As South Korean women fight for their rights, the gloves come off

By holding up a confrontational online 'mirror' to South Korea's conservative yet tech-savvy society, a provocative website has paved a path for a new generation of activist young feminists.

Kim Hong-ji/Reuters
A woman chants slogans in front of riot policemen as they march toward the Presidential Blue House during a protest calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in central Seoul, South Korea, December 3, 2016. The sign reads: "Arrest Park Geun-hye".

Min-so Yun is on the front line of a bitter war. Armed only with words and a rickety shield of anonymity, she is part of a new generation of feminists determined to dismantle misogyny in South Korea.

In Megalia, a groundbreaking feminist website launched last year, Ms. Yun, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, found a fresh weapon to challenge the sexual harassment she faced online.

It was a tactic called “mirroring.” By flipping around the sexist comments that litter the web forums where young South Koreans congregate, and hurling them back at men, she joined a fast-growing community in fighting back.

“We grew up listening to be good – don’t swear, don’t fight, even if someone is bad to you,” says the 25-year-old, a university graduate. “All my good words didn’t work. But this worked.”

The backlash has been severe. Some Megalians, as users began to identify themselves, have received death and rape threats online. Dozens of others, including Yun, are facing lawsuits over web comments, their identities believed to have been exposed through IP addresses.

One woman in the gaming industry was even fired after complaints from male fans linking her to the site. She’d tweeted a photo of herself in a T-shirt – designed by a spin-off feminist group raising funds for legal cases – saying, “Girls do not need a prince.”

Despite being hailed as one of Asia’s most liberal democracies, South Korea has long floundered on women's rights. It ranks a lowly 116 of 144 countries for gender equality, according to the World Economic Forum, just above Angola and Nigeria. It also has the largest gender wage gap among the mostly high-income nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In this socially conservative environment, operating undercover opens a rare space for debate, says Yun, who has not been silenced by her legal fight. “Some have stopped” posting online, she adds, but we’ve “already changed the culture.” Women are “speaking up.”

Provocative activism

The battleground began online in tech-savvy South Korea, where nearly 90 percent of the population owns a smartphone – topping the global ranks in a recent Pew Research Center survey. But it quickly delved offline, too.

The Megalia collective has backed prominent feminist campaigns – from raising funds to close Soranet, South Korea’s biggest pornographic website, to forcing a public apology from the Korean edition of Maxim, globally rebuked for glorifying sexual violence. In a September 2015 cover, the men’s magazine featured a staged image of a prominent Korean actor standing casually next to a car trunk from which the bound feet of a naked woman jut out, captioned: “So women like ‘bad guys?’ This is a real ‘bad guy.’ Dying for him, right?”

Megalia has thrived on being provocative. Its logo taunts Korean men in what activists say is a mirror of society’s obsession with women’s appearance: South Korea has the world’s highest rate of plastic surgery per capita, and there is immense pressure to conform to beauty ideals. But for critics, such as the popular far-right men’s online forum Ilbe, a key Megalia target, the group is promoting hate speech and misandry, or prejudice against men.

The group has also divided feminists, including Megalians themselves. From drawing hundreds of thousands of readers at its height, the website is now virtually defunct. A debate over whether to out gay men who marry women as a cover for their sexuality eventually splintered the collective. Nevertheless, Megalia is seen as having paved the path for a new generation of young feminists, and users have since migrated to the plethora of other sites that have emerged in its place.

Spawning new battlegrounds

New feminist groups are also sprouting offline. In the sprawling campus of Sogang University, in west Seoul, members of Flaming Feminist Action (FFA) are playing basketball after their weekly meeting.

They think Megalia provided a crucial rallying call for feminists, but favor a visible rather than anonymous campaign.

“Our goal is to get political power,” so activism has to be out in the open, says Mihyun Kim, a 27-year-old labor union worker.

The catalyst for this small group was the May murder of a young Korean woman in the plush district of Gangnam. South Korea has a relatively low rate of violent crime, though activists say crimes against women are rising. But it was the revelation that the attacker had waited for a female victim, as he always felt “belittled by women,” that unleashed an intense nationwide debate on misogyny.

FFA was born, joining thousands of other women in demonstrating against gender violence. But as with Megalia, counter-protests by men’s rights activists once again exposed the bitter divisions in Korea’s gender war.

“They say that Korea is female-centric,” says Minju Jeong, another young group member, with a wry laugh. She was among the dozens of women protesters whose photographs were later uploaded on Ilbe together with anonymous threats and abuse.

Gender discrimination

In 2012 South Korea elected its first female leader, the daughter of a former military dictator who is currently embroiled in a deep political scandal, but women are still poorly represented in top posts across most industries.

One 24-year-old, speaking on condition of anonymity, recounts her first day working for a leading conglomerate. A senior male manager told her that “women were disadvantaged” in the company. “I was startled,” she said. But it got worse. During after-work drinks he suggested she “try to be more like a man” if she wanted to fit in. Deeply disillusioned with her career prospects in South Korea, the employee says she is planning to migrate abroad, a move she believes other ambitious women are also mulling.

South Korea witnessed a dramatic transformation from one of the world’s poorest agrarian nations in the 1950s to a wealthy and industrialized state just three decades later. But for the generations born after this period of rapid growth, there is deep anxiety about the future.

“Many young people aren’t getting the kind of jobs they hoped for,” says Dr. Bo-Myung Kim, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Gender Research at Seoul National University. The slowing economy and growing unemployment have created “a high level of insecurity among men about women’s progress,” she adds, at a time that “women want more” but traditional gender roles persist. The scholar says she expects the confrontational relationships between women and men to only intensify both at work and home.

Into the mainstream

At the Young Women Christian’s Association in downtown Seoul, a discussion on abortion is under way, with speakers from both sides. Abortion is officially banned in South Korea, except in certain cases, though in practice it is widespread.

The government is considering stiffer penalties for those who break the law, and feminists have mobilized in protest, with many Megalians joining legalization demonstrations for the first time.

Ha-young Kim, a student attending the discussion, is disappointed by the partisan tone of the debate. Her own group, Femidea, an online forum that translates global articles about feminism into Korean, is trying to expand thinking on gender and women’s rights.

But she is still optimistic about South Korea’s feminist revolution. “Last year feminism was still considered fringe,” says the 23-year-old. “But the same friends who viewed it negatively are now sharing their experiences, raising a new consciousness on and offline.”

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