, they were preparing a demonstration against a beauty contest at a spring flower fair. Together they watched an American video on a demonstration against the Miss Universe Contest. In another meeting, they were trying to build a network to care for elderly parents. I had also attended a women's meeting for the environmental movement. After seeing different feminist groups, at a meeting with colleagues, I said "I have the impression that Japanese feminists devote themselves too much to little themes. South Korean feminists are more geared toward bigger themes. I think it would be hard to find a project for Japanese and South Korean feminists to work on together because of the differences in style." Ms. Ueno Chizuko replied to me, "We used to work on bigger projects until a while ago. I think it is not simply a cultural difference." To be frank, I was offended at the time. I thought the different style in feminist movement in the two countries was a cultural difference, not a matter of different stages of capitalistic development or history of movement. I felt as though Ms. Ueno Chizuko was saying, "Japan is more advanced than South Korea, and we are more advanced than you in the feminist movement."9) Now however, I understand what she meant. We cannot ignore changes that occur according to the level of capitalist development or the level of GNP. It is true that the economy has had overwhelming influence on all areas of society, consumerism in particular. South Korea does not need elitist feminist struggles for ultimate justice any more. Rather, individuals have started gathering around issues concerning their daily lives. We are thus entering into politics of everyday life.
I received a letter from Ms. Ueno Chizuko a while ago. She was hoping to hold an international conference on the theme of cross-cultural comparison of East Asian Confucian patriarchy. She also mentioned that she was interested in the issue of Comfort Women. I think we may need to hold a conference on East Asian Confucian patriarchy sooner or later in order to challenge the `imperialistic' discourse about Confucian culture that is being asserted so strongly these days, as I mentioned earlier. I also believe that there should be continuous cooperation between feminists from the two countries regarding the problem of Comfort Women. I would like to add that I do not personally have much interest in this issue, nor do I have time to work on it. Sexual harassment is occurring all the time in this militaristic, violent culture. For example, female freshmen have been sexually harassed at a welcome party for freshmen this semester, and we set up a `free speech platform' to discuss the incident. This kind of issue seems to be much more significant to me personally. In contrast, Korean-American women seem to have great interest in the problem of comfort women. When I asked some of them why this was so, they explained that it was because they were living in a racist society as Korean descendants and this problem is really close to their hearts. I consider that a new platform for discussing the problem of comfort women could be opened up, between Korean-American feminists and the feminists who place their hope on international public opinion, through the Internet.
I think another central issue that should be raised by both South Korean and Japanese feminists is the campaign to reduce work hours. In both South Korea and Japan, male labor-centered industrial structures have become the norm and the dichotomy of family versus public spheres has been reinforced more tenaciously than in any other country. Men are dying from overwork. Young male South Korean writers have recently published books such as, Hoesa kamy?n chukn?nda (You Die If You Go to the Company) or Saell?rimaen, ne m?ttaero haera (White-Collar Workers, Do as You Like It). In both
societies, highly educated and competent women are increasingly avoiding marriage or motherhood. Feminists from the two societies could also work together to develop effective strategies for these women.
The third woman who comes to my mind when I think of Asian solidarity is Ms. Naifei Ding, a Taiwanese scholar of English literature, whom I met at Berkeley last year. She is involved in a group whose characteristics are similar to those of Alternative Culture.10) Naifei Ding's feminist group is operating a bookstore. She said she would go there almost everyday, "to play" when she did not have classes to teach (I also go to the Alternative Culture office to play whenever I can find time). I told her that Alternative Culture had supported itself financially without subsidy, by operating a publishing company and small groups. She was very impressed, and told me that there were few feminist groups that could sustain themselves financially, and that she would come to visit Seoul to learn our ways. She will come to visit us in May 1997, and we will exchange a lot of ideas on how feminist groups can survive economically. We might also develop an exchange program for young members of the two groups to visit each other.
The fourth person is Ms. Vivian Wee, the director of the Center for Environment, Gender and Development (ENGENDER) in Singapore. She is working in the area of rural economic development, as linked to the women's and environmental movements. She seemed to know the game of capitalist society. One of her projects was hotel interior designing using hand-made goods by rural women. She had hired professional interior designers for this project, and I asked her about possibilities of opening a `feminist' travel agency. Many South Korean middle class women travel to Southeast Asia these days, but they do not seem to really enjoy themselves because they have to follow strict and busy schedules, spending a lot of time on tour buses. These women have time and money and want a change in life, but there is no appropriate tour program available for them. Vivian listened to me for a while and suggested that she could help me out in setting up travel programs with a new concept. Besides, she already had networks in Indonesia and Thailand, and she knew a lot about the travel business. The difficulty in setting up this program is to find someone, or a group of feminists who have a good sense of the market, and are smart enough to convince consumers to pay more for high-quality experiences.
The fifth person is Janet, an American living in Pnom Penh. I met her when I went to Pnom Penh last winter. Her job was to train members of a civil organization, and the `training' meant teaching them how to write letters, addresses, and how to put stamps on envelopes. Cambodians had long been living in "a society that was not very different from a jail," said Janet's husband, "they need lots of things." South Koreans could, however, relate to Cambodians without much difficulty because of the experience of the Korean War. Probably many South Korean women in their fifties and sixties who may visit Cambodia would easily relate to young Cambodian women, remembering their own childhood. It would certainly help the women to re-evaluate their own personal lives and the history of their nation.
So far I have shared my thoughts about Asian solidarity based on very personal relationships. My current task is to find feminist ways of living decently without throwing ourselves into the sea of greed that is continuously being created by male-centered commercialism and the global waves of capitalism. I am especially hoping to see many women crossing the boundaries of family (domestic) and society (public), and blurring the boundaries. Nowadays I feel academic discussions are largely pointless. What we need the most right now are the experimental spirit, and building mutually helpful relationships among us. We need feminists who would analyze their own local condition in terms of "compressed and colonial" modernization and who can do joint work on the theme. However, patriarchal oppression is very complex, and we cannot see our enemies until we actually start shaking the system.
I, therefore, suggest that we start shaking things up. The South Korean patriarchs who gained self-confidence through economic development are ambitious for making their nation powerful. However, we feminists would ignore and bypass their obsessions. Instead it is better to put our energy into creating whole new lifestyles and networks. Small groups should be activated in local communities in order to solve specific problems in daily life. Feminist cafes and bookstores of various styles should be established to provide `real' space to the small groups. `Virtual' space, through computer networks, needs to be created for wider groups and in due course, many creative planners will gather together.
A most solid and fruitful solidarity beyond local communities will be made possible by `traveling together.' Local feminist festivals should be held, welcoming feminists from other places. On these occasions, we can advertise and distribute movies that celebrate sisterhood, such as Dogday Afternoon, which was popular in South Korea. This kind of movie is not appreciated well by male-centered movie critics, who only reluctantly mention that many women have been to see it and have enjoyed it. We should show that women's judgment is powerful, not only as consumers but also as cultural critics. By this I mean, feminists should intervene actively in the industry of culture. We should make movies that we want to go and see, or create places which we want to visit, and where we disseminate information. Feminists should not play only on university campuses but start filling the streets.
Internet would be an effective means to make an intervention in cultural life as well. In South Korea, Internet is booming currently, and many people think that English is the only language on Internet. I would like to point out the danger of this thinking. In order to use Internet as a communication system to activate the feminist movement, the first thing to do is to develop a program for women to learn to access Internet easily. Also, they should be able to use their own language on Internet. Each group should be able to make a home page in their own language. Then, professional translators should be employed to do the translation jobs. Learning English should not be another burden to women in non-English speaking societies. Communication through computer networks will be especially powerful for women who are not free to move around and away from home. Therefore, the feminist cafe that should be created in the future should be a cyber cafe, where women can learn about computer communications and Internet.
As I repeatedly point out in this paper, the current situation of South Korea is not so good. Many people are too busy or too burnt out, as they go through fast economic growth. That might be one more reason why I think feminism should be a festival, and a life-preserving, revitalizing movement. Alternative Culture has recently set up `A Room of Her Own' to provide women a place where they can work alone on writing. The Room can also be used for an all-night discussion of a small group. A feminist cafe is expected to open soon in the basement of the same building. Small groups for travel just started going for a trip once a month. I expect that these small steps will bear fruits in a few years. There is no such thing as `Asian patriarchy,' but I do believe that when these kinds of small activities dance across the boundaries of nations like small waves, the oppressive clouds in our lives will disappear eventually.
I am waiting for a travel-maniac feminist to establish a successful travel agency. Isn't travel a great opportunity to re-create oneself? Feminist historical travel programs that are meaningful and pleasant would produce an exodus of women moving freely beyond national boundaries. When it is actualized, women's sensitivity that has been repressed `in the name of father' and `in the name of nation,' will be liberated, and then there will be a stream that no one can block. By that time `bad things' or `improper things' that the patriarchs hate to see will happen everywhere and at anytime.
What I have said so far does not represent a typical South Korean feminist discourse by any means. I have never been a representative South Korean feminist, and I have never intended to be one. I am just a realistic dreamer, who has hardly gone out of the Shinchon area, in working on several projects in building sisterhood. It is my belief that the personal cannot but be political, and ordinary cannot but be political in the feminist movement, and therefore a feminist movement rooted in my own personal life is likely to be most helpful to other people also. Of course, we need extensive training to see the politics within us. Moreover, we need to learn how to maintain integrity and vitality by moving lightly and happily.
1. This paper was originally presented at the conference, "The Rise of Feminist Consciousness against the Asian Patriarchy" organized by the Asian Center for Women's Studies, Ewha Womans University in May 10, 1996 where presenters included Chang Pilwha, Du Fangqin, Hara Hiroko, Mala Khullar, Govind Kelkar, Mary John Mananzan, Florence Howe, and Charlotte Bunch]. It was printed at the Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 3 (3) (1997): 127-156
2. The desire to portray women as personifications of the nation is to be found in various forums, ranging from academic discussions to less professional debates. This comes through vividly in a 1994 hit movie, S?py?nje. An unpublished criticism of the movie by Park Heh-rahn (1994) discussed this, highlighting the praise and wistful desire for "meek" North Korean women by Korean-American men who traveled to North Korea.
3. For a broader discussion on the relationship between nationalism and patriarchy, see Kim Eun-shil, 1994 and Em Henry, 1995. The related issue of Comfort Women during World War II has recently received international attention.
4. Mary Brinton conducted a statistical study on South Korean and Taiwanese women's employment. A seminar was held on April 24, 1996 entitled, "Industrialization and Married Women's Employment in East Asia," and there was much discussion on married women's labor force participation in the two countries.
5. The image of `missy' was created by a department store advertisement to encourage young and middle-aged women to not only buy their clothes, cosmetics and other products, but to cultivate the image of an eternally young and glamorous superwoman.
6. This was a newspaper interview with the creator of the color called "Sexy Number One," of which 500,000 lipsticks were sold in a forty-five day period (Chosun Ilbo, March 25, 1995:20).
7. In contrast, women in the Alternative Culture group, to which I belong, tend to abhor power. They detest power games because they find them distasteful. Therefore this group tends to be isolated from the `power structure' and it cannot grow out of its marginal status. Fortunately a small academic group has just formed within the larger group to study `power' and a new academic journal will be soon be published by it.
8. I have mainly discussed the activities of the Alternative Culture group in creating feminist language. Actually my feminist friends in Alternative Culture have been involved in other projects including preparations for reunification of North and South Korea. Sending baby food and medical supplies to North Korea is one of the specific projects proposed by the group. There is a group of divorced women who discuss the issue of child rearing together and yet another group for a child care cooperative is currently working on establishment and amendment of related laws. Some women directly participate in existing political circles to seek improvements in the legal sphere.
9. Koreans feel subconsciously persecuted by the Japanese because Korea was colonized by the Japanese.
10. Note that we Asian women get to meet each other when we go to Western societies. Networks among Asians have been developed in Western countries where they have studied. We cannot ignore this aspect when we discuss `Asian solidarity.'
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Cho (Han) Haejoang, a practicing cultural anthropologist and feminist, is a professor at Yonsei University, Seoul. Her early research focused on gender studies in Korean modern history. Her current interests and research are in the area of youth culture and modernity in the global/local and post-colonial context of modern day Korea. She is the author of Women and Men in South Korea (1988), Reading Texts, Reading Lives in the Postcolonial Era (three volumes 1992, 1994), Children Refusing School, Society Refusing Children (1996), Reflexive Modernity and Feminism (1998), and Children Searching School, Society Searching Children (2000) (all in Korean). In 2004, she had a series of dialogues with Professor Ueno Chizuko, a feminist sociologist of Tokyo University, under the title of “Talking at the Edge: letters exchanged by two feminists” on issues of nationalism, globalization, localization, youth, aging, learning, and the future of feminism. The letters appeared in the monthly magazine SEKAI (Japan) and the quarterly magazine DANG-DAE-BI-PIONG (Korea), and were later published under the titles [Can the Words reach?] in Japanese by Iwanami Publishing, and [Talking at the Edge] in Korean by Saeg-gak ui Namu publishing.She teaches gender and society, cultural anthropology in the globalizing world, issues in popular culture, family sociology, qualitative methodology, and graduate seminars on cultural studies.She is the director of The Center for Youth and Cultural Studies of Yonsei University and the founding director of Haja center (Seoul Youth Factory for Alternative Culture), a project of action research on youth and culture industry.
조한혜정 2004 08 25
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