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THE INSTITUTIONALIZED OPPRESSION OF THE KOREAN WOMAN

(1994)

 

 


                           PREFACE

 

 

     In order to gather information for the writing of this paper I interviewed dozens of Korean women both single and married. The married women ranged from the age of thirty eight to forty seven, except for one who was twenty nine. And the single women from the age of twenty to twenty nine. I also conducted lengthy interviews with three professional women who were older, unmarried and very, very difficult to find. Their ages were thirty six, thirty nine and forty two. Of course I have changed the names to protect their identities as they revealed things to me of a very personal nature. I constantly got the impression that as a foreigner and especially an American who's country has a reputation for personal freedom that I was being told things that would not or could not be admitted to another Korean, but were told to me because it was thought I would understand. 

 

 

       The Institutionalized Oppression of the Korean Woman

 

 

     The absence of any obvious signs of a Korean Women's movement may seem unusual in a society as oppressive to women as Korea is. However, there is a long history of women's repression due to the fanaticism with which Koreans tend to adopt foreign philosophies like confucianism. More than ever the women of Korea are trapped by their country's history and their own weakness. A weakness which of course has been bred into them by the standards of society. As their ancestors they continue to willingly fit themselves into the mold provided for them by society. Fueled by their ignorance they plod ahead in their traditional capacities as baby machines and laborers.

 

     To the modern Korean woman it seems her position in society has always been the same as it is now. Although she will admit that lately her position is improving slightly she can't remember a time when women were not controlled and trodden upon by the male members of society. Well, it has not always been that way, in the Silla Dynasty women were afforded more rights that they are now. Women often were considered head of the family and women were also part of the ruling class and acted in the capacity of rulers. During the Koryo Dynasty women's rights were again greater than the woman of today and included the right to re-marry without fear of persecution and being ostracized from society. It wasn't until the dreaded Yi dynasty that women's rights were severely curtailed. The sudden fanatical adoption of radical Neo-Confucianism and it's rules for human relations was the death knell for the free woman. Since the beginning of the Yi Dynasty in 1392 women have been regarded as either slaves or decorations depending on their position in society. For the working class the daughter was a an extra hand to help with the work and remained that as she moved to her mother in laws house where she was under the control of the mother in law and had little command over her life until she could prove her worth to the family by bearing a son. Unfortunately things haven't changed much to the modern day.

     The modern Korean woman is a slave for her entire life. Although the three phases of a married woman are often espoused I feel it more appropriate to talk of the two phases of a Korean woman in general. Phase One is from birth until marriage and virtually every aspect of her existence is controlled by her loving parents (loving parents who wouldn't hesitate to disown her should she choose to disobey their wishes). The second Phase is the married phase. During this phase she is at the mercy of her husband and again has no control over her destiny. In this phase she is in a kind of a prison until her children are old enough to take care of themselves. She can go to the market or spend the day socializing with her friends but leave the kids under dad's care while she attends school? Not a chance! Or like Jin Hui, a forty two year old married woman, who wanted to go with her aerobics class on a trip to Che Ju Island for the weekend. Not permitted!

     It may seem that a woman can avoid the unpleasant aspects of one of these phases by simply refusing to get married. A great idea which many women strive for but which few are capable of achieving in practice. As in the case of Son Hui, a twenty three year old student on the verge of graduating who has told her parents she never wants to get married. Her parents of course laugh off her childish remark and continue to arrange for her to meet potential marriage partners. Although she is firm in her convictions to not marry in the foreseeable future she also doesn't want to hurt her parents feelings as she feels sorry for them in their traditional ignorance. The only way she sees out is to go abroad to study to both escape from her parents control and pressure to marry, and at the same time, not make her parent's lives miserable by openly defying them.

     Marriage in Korea is not a thing of love or caring but is a business venture. The woman is the tool and the product is a son to carry on the man's family line. As with any other business venture both sides try to get the better of the other. The woman goes to college for the sole purpose of getting her "Mrs" degree; (this is clear from the extremely small number of women college graduates who have jobs) the man goes so he can get a good job to support the family. The woman's parents are bargaining for the best deal they can get (the wealthiest and best educated son in law) so their daughters will not be slaves like the working class wives are and the man's family is also looking for a deal. A well educated (so their grandson will have educated genes) and wealthy woman to help contribute to the families household when just beginning. Any woman refusing to marry a man of her parent's choosing would be required to produce a prospective groom suitable to her parents. If she had the audacity to attempt to marry a man who was considered unacceptable to her parents she would be forbidden from seeing him and have other "more suitable men" forced upon her. Continued resistance would probably result in the parents renouncement of their precious daughter. Such as happened to Mi Hui, who's parents refused to let her marry the man she loved and forced her to flee her home. She did not contact them for one year as she continued to see her boyfriend. After a year they still refused to allow the marriage so the couple married without their blessing. Clearly the parents forced her into a difficult situation and made her life very hard under the pretext of looking out for her well being. The parent's happiness appears to have priority over the daughter's in Korean society. 

     Of course with marriages arranged in this manner it would seem there is nothing to keep the opposing parties form divorcing since they frequently know little or nothing about each other at the time of marriage. To cure this problem society has conveniently provided a bond, which in many cases is the sole cohesive element holding the venture together. The instant baby! The number of couples who have a child within the first year of marriage is staggering. The appearance of a child in a marriage makes divorce, which would have been difficult without a child, a virtual impossibility as any woman that would abandon her child by divorce would be considered less than human. The child is also a common bond which both parents love even if they do not love each other. Hyun Hui is a representative Korean wife who says she is used to, and even comfortable with her husband but cannot say that she has ever loved him. She does however love her children and would never contemplate divorce because of the children, in spite of admitting she is not happy.

     A woman wishing to avoid this whole unpleasant marriage mess and simply plans on living her life on her own terms has an even more formidable obstacle to face. Getting a high enough paying job  to support herself with all the accoutrements afforded male employees, like housing assistance and bonuses, is nearly impossible because it is understood that most women will only work until the time of marriage. Even if a woman were capable of finding such a job she could not easily live by herself as her parents would not allow it. She would most likely not be allowed to move out of their house (their control) unless she were moving into a husbands house (husband's control). Although a few women are able to stave off their parent's assaults on their freedom for some time, those that do usually aren't able to escape from the parents house and end up as old maids (past the age at which marriage is still possible) still living in their parent's house.

 

 

     The persistence of the destructive forces of confucianism can been seen in our very classroom. When one student told the story of the man who quit his job to take care of the children because he made less money than his wife most of the students in class laughed, of course most of the students are Korean American or Japanese students! Clearly the parents of these students have successfully instilled in them the confucian doctrine in spite of having become American citizens themselves and having raised their children in the somewhat, but far from completely, equality oriented society found in the United States. As it stands now in Korea, women have no rights except those they can wrest or persuade their male masters to grant them. Whether it be their parent's permission to move out on their own or a husband's permission to allow his wife to attend school. There is no magic age at which a woman becomes an adult as in the west. A woman only can prove her womanhood by heeding society's wishes and following the accepted path for a woman. That is to obediently proceed from the first to the second phase of her life.

     There can never be a cure for inequality until each individual has achieved a state of mind in which equality is the default and not something that must be consciously brought to mind. In the absence of this change in the state of mind of Koreans we are forced to wait for the liberation of women to be accomplished through the extremely slow process of social evolution.