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(Yonhap Feature) From streets to cafe, feminism in S. Korea expands boundaries

All Headlines 09:00 March 08, 2017

By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, March 8 (Yonhap) -- At a glance, it seems like any other cafe near a subway station.

But a closer look reveals that one side of its walls is filled with books on feminism and the majority of its guests are women in their 20s and 30s.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, three women in their 20s sat at one of the tables and discussed subtle sexual discrimination in literary works.

One of them, who wanted to be identified only by her last name Lee, came all the way from Chuncheon, 85 kilometers east of Seoul, on a day trip to check out this unique place, which opened last month.

From a feminist cafe to a publisher specializing in women's issues, the boundaries of feminism in South Korea are expanding, with more people declaring themselves to be feminists.

This photo shows Cafe Doing in southern Seoul on March 2, 2017. The cafe, which opened the previous month, has some 650 books related to feminism. It regularly hosts various events, including seminars, on feminist issues. (Yonhap)

"From middle school students to working women, many people come here and say they want to learn more about feminism," said Kim Ryeo-il, the owner of Cafe Doing. "The majority of them say they became feminist in the last one or two years, especially following the Gangnam murder case."

In May 2016, a 22-year-old woman was stabbed to death by a complete stranger near one of the country's busiest subway stations in Seoul.

Tens of thousands of women took to the streets after a police investigation revealed that the 34-year-old man, identified only by his surname Kim, had waited for about 50 minutes for a woman to show up in a bathroom where the murder took place.

State prosecutors declined to define the case as a hate crime against women, saying there is no fixed definition for such a thing.

It was, nevertheless, a shocking experience for South Korean women, leading many of them to look into women's issues and identify themselves as feminists.

"This unfortunate incident was a catalyst for an explosion of South Korean women's latent anger and anxiety," said Baek Mi-sun, head of the Korean Women's Association United.

"The explosion -- people taking to the streets and putting tens of thousands of Post-it condolences messages on the wall of a subway exit -- gave people a sense of sympathy and a feeling of solidarity," she said.

This photo provided by Cafe Doing shows visitors at its opening ceremony in Seoul on Feb. 4, 2017. (Yonhap)

Graduate student Lee Min-kyeong is another figure who was motivated to take action by the tragic incident. She wrote a book and opened a publishing house specializing in women's issues last year.

Her book "Reclaim the Language: How to deal with a sexist" published in July was chosen as the best book of the year by many booksellers and newspapers.

The book, released two months after the Gangnam incident, was hailed by readers. About 25,000 copies have been sold as of end-February, a rare record for a book printed by a publishing enterprise comprised of four members.

"Feminism was something pushed to the margins," Lee told Yonhap News Agency in a recent interview. "But these days, I get messages from even elementary and middle school kids who introduce themselves as feminists. I feel that feminism is stepping into the center of our society."

This photo taken on March 2, 2017, shows the visitors' book at Cafe Doing in southern Seoul filled with messages, mostly expressing gratitude for the opening of this rare cafe. (Yonhap)

Social media is at the heart of the popularization of feminism, experts say.

"Our society still remains hierarchical offline," said professor Yun Ji-yeong at Konkuk University's Institute of Body Culture Study in Seoul.

"People cannot only express their ideas more freely online, but online platforms are often much more epidemic and influential," she said.

"Now we see discussions not just limited online or offline but interacting beyond their boundaries," she said.

Still, the gender sensibility of the government falls short of the discussion going on among the public.

Late last year, the Ministry of Interior was accused of launching a website for what it called a "birth map," indicating the number of women at childbearing age, or those aged between 15 and 49, by region.

The website was shut down the next day, following an intense criticism from public for attempting to blame women for the country's low birthrate.

"The incident was a direct example that reflected how the governing bodies, authorities perceive women," professor Yun said. "Still, an optimistic aspect could be that it showed that people are no longer willing to conform or stay quiet."

This file photo taken on May 22, 2016, shows citizens looking at a myriad of Post-it condolence messages on the wall of a subway exit in southern Seoul, which citizens voluntarily left to mourn a 22-year-old woman who was brutally murdered. The victim was fatally stabbed by a stranger in a bathroom near Gangnam Subway Station the previous week, sparking a nationwide outpouring of mourning. (Yonhap)

Marking International Women's Day on Wednesday, the Seoul metropolitan government rolled out measures to better protect women from violence and correct fixed ideas on gender roles the previous day.

The measures include providing free medical and legal services for sexual violence victims and distributing free of charge emojis of men doing house chores and girls playing with toy cars to break stereotypes.

"It shows that the Seoul city government is open to gender issues, but we see these solutions remaining at a very soft level, providing emojis and promising safety for women," professor Yun said. "What we really need now is a broader approach that directly touches upon policies that affect our life."

Experts share opinions that 2016 was a monumental year for South Korea's feminism that drew much attention on the women's issue and brought many into the discussion.

South Korean feminists' eyes are now on who will be elected to lead the country during this year's presidential election and carry out policies tackling gender issues.

The election, originally slated for December, can take place as early as May if the Constitutional Court reviewing President Park Geun-hye's impeachment decides to permanently oust her from the post. The ruling is likely to be made by next week.

"This presidential election is a watershed moment for South Korean feminism," said Baek, the leader of the umbrella organization.

"It is very important for a president who is open to women's issue and can actually bring changes to be elected," professor Yun said.

This file photo taken in a bustling Gangnam district in southern Seoul on May 24, 2016, shows protesters marching, voicing women's right to be able to go out safely at night. (Yonhap)


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