The 'Candlelight Election' calls for feminist politics: Politics for all needs women's voices!

※ On Feb. 23, 2017, a forum titled "Let Us Overcome Misogyny and Remodel Women's Work and Life" was held in the National Assembly of South Korea. It was jointly held by Korean Women Workers Association and Korean Women's Trade Union, along with six members of the National Assembly (Insoon Nam, Chairman at Gender Equality and Family Committee / Mihyuk Kwon and Okjoo Song, Democratic Party of Korea / Samhwa Kim and Yonghyeon Shin, People's Party / Jeongmi Lee, Justice Party). Through the five articles on OhmyNews, an online news website in South Korea, we Korean Women Workers Association will report on this forum. This article will cover the forum's first presentation by Professor Nayoung Lee (Sociology Department at Chung-Ang University), titled "Standing between revolution and negotiation: How do we the citizens intervene in the state affairs? The need of feminist politics in this time of politics."

   President Park was dismissed and South Korean citizens' 'candlelight protests' won. However, this is not the end, but the beginning of rebuilding South Korean society. Soon, through the election, South Korean citizens will choose their new president. The citizens are now debating what they will ask of a new president, from their passion of solving all the deep­rooted social problems.

   As declared at a rally 'Stop at 3 o'clock!' on last International Women's Day, it is groundless to say these days women are placed above men in South Korea. South Korea's gender wage gap of 100:63 (men vs. women), which has been for long the biggest among the OECD nations, does clearly show the reality of South Korean women workers. This gap implies there exist various kinds of gender discrimination in South Korean society, from lookism, glass­ceiling, and discrimination in job placement, to all care work which women are burdened with as their 'natural duties' at home. 

   However, politics, the very area which women should actively participate in, is hardly open to the women. The proportion of women in the public sphere is still meaningful in social statistics in South Korea as the public sphere is mostly filled with men. In the politics under the men's power, women's issues are just one of the options for the policy. Women citizens have been for long angry at the patriarchal environment of South Korean politics where it is commonly said 'we should handle this first, so let's discuss the problem of gender inequality or feminism later, not this time.'

▲Professor Nayoung Lee (Sociology Department at Chung-Ang University) in her presentation ⒸKorean Women Workers Association

   How would such recent dramatic experiences in South Korea as the dismissal of President Park, candlelight protests, and the upcoming presidential election change women's political and social status? How could women's voices influence policies by intervening in the 'men's business', politics? At the forum for the presidential election agendas, which was held on Feb. 23, 2017 in the National Assembly Library, Professor Nayoung Lee (Sociology Department at Chung-Ang University) discussed some clues to answer the above questions. 

Gender, as a 'Socially Constructed' Dividing Line

   After Western societies experienced the second feminist movement in the 1970s, it became generally understood that gender was social and cultural construction. By sharing their own oppressive experiences as the unprivileged, the women as a social group has been formed. 

   In this vein, gender can be one of the many socially constructed dividing lines. According to Professor Lee, through such various socially constructed dividing lines as class, race, and sexuality, society has divided and excluded some groups of people, and justified unequal treatment of them, which leads to reproducing unequal distribution of resources. 

   These various socially constructed dividing lines, which are intersecting with one another in one's life, play an important role in deciding one's social place. 'The minorities' could be those who have the inferior social position, based on the intersection of these socially constructed dividing lines. However, the status of the minorities is not being equally shared. For instance, a white, heterosexual woman CEO and a black, lesbian woman laborer would not have everything in common in their rights.

   Then, how could citizens, who are placed at the different social positions under the intersecting dividing lines, live together in one society? First, we can think of erasing each group's difference, but this is impossible, and unjust. According to Iris Young, to voice 'freedom' and 'equality' ignoring each group's different social position can make the more privileged forget about their own privilege. Also, it can not only make those outside the mainstream more disadvantaged, but also lead to their self-depreciation.

   According to Professor Lee, justice is to acknowledge and affirm the difference between the groups. It is the duty of a democratic state to provide the system which acknowledges and represents the interests of the socially disadvantaged. Iris Young insisted that representative democracy should treat people as a member of the social group, not a single individual. 

   However, Yuval-Davis criticizes Iris Young's approach. Each member of the group is different from each other, and the line between the groups is flexible. Individual difference is already related to the public sphere. When the flexibility of difference, the relationship between the differences, and the possibility of restructuring such relationship is not considered, identity politics will homogenize their own group and become exclusive to the other groups. 

   As an alternative to the identity politics, Yuval-Davis suggests "transversal politics." Universalism which assumes homogeneity as a starting point has risks of excluding the others. Relativism, which regards difference between the groups or individuals as a starting point, has risks of assuming that it is impossible to share the common interests or to have a genuine conversation with one another. 'Transversal politics' is different. According to Yuval-Davis, a transversal journey with the others is "to be with the others who share values and goals with us despite their difference in origin."

▲The plaza was a place for solidarity among 'the excluded'. ⒸShin, Sanga

The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house

   "Is this a nation?" This question from people's anger and despair made them hold up the candles and gather at the plaza to protest. Although monopoly of government affairs by Sunsil Choi and her daughter was certainly momentum of the protests, South Korea citizens' 'candlelight plaza' was not a mere place for expressing their anger over the incident. The 'candlelight plaza' was a place for solidarity among those who had been excluded by the social system which disrespected human dignity. Their experiences of diversity and difference made South Korea citizens have  'creative tension' at the plaza.

   Social minorities including feminists, LGBTs, and the disabled voiced equality and justice against discrimination and hatred, in the midst of 16 million citizens' 'candlelight protests'. Although at every moment the protesters had conflicts, beyond such conflicts, they strived to learn maturer awareness of citizenship and human rights. In the citizens' public sphere and  political battlefield, the discussion of such socially constructed dividing lines as gender, sexuality, and disability attempted to realize the politics of coexistence at the most historical moment in South Korean society. 

   However, still women's voices are not treated as the universal issues in real politics. Certainly there are tons of people who are asking the citizens to 'line up' for someone, with a promise that all problems will be solved once the government could be changed in the presidential election. But with a mere change of the government, patriarchal and heterosexual­oriented cultures ingrained in South Korean society, and political corruption which has placed South Korea in the depth of unjustice will be hardly overcome. Only when economic, social, and political power relations, diverse socially constructed dividing lines, and people's life and pain  influenced by those factors are considered, we could solve the remaining problems with 'radical revolutionary language' for the structural change. 

   "What we have to do now is to convert the protesters' candlelights to the language of revolution and to the momentum of social change. This is because the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

   In this second article on the forum's first presentation, starting from the question on the women as a gender, we discussed the gender as a 'socially constructed dividing line' and doing the politics with the recognition and affirmation of difference which clearly exists among the social members. In the next third article, the topic of "women's labor policy and discussion of care work" will be presented by Professor Yun, Jayeong (Economics Depart. at Chungnam National University).

Posted by KWWA