Last Saturday, a middle-aged man took to the stage at an anti-government rally and said he would grab President Park Geun-hye by her hair to take her down, calling the unmarried leader “Miss Park” in front of the crowd.
His angry impromptu remark drew cheers from participants. But his use of “miss” -- an English loan word with sexist connotations -- led many to question whether being an unmarried woman should be a point of criticism.
A presenter from the candlelight vigil event issued an apology in the face of feminist groups’ complaints, reminding the public that, “We are all citizens with equal rights. We are angry about President Park because she manipulated society, not because she is a woman.”
As South Koreans take to the streets every Saturday in large numbers to demand scandal-hit President Park Geun-hye resign, rallies in recent weeks were touted as paving the way for the expansion of peaceful protests.
A protestor, who wanted to be identified as Lili, poses during an anti-government rally in central Seoul on Saturday. (Son Ji-hyoung/The Korea Herald)
At the forefront of the anti-government protests were women, young people and families with children, who have not previously been seen as a major presence in anti-government protests.
What brightened up the protests were performances, impromptu speeches and chanting by citizens to lampoon the embattled leader. Some called her “chicken head” to attack her intelligence or a “puppet” controlled by a shaman.
But behind the festivities and peace were some uncomfortable remarks -- both online and offline -- that were criticized for disparaging women in general and discriminating against them.
“I heard a middle-aged man calling Park Geun-hye a crazy bitch. I continued to hear gender-focused slurs at rallies for the past month,” Lee So-yeon, 23-year-old university student, told The Korea Herald. “At that point, I felt like the anger toward Park could translate into misogyny.”
“The rally was neither peaceful nor safe,” she added.
The feminist group Burning Femi Action told The Korea Herald that it had received 20 complaints from those who joined Saturday’s rally about gender-insensitive or sexually harassing remarks. Some of them were “You are pretty and speak well too” and “Even ajummas who cook and raise children at home are here.”
“During rallies, women are often treated like people who are special and need to be protected,” said a feminist activist Mihyun. “But we are just pursuing our civic rights like men to raise our voice in the rally. I don’t know why women have to feel intimidated during rallies.”
Some alleged that they were sexually harassed during the rally. Police said they had caught a man in his 50s, who was drunk, for allegedly groping a 20-something female protester’s breasts during a Nov. 12 rally.
“A guy in his 40s groped my waist and buttocks while asking me to step aside and pretending to swing his arm. It was very unpleasant, but I got scared because I was alone,” said a 20-something twitter user.
Some women said they did not participate in the rally because of what they saw as the blatant sexualization of the female participants.
A student at Sookmyung Women’s University posted a statement titled “Why I didn’t go to a rally,” denouncing some of the male protesters for secretly filming women and commenting on their looks. She also took issue with the “rampant sexual harassment” at the events.
With allegations over sexual harassment, gender-insensitive remarks and acts going viral online, some women are taking action to fight gender discrimination.
“When people talk about Park Geun-hye‘s irregularities, they say it is because she is a woman,” said a 28-year-old protestor who wanted to be identified by Lili. “I believe, without using words of hatred, we can still call for the president’s resignation.”
High school students hold a placard reading “Association of Korean Princesses“ during an anti-government rally in central Seoul on Saturday. (Son Ji-hyoung/The Korea Herald)
An 18-year-old student held up a banner saying “Association of Korean Princesses” with two of her friends.
”People began to use the term ‘princess’ to ridicule President Park Geun-hye,” she said. ”The term ‘princess’ itself carries a misogynist message.”
Lee Na-young, a sociology professor from Chung-Ang University, pointed out that derogatory remarks and behavior during the rally revealed the underlying sexism in society.
“Misogyny might have been largely ignored before in society, but it came to the fore this year along with the young generation rising awareness of gender equality,” Lee said. “Addressing problems and discussing them in public will help to gradually curb prejudice about women in society.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Intern reporter Son Ji-hyoung contributed to this article.