JASS Blog

by JASS on March 8, 2018 at 3:55 am

By Chantrea Koeut-Urgell

I have been a feminist since before I even realized or understood what feminism meant—before I even heard what “feminism” was about. I am a proud feminist because I advocate for women’s rights. And I will always be a feminist because I have wanted and will always want men and women to be treated equally.

I am the oldest daughter in a family of businessmen. I have a younger sister and a younger brother. My parents have a small family business making and selling jewellery and managing real estate.

For some, I may be considered to be ‘breaking the rules’ and crossing the line because of who I am and what I am passionate in doing. For this, there are people who look at me as a ‘bad girl’ in terms of not following our tradition, the Cambodian code of conduct for women as exemplified in the Chbab Srey.

The Chbab Srey was written by a well-known male scholar named Krom Ngoy and instructs Cambodian/Khmer girls to behave sweetly, and to be gentle, nice, friendly, and weak. A Cambodian woman must respect and serve her husband well, no matter how bad he talks or behaves to her. I am not saying this traditional educational policy is completely biased, but it is a way that men dominate women. The rule was created and added to the academic education system for women to memorize and follow without criticizing any phrases in it.

Traditionally, Cambodian women cannot, by themselves, discuss, debate, or defend their own perspective or point of view. We are strictly “controlled” by men. Men tend to have an advantage over women in many unfair ways because of how society is constructed.

In 2007, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs requested the government remove Chbab Srey from the school program. However, they could not remove the code completely from the curriculum and a shorter version of it is still being taught for the purpose of teaching Khmer literature.

Cambodian girls are compared to prohok (a Cambodian rotten fresh-water fish) or to ‘white fabric’, which can be easily stained. Cambodian boys, however, are compared to ‘gold’. Girls have no right to express their opinion in any conversation or discussion in the family. Their words are rejected and considered to be wrong. It also is forbidden for women to have tattoos. If they go out at night, people will automatically think they are prostitutes.

My Experiences

I was abused both physically and sexually when I was a child. When I remember it, it’s like remembering a nightmare. Every time I visualize the past, I have a panic attack and I lock myself in the dark room with music to help me ease my sadness and pain. I cannot figure out clearly what has happened to me exactly or who was the perpetrator because I am not yet ready to reveal everything which is really deep within me. But my childhood was destroyed and I have been living many years with this torture. Frankly, it has taken me years to disclose this suffering through my first writings, though these do not reveal every part of my story. However, I believe it is good to share the tragedy that happened to me and hopefully some women can be helped from what I endured.

One time when I was about sixteen, I was beaten by my mother after watching a movie in the cinema. Even though I only went there with my girlfriends, she thought that the cinema is a place where young people made dates with their lovers. Since the cinema is a dark place, she said it makes guys excited and they might touch or harass me. She was worried about me and wanted to protect me, but for me, her actions were unjust. Punishing me was not fair at all. Guys should be penalized when they do not respect women! Why should us girls suffer? Why should I need to be responsible for their disrespect? We are the victims, not the perpetrators!

I grew up in a very traditional family with strict traditions that were taught to us by my parents and my grandmother. Because I grew up in a Cambodian culture, I cannot do the things that I desired. I had to fight with them to get what I want, as I described above. I was told to be a ‘proper’ Khmer woman – silent and weak. But maybe I am different from other Cambodian girls. I could not force myself to follow what I do not like – especially unreasonable traditions that perpetuate inequality among men and women. I went against my family many times in what I think were unfair traditions that prevent me from reaching my goals.

In our community, my parents were often blamed for how I look or dress, which do not present a “gentle” Cambodian girl. Wearing shorts or shirts that reveal cleavage or shoulders is considered improper and provocative. I cannot have a boyfriend or communicate closely with any guy because it would make the neighbours think of me as a whore – that’s what my parents always warned me.

“Be home early!” I remember once I came home later than 6:30pm as it was the time I young Cambodian journalist Chantrea Koeut-Urgellfinished an English class. I was beaten and my books were thrown out of my room because my mother thought that I did not respect family rules and I had put myself in danger.

I was also not allowed to study journalism. My parents said it is not a career for women because it requires constant travel where sometimes I may face many risks. But I secretly applied for the scholarship at the Department of Media and Communication of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. I took a written exam and was interviewed. I passed and when I told my parents, I think they were really secretly proud and happy, but unfortunately they did not express this feeling toward me. However, their pride was helpful to me so I kept going to reach my dream.

Strictness aside, my parents have always set a good example for me. Thanks to their hard work, they raised me to be a good person. I now have a job in a field that I love: journalism. And I believe that I can be a role model for young women in my country. Cambodian society traditionally considers my profession a career that is suitable only for men.

I served as a part-time researcher for the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in 2015 and according to its survey on Media and Gender in the Asia Pacific; men dominate the field of journalism in Cambodia. Sadly, the workplace does not protect us women journalists because we are women working in the media, which is less supported.

I personally faced harassment in my work as a journalist. Once I travelled to Malaysia for a meeting regarding IFJ research. There were two Cambodian guys, one working as a journalist a well-known Cambodian newspaper and the other a reporter for one of the country’s most popular TV networks. They bothered me with their behaviour and words.

The first night I needed to stay in a hotel in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur with a female roommate from Thailand, as the organizer had told me. Those Cambodian guys asked me if I was scared and if I was, I could come to sleep in their room and that they would take care of me (or let one of them take care of me). I did not really say anything besides, ‘No, thank you’.

The second night, we all moved to Malacca. This time, each person had an individual room. One of them sent me an SMS to see if I needed a massage when I was in the room alone. I felt so uncomfortable about the proposal and responded ‘No’. A few minutes after, he came to knock my door and called my name. I was surprised and nervous. I did not open the door or answer at all. Then, he was gone.

The day after, I wept and reported the incident to the director the IFJ. She said it was inappropriate and she promised to solve the problem. But until now, my case remains unsolved.

These are only some of the countless unfair events that happened to me, but that encouraged me to be stronger every day.

These experiences led me to commit myself to feminism and women’s rights! When inequality, discrimination, violence, abuse and harassment happened to me, I believe many women are facing the same situation, I have committed myself to advocate for the rights of women because women are also human! I hope, by my writing, it could help the community and improve society and eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

Now you know why I am a feminist.

 

Image Credit
Photo 1: Heng Sinith
Photo 2: Vorn Sreyleak

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by JASS on March 6, 2018 at 9:45 am

Written by Veronica Espaillat

Gender inequality manifests around the world in vastly different forms because of distinct underlying roots and causes. Take for example the case of the United States versus the Southern African region. The United States is a wealthy and developed nation, whereas Southern Africa is a developing region which only gained independence from colonizers in recent history. Despite these differences, both societies have perpetuated gender inequality, which can be identified in the informal sector of indigenous and rural societies in Southern Africa and the corporate sector of the United States. However, in both situations, women face crippling inequality, with feminists promoting collective action and support as the solution.

Many Southern African women face the reality of widespread maltreatment and sexual harassment, both in the private and public sphere due to cultural and religious norms around gender. Conservative culture has resurged through the rise of the Pentecostal Christian Church, which espouses doctrines originally introduced by Christian colonial missionaries. Southern African elites have flocked to the Pentecostal Christian Church, legitimizing its retrogressive beliefs towards women. Some civil society leaders publicly endorse religious conservativism, suggesting that these beliefs ought to frame the law. As the line between the church and the state has grown progressively murkier, the church’s control over society has increased, while the power of the state simultaneously decreases. Furthermore, the role of religion within organizations not affiliated with the church has also increased. Now, for example, it is customary for business meetings to begin and end with prayer. The Christian revival has led to an intolerance of other religions and LGBT within Southern Africa as well.

In rural and indigenous communities, restrictions on female economic agency also drives gender inequality, as women are primarily dependent upon fathers and husbands for their livelihood. Women are not permitted to own land and many girls are married off at young ages (also promoted by the Pentecostal Christian Church) for the financial benefit of the father or male figure in their life. In some cases, after a man assaults a woman, he claims that he loves her, and therefore marries her, paying her father labola (similar to a dowry) in order to atone for his crime.[1] With limited financial agency, women often have no choice but to obey the desires or commands of their father and aggressor, thereby remaining in abusive relationships not by choice, but out of necessity. Notably, this overarching theme of women’s dependence on abusive partners is not unique to Southern Africa, but experienced by women in many parts of the world, elucidating the intersection between economic freedom and the autonomy women enjoy in the public and private spheres.

Complicating the matter, extractivism, or the centering of the economy on natural resource extraction, has propelled corrupt bureaucrats and their local barons to seek land acquisitions, imposing another barrier upon female financial agency. This practice reduces the land available for agricultural work, which is the main income source of most women living in rural areas. These corrupt dealings also take place on public land, usually tended and maintained by women, producing constrained gendered roles in traditional agrarian societies. Women typically cannot take part in these local dealings because of their inability to own land and barriers to their participation in local government. Unlike men, women are unable to leave their land, as they are the primary laborer and rely on the fruit of their work to feed themselves and their dependents. Leaving the land could therefore potentially lead to the starvation of entire families, a risk that women are not willing or able to take. Men may purchase new land as long as they are able to afford it, however, this privilege does not apply to women.[2] These particular manifestations and consequences of sexism are varied and complex, but this much is clear: women living in Southern Africa face extreme barriers to autonomy in comparison to men.[3]

Patriarchal customs are, however, common practice across the globe, with culturally-specific manifestations. In the United States, the patriarchy has taken on a largely symbolic nature—as the United States has legal and political protections for women, but not economic and cultural protections— reaffirmed by the threat of sexual violence. The patriarchy and its related limitations manifest in the social sphere, where interpersonal interactions cease to have legal ramifications. Subtle cues that begin from birth convey default male superiority. Examples of gender stereotypes include the idea that women are inherently maternal, communal, or passive. Women’s contributions within both the home and workplace are therefore systematically devalued; their behaviors are assumed to be innate characteristics, undeserving of compensation. For example, mentoring in the office (sometimes referred to as ‘office housework’) often falls on women. Other instances consist of tolerating or praising male assertiveness in the work place while regarding women exhibiting equally-assertive behaviors as “bossy” or “aggressive.” Women are expected to be maternal and passively perform tedious work unrelated to their job, all of which constitutes unpaid labor.[4] Sexist social cues, with their small immediate impacts, also have significant consequences on the psychology of American women, who experience depression at roughly twice the rate of men.[5]

One of the most notable instances of gender discrimination in the work place occurs around the time that women are expected to start having children. When men announce their wives are pregnant, their co-workers respond with congratulations and joy, reflecting cultural customs which state that as a man, starting a family will be an incentive for working harder. When a woman announces she’s pregnant, her boss may respond with initial excitement and later with anger at the implications of how her maternity may affect workplace productivity: “One pregnant respondent described a recent incident with her boss: ‘He turned to me and lashed out and said, Are you even going to come back? I guess you won’t even tell us if you’re not. You’re probably going to stay home and play with the baby. He was angry. . .’”[6] Women can’t win. Caught in a Catch-22, women are expected to take a leave of absence after their child is born, yet are frowned upon for doing so. Absence of staff in the workplace often implies more work for the supervisor and the headache of hiring another employee. Therefore, when women return to work, they must overcompensate for their temporary absence. In one example, a woman was documented working in her recovery room after she had a C-section.[7] Moreover, the expectation of women to permanently leave the workplace after childbirth can also increase difficulty of obtaining mentorship. Senior executives often prioritize the hiring of male employees over female employees because their perceive men as a more financially-secure investment.[8]

Inequality is further reflected in the gendered make-up of corporate America, where only 14.6% of executive positions held by women.[9] This overwhelming male authority often leaves women vulnerable to coercion by superiors. A 2011 study ascertained that 38% of employed women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.[10]

Needless to say, these macho manners of conducting business are counterproductive:

When more women lead, performance improves. Start-ups led by women are more likely to succeed; innovative firms with more women in top management are more profitable; and companies with more gender diversity have more revenue, customers, market share and profits. A comprehensive analysis of 95 studies on gender differences showed that when it comes to leadership skills, although men are more confident, women are more competent.[11]

While the issues women face in these two regions differ vastly, the solutions for combatting gender-based biases and discrimination are similar. In the context of Southern Africa, safe spaces and activism—advocating for women’s rights in the face of injustice—are cited as solutions. A safe space, as defined by Just Associates, is “a place for members to reflect on their own challenges in order to shift their perception of their situation.”[12] Safe Spaces are both physical and metaphorical locations, where women help other women during decision-making processes and encourage each other to seek equality. These spaces improve the lives of women because building trust within groups of women (often simultaneously activists), gives way to collective movement-building opportunities and shared political agendas. In the United States, the organization Lean In affirms the importance of safe spaces for women, suggesting the construction of Small Peer Groups where individuals meet and support each other, participating in peer mentorship. Through these groups, individuals are propelled to advocate for standardized reviews and gender equality. Lean In has created 35,000 circles, and 85% of circle members have attributed a positive change in their life to the peer support that the circle offers.[13] In both the South African and U.S. contexts, varying tremendously in circumstances and locations, collective action and advocacy is changing the lives of women for the better.




[6] Turco, Catherine J. "Cultural Foundations of Tokenism: Evidence from the Leveraged Buyout Industry." American Sociology Review, vol. 75, no. 6, Dec. 2010, pp. 902.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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by JASS on August 14, 2017 at 3:45 pm

Written by Lina Han

Five years ago, I visited Korea as part of a cultural program where I spent several days immersed in a South Korean high school regimen. Classes were heavily lecture-based with minimal interaction between the professor and her students. I saw my former self in these students – just five years prior, I could have counted myself among them – and yet oddly, I felt like an outsider in my own country. The classes were divided by gender, and among pale students in standardized school uniforms, my long permed hair, tanned skin, and manicured fingernails felt grossly out of place. We all had nicknames for each other – mine being ‘English-girl’ – which I initially thought was endearing, until I noticed that some nicknames were less well-intentioned. ‘Fatso,’ ‘Whale,’ ‘Pimple’; I would always ask them why they would say such terrible things, as the girls laughed and shrugged it off.

In South Korea, the idea that beauty is only skin-deep is relatively alien. With the K-pop industry laden with plastic surgery, the infantilization of women, gender-based stereotypes, slut-shaming, and, most importantly, a lack of agency, teenagers grow up projecting this appearance onto themselves and others.

Once people find out I’m Korean, I’m usually met with one of these three reactions – “Annyeong!”; “I love K-pop!”; or, from time to time, “North or South?”

The second response intrigues me. The first time I heard this in Canada was the first time I reflected on the role of K-pop in my South Korean identity.

Behind catchy tunes, seemingly innocuous advertisements, and legions of adoring fans across the globe, K-pop – a generic term that means ‘popular music of Korea’ – is a multi-billion-dollar industry that garners outrageous profits from exploiting musical artists. Backed by the South Korean government, K-pop is a male-dominated institution, including CEOs of entertainment giants, broadcasting officials, record label companies, talent recruiters, and governing boards.

Being a K-pop star, known as an ‘idol’, is a highly romanticized dream career for teenagers in Korea. However, there is a dark side to all the glamour and glitz. As the industry markets the idol, not the music, K-pop continues to commodify, standardize, and legally enslave both men and women in the industry.

Once recruited, future idols as young as 12 or 13 years old sign restrictive, binding contracts that can last over a decade.  These contracts dictate their diet, clothing choices, behavior, and love lives – sales are more lucrative for single performers because it preserves fans’ romantic delusions.

Some agencies monitor the use of mobile phones, forbid idols from contacting their family and friends, and limit social interactions. Others pressure artists to keep performing even in the event of a medical emergency. Often, companies prescribe a personality to each idol - an ‘idol persona’ – as part of their marketing strategy. This lack of personal freedom and privacy is permanent, as this standard extends even to retiredidols. These Korean talents’ lives become reduced to a strategic promotional tool to make money.

K-pop, like other entertainment industries across the world, is a business. Label companies will choose concepts and marketing strategies based on their respective predicted profit margins. However, as these idols’ lives are controlled with an iron fist to further promote this narrow construct of ‘beauty,’ these actions carry implications that extend far beyond the industry.

When I’m asked – and I’m asked more than I’d like – if I had undergone double eye-lid surgery, a common procedure that makes eyes look fuller – it’s a reminder of how normalized plastic surgery has become in Korean society.

Currently, South Korea is the suicide capital of the world, with a beauty industry fraught with excess demand for plastic surgery and skin lightening or bleaching cosmetics. Where western artists struggle to mark their own brand, K-pop seems to embrace homogeneity, from fashion to overall appearance. The well-oiled K-pop machine has a lasting negative impact on the mental health of both idols and fans.

Other implications transcend international borders. K-pop culture helps perpetrate the stereotype of Asian females being submissive and docile – yes, I’m referring to ‘yellow fever’ – and no, that’s different from ‘having a type’. Dictating how women should behave boxes them into these stereotypes.

For instance, when I was 14, I attended a language school to improve my French. As my French was improving and I was making friends in the class, I became increasingly open with my classmates and the teacher. I remember one class the teacher telling me, “It’s funny, before I met you, I thought all Asians were really quiet and shy. You clearly are an exception.” I’d never thought that I would be grouped alongside 4 billion other Asians, my individuality having been reduced to my race.

Having the stereotype projected onto me was a reminder of what K-pop normalizes. Rather than marketing the idol, it’s important to be mindful of promotional tools that market the music.

With the above said, there exist flexible agencies and independent artists who produce empowering songs in South Korea. I am proud of how a part of my heritage has garnered global audiences and how the globalization of pop cultures and styles has played a role in not only diversifying music, but has also led to increased tolerance and respect for other cultures and races. Not long ago, Gangnam Style was the song that brought K-pop to the world stage; nowadays, I’m glad that more Korean idols and their music – which shape K-pop better than PSY alone – are starting to gain international coverage.

Fortunately, there has been a recent feminist shift in this industry in South Korea. I feel a surge of pride and empowerment when groups like miss A, BLACKPINK and 2NE1, reach out to female audiences to empower and cater to their own charms and talents. Female hip hop veterans like Yoon Mi Rae/ Tasha Reid and Lexy have also been utilizing music to shed light on female empowerment. Having been born and brought up in Korea, I’m proud of how far we’ve come. With that said, K-pop is still over-saturated with artists who are molded into the K-pop ideal image. We should be critical of the new feminist movement in the K-pop industry to ensure that it is not used to mask the deep-rooted issues within the entertainment industry, and to ensure that it doesn’t commodify feminism to achieve the same purpose.

This is one of the reasons why I interned for JASS (Just Associates), an NGO that proudly and explicitly states its feminist roots and works to create safe spaces, change social norms and attitudes, and empower women through organizing, generating knowledge, and equipping women leaders and activists to act collectively for justice. It was my first experience at a non-profit organization, and it is at JASS that I fully came to understand the added layers of oppression we face as women.

In the case of Korean pop culture, a lot of what I’ve said applies to both male and female idols. However, slut-shaming and infantilization of female pop idols – on top of general misogyny in South Korea – are just some of the ways that the unique identities of female idols are being repressed. Women should be free to feel sexy and comfortable in their own skin and to express that in any manner they choose, but the difference here is the lack of agency and how it’s being used as a strategic tool to garner profits.

In spite of its misgivings, Korea’s music scene is rich and diverse, from rock, to hip hop, to indie, and even reggae. K-pop seems to be the music that the worldassociates Korea’s music scene with, but in time I hope that the world will catch onto other Korean music genres as well.

Much of K-pop industry’s norms and practices translate to real-life applications. My last day at the Korean high school five years ago was bittersweet, as I said my goodbyes to my friends so I can visit my halmoni, my grandmother in Busan who raised me in Korea until the age of 10. The students had penned emotional hand-written letters to me and had gifted me souvenirs like quirky Totoro socks and dried seaweed. One letter was from my friend who was nicknamed ‘Fatso.’ In the letter, three pages long and written in beautiful flowing scripts and minutely detailed characters, she spoke of her appreciation for me standing up for her. It was a stark reminder of how K-pop’s narrow construct of womanhood affects women so deeply and helps to sustain patriarchy.

 

For more information, please consult:

https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-04-25/k-pop-s-gross-double-standard-women

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-35368705

http://www.npr.org/2016/07/31/487926532/for-women-in-korean-pop-making-it-can-mean-a-makeover

Documentary: 3 Muses of Star Empire

 

 

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