Handmaids are a rare breed in the Republic of Gilead, where most women are barren. The purpose of their existence is to reproduce. If these few fertile women shirk their duty to breed, they face immediate execution or, worse, are banished to “The Colonies” to die slowly of radiation poisoning.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood depicts an authoritarian state that emerges amid a fear of declining fertility. It’s a dystopian novel that shows how men appropriate a language of female empowerment and use it for their own purpose— procreation.
A few days after reading this gruesome work of fiction, I saw a photo in the news: Underneath a banner titled “The Inaugural Meeting of the Korean Feminist Association (KFA)” were 16 elderly men and only two women.
사우디아라비아에서 여성 인권을 위한 단체가 생겼을 때 13명 모두가 남성인 걸 보고 충격받았을 때가 있었죠. 그리고 2017년 한국 페미니스트협회 창립 사진을 보고 우리의 수준이 어느 정도인지 통감했습니다. pic.twitter.com/pjGytcinqA
— 에 반 (@evanha1) April 23, 2017
A Twitter user compared this overwhelmingly male body of founders to Saudi Arabia’s “Girl’s Council,” where only men were present on stage at the launch event of the women’s rights group. (Strict gender segregation practice in Saudi Arabia limits women from appearing in public settings with men that aren’t related to them.) Another Twitter user compared the KFA launch to Donald Trump’s signing of an anti-abortion law where, again, only men were present.
My initial disbelief upon seeing the KFA photo was exacerbated when I spoke to the president of the organization over the phone.
“How long have you been a reporter?” Kim Jae-won, the KFA president asked me, immediately after I asked my first question about why he had established the group. It wasn’t a particularly revolutionary question, but necessary to lay the groundwork of the story.
“Not long,” I answered.
“It sounds like it,” he said. I became slightly flustered, but continued to ask questions. Why did a self-proclaimed feminist organization lack female participation?
“South Korea has been a male-centered society because men have been neglecting [feminist] issues. So that’s why men decided to step forward to help women,” said Kim.
Online news News Cheonji reported that at the inaugural meeting, around 30 elders, predominantly men with mostly journalistic or business backgrounds were present. Kim told News Cheonji that in the twenty-first century, men should lead to achieve gender equality for women.
Preliminary research showed Kim to be something of a pioneering figure who had trailblazed the feminist movement in South Korea since the `70s. Brandishing the motto “Love your wife,” Kim urged men to enter the kitchen and do the dishes. He published Yeowon Magazine, which was aimed at a female audience and advocated economic independence for women. An online magazine called The People even dubbed Kim Jae-won the “original feminist in South Korea.”
To an extent, 77-year-old Kim should be credited for highlighting women’s rights in a hyper-macho, patriarchal society, especially as a man of his generation. South Korea has the highest gender pay gap among OECD nations. Only two percent of managerial positions at the top 100 companies and 16.3 percent of lawmakers are women. Kim is a vocal critic of this reality. During the 2016 general election, Kim even ran a campaign, encouraging voters to cast their ballots for any female candidate, regardless of political affiliation (although in my opinion, this is an example of misdirected feminism).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, men who control the military regime decide what’s best for women; men are the actors who free women from the supposed misogyny of the past. They ban porn and fashion magazines, seen as oppressive forces that wrongly objectify women. Rapists are severely punished for violating the sacred female body. And, most importantly, men help women achieve what they were originally born for: childbirth.
The importance of childbirth is repeated uncannily in one of KFA’s key projects for the future, a nationwide campaign titled “Let’s Get Married.” Kim thinks South Korea’s declining birthrate, one of the lowest in the world, is an alarming issue that needs to be tackled before anything else. And from his perspective, resolving gender inequality and falling birthrate go hand in hand.
“[Marriage] is a must. Without it, humankind might come to an end,” Kim told News Cheonji.
On the one hand, it’s laudable that the KFA wants to improve women’s rights. And numerous studies, including this one, have shown that improving benefits for women and providing maternity leave boosts pregnancy rate.
But pushing forth a “Let’s Get Married” slogan potentially reduces women to child breeders, a reproductive function necessary in a heteronormative family. And Kim doesn’t seem to condone unconventional family structures because they cannot breed naturally. In the News Cheonji interview, Kim dismissed homosexuality as nothing more than a “sensual relationship” which breaks away from the ultimate purpose of marriage.
Unfortunately, this mentality isn’t new in South Korea. Last December, the country’s interior ministry featured a “birth map” that showed the national distribution of fertile women. The map came under fire as critics decried the ministry for rendering the female body a reproductive tool and seemingly thrusting responsibility for the low birthrate on women, while disregarding the social context of the financial and employment burdens that make raising children difficult. Within hours, the ministry took the map down from the website.
I also wondered if the KFA was just another instance of elderly men hijacking feminism in a gapjil move, which refers to an act of abusing one’s authority over those in weaker positions. Talking to its director didn’t assure me that the organization was open-minded about the different voices of women.
Perhaps Kim Jae-won was offended by my questions about the organization’s gender imbalance. Perhaps he felt entitled to teach me a lesson, as someone much older. Whatever the reason, from the beginning of our conversation, Kim used banmal, an informal strain of speech that can come across as affectionate in personal relationships, but in a professional setting like an interview, is condescending and disrespectful.
“You’re not supposed to ask questions like this. I used to be a journalist myself,” Kim said in banmal when I pressed him to reveal the gender ratio of the apparently “hundreds of KFA members.” “I’m way senior than you are.”
I couldn’t help but think of the Korean word kkondae. Kkondae, while less gender-specific, has a similar connotation as gaejeossi, which typically refers to anyone with a sense of entitlement — whether it’s age, gender or social rank — who bossily pushes on others what he or she thinks is right.
“I just answered your question. When I answer, you listen,” Kim said, when I asked again why a feminist organization lacked female participation. I was dissatisfied with his answer. “Are there any other journalists [in your team]? If so, then tell someone more experienced to call me,” yelled Kim.
That was the end of my conversation with him. He hung up mid-sentence as I was speaking.
I could not ask him about KFA’s other plans: Their campaign to launch a monthly “male-free evening,” or the one about seeking “the roots of Korean feminism in Gojoseon,” an ancient kingdom dating back to the third millennium BCE, thought to be the original Korean nation.
I had been hoping to have an open discussion with the man that some call “South Korea’s original feminist.”
I wanted to get a clearer understanding of his idea of feminism, because in talking to him, and reading about him, I came away with questions about how genuine his commitment to improving gender equality really is, and if he had perhaps seized on a superficial understanding of feminism to address other issues in South Korean society, specifically the low birthrate, and the risk to the economy that presents. But he hung up on me, so I couldn’t ask him.
What message does a male-centered feminist organization send to the public? What are celibatarian women to Kim? How about those who want to marry someone of the same sex? Or how about including sexual minorities and a diverse range of other genders, not just men and women, in his idea of gender equality?
But I guess I’ll never be able to discuss this with him. Kim refused to speak to Korea Exposé again, even when “someone more experienced” did call him back.
Cover image: The superman complex. (Source: Max Pixel)