Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Women's Status in Korea... My Perspective.

I'm not really looking to make a deep social commentary but one of my readers expressed interest on the social status of women here in Korea. I'm no expert by any stretch of the imagination so the best I can do is talk about what I've experienced and what my Korean friends, coworkers and neighbors have told me. Before I say much I want to put a disclaimer that this is merely my opinion and that I love Korea and Korean people and that no country or culture is perfect. So here is my take on things- I tried to keep it brief but it's a really complex subject.

In Korea, status is important. Status is determined by a number of things- your age, your job, your race and yes, your gender. Are women lower on the totem pole here? Without a doubt. Generally speaking, in Korea an ideal woman is thin, pretty, well dressed and on the meek side. The Confucian mentality has lingered and men are considered to be the head of the household, which really isn't too different from most other places in the world. There is a clear hierarchy in a Confucian society and this is reflected in the Korean language. You use different terms and speak differently to people who hold a higher status. You have to use a higher or more polite form of words in these circumstances and this is extremely important in order to show the appropriate amount of respect for their status. This is all well and good for the most part (respect your elders isn't that bad of an idea) but it does extend beyond that.

A great virtue in Confucianism is filial piety. What does that mean? Well basically you need to show respect to people higher than you and there are five basic relationships where this applies, only one that is considered an equal relationship:
  1. Sovereign to subject
  2. Parent to child
  3. Husband to wife
  4. Elder to younger sibling
  5. Friend to friend (The members of this relationship are equal to one another) (from Wikipedia)
What does this mean for modern Korea? Well I've seen a lot of sexism. Women are not equal here and they make no effort to hide this. This year in particular I've been dealing with a lot of sexism. I don't want to talk too much about work but let's just say that it's no coincidence that I am the only foreign woman working at my school and that in the other branches the male foreign teachers clearly outnumber the females. I've heard remarks made that they don't like women, don't like hiring women and that women are difficult, complain too much and are bitchy. What that really means is that foreign women expect to be treated equally so when they bring something up they are seen as being difficult even if in reality the foreign guys are just as "difficult". It's okay for the guys though because they have the right equipment.

Things like smoking in public- this is completely frowned upon for women. I can't condone the habit (it's nasty) but I don't like double standards. Smoking is extremely common here and it's a bit ridiculous for women to be hiding in bathrooms and ducking behind parked cars to smoke. Just the other day a friend told me about the double standards she faces in her family because she's female. Her grandmother and father clearly favor her brother and treat him like a prince which is really hurtful for her. This is not an uncommon situation.

Like I mentioned, women are expected to be thin and beautiful here. You think the pressure is bad in North America? Try going shopping in Asia. Maybe models and celebrities are shoved down our throats back home but at least they make clothing in a range of sizes. The majority of women's clothing here comes in one size- it's called free size and it is one size fits tiny. I'd estimate that the largest size it would accommodate comfortably would be a size 6/8. Think about that. And this even extends to shoes, which really blows my mind and is reminiscent of Chinese foot binding. Unless you are buying expensive shoes or ordering from the internet you can't find women's shoes larger than a size 250 (which is about a size 8). This truly leaves me scratching my head since Koreans are much taller than other Asian people. I have lots of Korean girlfriends that are 5'6 and up. They can't buy shoes in their own country because their feet are too big. I mean, you could lose weight to squeeze into the clothes but no matter what you do, your feet aren't going to shrink. It's bizarre.

One could argue that this doesn't seem that serious compared to what women face in other countries. Oh so the clothes are small, women can't smoke in public and by default women are the primary caregiver and in charge of domestic duties? Big deal! At least they're not forced to wear a burqa or subjected to female castration. Sure, you'd be right. There are lots of countries that are worse but does that make the inequality in Korea acceptable? Shouldn't we all be working to change things for the better everywhere? I would argue that if Korea wants to continue growing globally (which they claim) then they need to make some cultural changes and social equality for women is an area they need to work on.

I could keep going but it would be much of the same. Bottom line? Women have a lower status and this is not masked at all. So I try to keep this in mind every time an ajumma (older woman- generally middle age) elbows me in the subway and takes the last available seat. Yeah, it's annoying but after years of getting no respect, doing all the household tasks, taking care of children without thanks she has finally aged enough and by default has managed to move up on the status ladder. As for me? Every time sexism rears its ugly head I keep in mind that I'm not living here forever and that the best way to combat ignorance is to prove them wrong and work a little harder.


Eddie said...

Well said, Amber.

ambearo said...

Thanks Eddie. I really respect your opinion so that means a lot. ^^

Bybee said...

I would imagine that when Korean women go abroad for a year or two to Canada or the US, they get used to the freer lifestyle, and when they get back, Korea is a bit of a tight fit, like too-small shoes.

Kirsty Bryce said...

So, so, so much like Japan that it is scary.

Mom Bruce said...

Canadian women weren't seen as people until the 1920's. Not so very long ago!