[My article, reprinted from Yonhap News Agency]
(Yonhap Feature) Strong Jeju women: yesterday and today
JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, July 1 (Yonhap) — To many Koreans, Jeju is known as an island of three abundances — wind, rock and women. That was highlighted again when the U.S. ambassador recently visited the tourist island and picked abalones and other marine life in the surrounding sea with local diving women, commonly called “jamnyeo,” or “haenyeo.”
During the trip, Ambassador Kathleen Stephens lauded the Jeju women as a living symbol of the strength of Korean women that is a valuable part of the country’s history and future.
In peninsular Korea, the “strong woman” of Jeju is often glorified by feminists as an example of female leadership and gender equality. To others, the description gives the erroneous impression that women are everywhere on Jeju and the island is a man’s paradise.
One would do well to remember that these three aspects of Jeju are meant to be seen in the clear light of hardship. The windy climate and rocky soil have made farming — and survival — in this agrarian community difficult at best, the epitome of Jeju’s legendary struggle with the natural elements.
The disproportionate number of women on Jeju over the centuries is largely a reflection of the lack of men. Men died at sea in typhoons and other storms, were killed or exiled first by Mongolian and then Japanese overlords, and were massacred by the armed forces of the national government in the 1948 “Uprising.”
Another aspect of the amazon-like image of Jeju women is one of economic independence and leadership, especially among the jamnyeo or haenyeo. While it’s true that women in this profession have formed cooperatives with some measure of internal governance, they have also been economically exploited by various regents, governments, and occupiers throughout time.
In the deepest cultural underpinnings, Jeju’s mythology as preserved by oral tradition, this island of “18,000 gods” in fact has many goddesses, according to local mythologist and Cultural Heritage Administration representative Kim Soonie. At its core, the creation myth is one of a grandmother goddess, Seolmundae Halmang, and numerous other female deities are also worshiped even today or revered as tradition.
There’s Jacheongbi, goddess of both love and agriculture, while Gameunjang Agi, goddess of wisdom, determines fate, destiny, and fortune.
Jowang Halmang is the kitchen or hearth goddess, presiding over family health. Samseung Halmang generally manages the lives of humans, in particular governing pregnancy and childbirth.
Gopang Halmang, goddess of prosperity, rules the granary, while Youngdeung Halmang, also ruler of grain, primarily governs the sea and related professions.
In the local dialect, “halmang” means grandmother, and it’s easy to see that key female deities in the Jeju pantheon are benevolent grandmotherly archetypes.
Jeju has also had several remarkable women in its history.
The most widely known of these is Kim Man-deok (1739-1812), the first female merchant in Korea and a philanthropist who donated a majority of her profit to the people of Jeju in order to save them from starvation during a time of famine. Her image was considered but ultimately rejected for the 50,000 won Korean bank note, and her grave in Jeju has become a pilgrimage site for many women. A government committee has been formed to determine a memorial in her name.
Jeju women have recently been given the designation of “Intangible Cultural Asset” by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea in no fewer than 11 categories, four in arts and crafts and seven in others.
They are famed for their strong will, creative and independent spirit, family support, community ties, cooperative labor, and in general, as a powerful force within Jeju society. In Confucian Korea, however, even the women of Jeju have remained in secondary social status.
The status of Jeju women today is still quite mixed.
Jeju’s women have consistently fought against patriarchal prejudices and discrimination. Yet outside of the diving women’s economic cooperatives or the school system, women have rarely held positions of leadership in Jeju society. This, however, is changing.
Subsequent to its designation as a Special Self-Governing Region in 2006, Jeju Provincial Government developed a mandate by which five women are appointed to positions in the Provincial Council. No female candidate has ever won a local election, however, though some have recently run strong campaigns and there is an expectation that women will be elected to office in the near future.
Council member Lee Sun-hwa, a longtime advocate for women’s rights on Jeju and the island’s first female producer with a lengthy career at broadcaster MBC, has recently proposed a Women’s Special Committee in Council.
She is also past president of the Jeju chapter of Business and Professional Women, an international organization. A group of 12 professional women from Jeju traveled to Helsinki last month for BPW’s international congress, the next of which will be hosted on Jeju Island in 2014.
“Some policies in keeping with gender equality have been reversed,” laments Women’s Association president Lee Gyeong-seon. “For example, in 2004 the position in the provincial government for a ‘women’s policy director’ was eliminated.”
A new Jeju Women Governance Forum is in development and will be launched on July 22, according to its general secretary, Im Ae-duk. “This structure, the first of its kind, will give women a stronger voice in the governance of Jeju, focusing in particular on women’s issues,” Im said.
Rates for divorce, domestic violence, prostitution, and rape remain comparatively high on Jeju, however — the divorce rate the highest in Korea.
It must be noted that a primary reason for the high divorce rate is the economic independence of many women, which enables them to more freely choose a return to unmarried life. On Jeju, women and men also inherit equally from their parents, a remarkable distinction from the mainland.
A major education program of the YWCA, according to its new president, Shin Kyung-in, is for the purpose of preventing sexual and other violence against women.
“Education in this area is needed from the age of 4,” Shin said, “as children are often victims.” She is passionate about this and has plans for related programs in marriage preparation and communication skills.
“Poverty is a big problem among a percentage of Jeju women,” Lee Gyeong-seon also mentioned. “We haven’t yet figured out how to adequately address this,” she confessed, while mentioning micro-credit loan programs for single and divorced mothers as well as highlighting the need to increase public daycare centers.
The YWCA provides an afterschool program for low-income families, according to Shin.
Representatives at all four primary women’s organizations report that the social status of women on Jeju remains low, especially in areas related to business — romanticized haenyeo portrayals of the diving women aside.
“The goal is to develop a society on Jeju in which women are not afraid of change, and gender equality is achieved through education,” according to Kim Yeong-soon, assistant director of the Seolmundae Women’s Center.
“My goal for Jeju’s women is to achieve a society that doesn’t need an organization like mine,” echoed Kim Hyo-seon, representative for Jeju Association for Women’s Rights.