Women find their voice as S. Korea's first female president falls from grace

The presidential scandal’s bizarre details have provided fertile ground for misogynistic beliefs in a nation where gender inequality is deeply entrenched. But women are pushing back.

Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press
Protesters hold up cards depicting South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, right bottom, as a marionette and Choi Soon-sil, Park's longtime friend, as a puppeteer during a rally calling for Park to step down in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.

Park Geun-hye is South Korea’s first female president. She’s also the country's first president to be named a suspect in a criminal investigation.

For some of her critics, these two facts are inextricably linked.

The political scandal that has embroiled South Korea for the past six weeks has women’s rights supporters fearful of an intensely patriarchal society becoming even less accepting of female leaders. The scandal’s bizarre details and lurid rumors have provided fertile ground for misogynistic beliefs in a nation where gender inequality is deeply entrenched.

“People are talking about not only what she did and the corruption, but whether or not she was getting Botox,” says Yenn Lee, who researches Korean digital culture and politics at SOAS University of London. “They say this proves women cannot be leaders.”

Ms. Yenn says President Park’s fall from grace – her approval rating has plunged to the low single digits – has emboldened critics of all stripes. Social media posts that propagate sexist sentiments have gained particular traction; Twitter and Facebook are filled with memes that affix blame for the scandal to the president’s gender. Offline, sexist chants can be heard at the demonstrations in downtown Seoul that have drawn millions of protesters.

But women’s rights activists are fighting back, galvanized by a newfound sense of empowerment in challenging longstanding perceptions of women.

They won a symbolic victory ahead of last Saturday’s rally when DJ DOC, a popular hip-hop trio, was barred from performing because of controversial lyrics in a song the group had released online the night before. 

The song criticizes Park’s relationship with her longtime friend and shadowy confidante, Choi Soon-sil, who allegedly sought to enrich herself through ties to the presidential office. But feminist organizations pointed out that some of the lyrics, such as "Miss Park,” were offensive to women. The term “miss” in Korea has derogatory connotations because of its historical association with young women in low social positions, including hostesses.

DJ DOC later said in a statement that the lyrics were not intended to be misogynistic. Still, women’s rights groups stood firm.

“We felt that it was misogynistic in a way that shouldn’t be connoted to a president, even though she’s done many, many wrong things,” says Chong So-young, a member of Femidangdang, a feminist group that helped pressure the demonstration’s organizers to call off DJ DOC’s performance. “It was unacceptable.”

Since Saturday, Femidangdang’s Facebook page has received more than 2,000 offensive comments related to the group’s involvement in the canceled performance. Ms. Chong says “feminazi” is among the most common insults she’s read.

'Dictator’s daughter’

Hwang Ji-young, a recent college graduate who has attended all but one demonstration, has no tolerance for chants of “Miss Park” in Seoul's Gwanghwamun Square. She relishes hearing the majority of the crowd respond with silence whenever such barbs are thrown. For her, focusing on Park’s gender distracts from the real problems: everything from crony nepotism to endemic corruption. 

“Misogyny is never a trivial thing,” Ms. Hwang says. “You have a lot of other things to criticize about her.”

Park has denied accusations that she colluded in the criminal activities of Ms. Choi, the daughter of a cult leader who once claimed to be able to communicate with Park’s long-ago murdered mother. Prosecutors have accused Choi of receiving access to classified policy documents in addition to exploiting her presidential ties to extort millions of dollars in donations from Korean conglomerates.

In a speech on Tuesday, Park offered to leave office if parliament arranges a safe transfer of power. Opposition leaders called the proposal a stalling tactic and vowed to stick with their plan to try to vote on an impeachment motion as early as Friday.

Whatever happens to Park, few, if any, feminists will mourn the end of her presidency. Most saw her election in 2012 as little more than a superficial milestone. They don’t believe she ever represented women’s interests as president or as a legislator before that.

“For me, she's just a dictator's daughter,” Hwang says, referring to Park’s father, the late Park Chung-hee, whose 18-year rule ended after he was shot and killed by his own intelligence chief in 1979. “She’s not an advocate for women's rights. She never has been.”

Indeed, gender inequality remains widespread in South Korea four years after Park took office. Women on average earn 38 percent less than men, the biggest gap of any rich country, and make up only 17 percent of parliament. The country ranks 116 among 144 countries in this year’s Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum. It’s sandwiched on the list between the Maldives and Angola, five spots below stubbornly patriarchal Japan.

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
Hwang Ji-young demonstrating at the protest in Seoul on Saturday. Organizers estimated 1.5 million gathered to denounce President Park Geun-hye. The police estimate of the turnout was much lower, at 260,000.

Gangnam murder

While Korean women have long expressed frustration with structural sexism, it was the stabbing death of a 23-year-old woman on May 17 that spurred many of them to action. The attacker was a 34-year-old man with a history of schizophrenia. He told police he attacked the woman because he felt that women had been "dismissive" of him, according to news reports.

In the days following the attack, hundreds of demonstrators marched near the public toilets in the wealthy Gangnam district where it occurred. Thousands of women stuck post-it messages to a nearby subway gate with expressions of grief and fears about being potential targets for random acts of violence.

Cho Hae-joang, an emeritus professor at Yonsei University in Seoul who studies gender issues, says the attack’s galvanizing effect has carried over into the current protests. She’s been encouraged by the large number of women who have taken to the streets, something she saw less of in the 1987 movement to democratize South Korea.

“In the 1980s, the democratic movement was very patriarchal,” she says. “After the Gangnam incident, women have been getting together and raising their voices.”

Chong, a graphic design student at Seoul National University, says the attack is what compelled her and a dozen friends to form Femidangdang, which roughly translates to “Proud Feminist Party.” The group hosts seminars on various women’s issues and lobbies for legalizing abortion. They’ve also set up a female-only zone at the weekly demonstrations. Last Saturday, about 200 women joined their group.

The Gangnam murder also had a lasting effect on Hwang, who says she had only the faintest notion of feminism before it happened. In her mind, it was a topic confined to academia. That all changed after May 17.

“What happened last summer really opened my eyes,” she says. “Since then I’ve spoken out more about the concerns I have as a woman.”

One of her biggest tests occurred on Nov. 12, the night of the third demonstration against Park. On her way home in a taxi with friends, the male taxi driver quoted a Korean proverb while criticizing the president: “If a hen clucks, the whole household is ruined.”

“This is why women shouldn't be politicians,” the middle-aged man concluded.

Hwang admits that a year ago she would have probably been too nervous to say anything, but now she wasn’t having it. She and her friends told him he was wrong and not to say things like that. He didn’t talk for the rest of the ride.

“I never thought about confronting an older man before,” Hwang says. “I feel proud.”

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