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Feminist leaders visit JejuConversations with Chung Hyun Kyung, Lee Hyae-kyung, and Amy Richards
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승인 2011.06.02  11:45:44
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▲ Richards, Lee, Steinem, and Chung, flanked by two Goddess Tour participants. Photo by Kim Yeon Mi

Gloria Steinem recently visited Jeju. Traveling with her were three other prominent feminists: Chung Hyun Kyung, Lee Hyae-kyung, and Amy Richards.

Chung Hyun Kyung, professor of Union Theological Seminary in New York, is also the 2009 recipient of Ewha's “Distinguished Alumna” award.

Chung gained international recognition with her 1990 book, “Struggle to be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women's Theology.”

▲ Chung Hyun Kyung. Photo by Kim Yeon Mi
In 2006-2007, Chung journeyed to 18 Muslim countries in order to “understand Islam through the eyes of its women.” Her book on this experience will be published in July, and translated into English next year.

When asked about Asian feminism, Chung said, “Every feminist movement must have its own interpretation – like movements for democracy. We don't want the hierarchy.”

“But it manifests in very different ways from culture to culture,” she added, “and women in every culture have the right – and responsibility – to define what feminism is for them.”

“The commonality,” she continued, “is the belief that women do not have status equal to that of men – and the desire to do something about it. If you agree with these two points, then you are a feminist.”

In a Korean cultural context, Chung defines this as “salim.”

“I consider myself a 'salim-ist',” she proclaimed, “a Korean word which means, 'to make things alive, to give life'. It also has the nuance of nurturing and caring for life. We must concern ourselves with all of life,” she added, identifying herself as an 'eco-feminist'.

As to practical application, Chung proposed that teaching young Korean girls to value and respect themselves is a critical task.

▲ Lee Hyae Kyung. Photo by Kim Yeon Mi
Lee Hyae-kyung is an artist and activist in Seoul. She is the chair of the Seoul International Women's Film Festival, and founder and president of Feminist Artist Network.

“This tour can be a good opportunity to re-energize our feminist movement. A lot of feminists have lost their energy,” she expressed, “but there are many things that we have to do. So I want to find a new way. Now, I want women to work for the world, embrace the world.”

Referring to a similar Goddess Tour on Jeju in 2002, also attended by Steinem and Chung, Lee said, “On that tour we had artists, critics, and scholars of women's studies. This time, we have many supporters and friends – a new face of feminism. We have to expand our vision,” she added.

Lee started the Feminist Artist Network with 17 other women in 1992. At the height of the movement for democracy in Korea, feminist and other human rights movements were also gaining momentum.

“We achieved some results, but mostly at the institutional level,” Lee explained, citing changes in the family registry system and domestic violence laws as well as the establishment of the Ministry for Gender Equality.

“Women gained confidence, and some enjoyed an elevation of position and income. But it is not enough,” she stated. “We need change at the cultural level, more application to women's everyday lives. And we need to look outward, to obtain more solidarity and networking with other women throughout Asia and the world.”

She also expressed the desire to deepen young women's commitment to feminism – “there are many involved, but their generation wants to have a lot of experiences, so they are more transient” – and to also involve men.

“Men can also see the world with 'women's eyes',” she posited. “Biological gender is not important. Our society is changing.”

Amy Richards, a prominent young feminist from New York, accompanied Steinem to Korea. Richards is an author, journalist, activist, and co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, an NGO which disperses funding to feminist organizations and causes.

Richards is also the director of Soapbox, the foremost agency representing feminist speakers for the lecture circuit. With Steinem, she has co-produced two documentaries on the feminist movement, for HBO and PBS.

This is her first visit to Korea, and Richards admitted she arrived with what proved to be erroneous assumptions based on travel to other countries in East Asia.

“The Korean people are warm and open,” she expressed, “and the women seem confident and in control of their destiny. I was also struck by the optimism regarding reunification,” she further stated, citing that as “far from the impression we get back in America.”

When asked about her observations on Korean feminism, she referred to “strong women, committed to making a difference” and, regarding the Goddess Tour attendees in particular, “a freedom of personhood and an immediate sense of community.”

As to Jeju women, she had this to say: “From what I've learned, they seem strong, independent, and culturally quite distinct from women of the mainland. They show confidence and competence, and have much to offer to the world.”

These three prominent feminists, in conjunction with Steinem, have begun discussing the possibility of an 'Asian women's center' to be located here on Jeju. Only a spark of an idea at this stage, it nevertheless has enormous possibility.

Jeju, with its legendary goddesses and strong women, just might become the new face of Asian feminism.

Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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