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.


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by JASS on May 31, 2017 at 5:19 pm

Written by Mikas Matsuzawa

With President Donald Trump poised to pull the US out the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, a hard-won global commitment to reduce carbon emissions, many fear the consequences for vulnerable communities and those already experiencing climate change related challenges. According to Global Witness, indigenous and rural women are not only some of the most impacted by climate change but also among the most targeted activists for defending their land, forests and rivers against unregulated destructive industries such as mining, logging and hydropower. In Southeast Asia, defending the environment (including land rights and water) is one of the most dangerous forms of activism. In the following blog, Mikas demonstrates why as she interviews activists from Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, who despite the risks they face, continue defend their territories, livelihoods, and rights.

Piya Macliing Malayao sat on the pavement, teary-eyed and bleeding. If she had her way, she would have been standing up to speak before the thousand tribal minorities and rights activists gathered in the streets. However, minutes before, a police van rammed into her and a dozen other protesters in an attempt to break up their peaceful demonstration.

The “Lakbayan” or “People’s Journey” organized the demonstration in Manila as part of the Philippine indigenous peoples march across the country to protest and assert their rights against the militarization and plunder of their ancestral lands.

Malayao is an Igorot, a member from a mountainous tribe in the northern Philippines. She is the Secretary General of Katribu, a national alliance of indigenous peoples’ organizations that brings forth the issues faced by tribal communities to the public’s attention both nationally and internationally.

She cannot forget the sound of the thud each time the police vehicle ran over a protestor. The van hit her legs. “I am angered by the brutality of the police. I could not walk for a few days because of the pain. I couldn’t function properly,” she said in Filipino.

Despite the harrowing experience, Malayao is firm in her resolve to demand her rights and the rights of her people. “These forms of violence wouldn’t end even if I stopped. On the contrary, it’s a victory for us if I continue,” she said.

The 27 year-old leader cited the example of the successful campaign of the Igorots to halt the construction of the Chico Dam on their lands. The dam was a top-priority project of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos from the 70’s to the early 80’s. Construction of the dam would have inundated their ancestral lands. The indigenous peoples won an historic victory when they forced the government to stop the project in the 80s.

Land is life to indigenous peoples, to lose land, is to lose their heritage,” Malayao explained. Unfortunately, protecting their resource-rich lands against mining and logging interests has been a constant struggle for tribal minorities in the Philippines.

Smear campaigns from streets to courts

In 2015, 700 Lumads, non-Muslim indigenous peoples in Mindanao, fled their homes and sought refuge at a church compound in Davao City after the Armed Forces of the Philippines  moved into their communities with the pretext of fighting against guerrilla forces.

Soon after, the government charged the rights activists and church clergy who helped the Lumad families, with kidnapping, illegal detention and human trafficking. Among the accused was Cristina Palabay, a Manila-based rights monitor for Karapatan. “In the Philippine context, women human rights defenders are not only vilified as ‘terrorists’ or as ‘enemies of the state,’ we are also branded as ‘witches’ or ‘destroyers of families’ because while we uphold and fight for human and people's rights, we also fight for the right to divorce; right to health, including reproductive health; and the non-sexist portrayal of women in media and in advertising,” Palabay said.

Where violent political conflict affects daily life in the Philippines , words are powerful. An adjective can elevate a woman’s social standing or condemn her to social censure. A noun can paint her either as a friend or an enemy — a critical distinction in conflict zones.

Women activists confront traditions that dictate the role women  should play in the family and community. Philippine society largely maintains the outdated belief that a woman’s “proper” place is at home. "Women human rights defenders face twice the threats facing male human rights defenders, because of the double standards and the additional layer of oppression we face as women,” Palabay added.

Women defenders are frequently threatened by members of their own communities, and even their families, who see their work as a challenge to the traditional role of women.

Waewrin Buangern, called Jo, belongs to the organization Rak Ban Haeng, which means “We love Ban Haeng”. It’s a fitting name for a community organization that works to oppose a Lignite mining company in the village of Ban Haeng in the Ngao district of the Lampang province in northern Thailand. Lignite is a low-grade type of coal and the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.

Since 2010, the group has been speaking out against the operations of the mining company Green Yellow Co. Ltd. They fear the impact of the mining activities on the health and livelihoods of the people in the village.

Buangern was placed under surveillance by police and has faced intimidation and threats for defending her community’s land.  

Representatives from the mining company paid a visit to the school, where she works as a teaching assistant for children with special needs. They pressured the school director until the director warned Buangern that her work is controversial and could tarnish the image of their institution.

When that didn’t stop Banguern, the company turned to bribes. Using her kin as mediators, the company offered her money and a new car to quit opposing the mining project.

Global Witness’ On Dangerous on Ground Report showed that the majority of the killings of 42 land and environmental defenders in 2015 were linked to the mining industry. The report noted that the actual death toll might be higher, since many of the killings occurred in remote villages or deep in rainforests, and thus may not have been reported as related to human rights activism.

In spite of the risks, Buangern never considered giving up. “Although victory is still far from sight, what I know is that we have not lost yet,” she said. Buangern fights to ensure a future where young people in her community can still enjoy land untainted by the anticipated environmental destruction of the mining operation. “We have started working with the young people in our community to make them aware and teach them that they should defend their home,” she said.

Defying norms

In Southeast Asia, cultural norms and practices of most traditional societies work to keep women from taking on the roles that Malalya palabar and Banguern have taken on.

Helda Khasmy, a human rights defender who leads the Riau chapter of Indonesian women’s organization Seruni, explains how they use organizing and alliance-building as powerful strategies to push back. Khasmy said her organization addresses the interconnected issues faced by women in the community. Seruni-Riau provides services to women and children victims of sexual abuse and tackles pressing community concerns, such as the thick haze from forest fires that is affecting the villagers. The slash-and-burn techniques used by firms to clear the woodlands surrounding forest cause the wild fires.

She said the two companies responsible for the haze in the province of Riau, Asia Pacific Resources International (April) and Sinar Mas, are protected by the military. “You cannot defeat these companies just by putting a poster out. They have guns, they have the government army supporting them,” she said.

To publicize their issues, Khasmy writes in the newspapers, talks on local television and at university forums, and organizes young women on campuses. “We achieved small victories from the government, like services for haze victims, after a lot of local and international pressure. We push for national and international solidarity. Sometimes we build alliances with the lower levels of government to fight at the national level. When we demonstrate, I call the governor to give him a message. We ensure that he signs the commitment in front of us.They (local government) come out because we have large constituencies,” she explained.

This same strategy helped Malayao and other defenders during the police crackdown in Manila in Oct. 2016. Health workers who joined in support of indigenous people’s rights were the first responders to those injured. Paralegals also helped free 25 people illegally arrested by police that day.

We link the struggles and issues of indigenous peoples with other oppressed Filipinos as women, as workers, as peasants. We reach out to professionals, the church and academics. We are able to achieve greater victories through our collective struggle,” Khasmy added.

Even though her opponents view her as a troublemaker, Khasmy continues to speak out. “My problems cannot be solved by myself, but with all of the women in the local and national community. I want my children to lead good lives  in the future, but I cannot fight for only my children. I must organize every woman so they can do what I can do.”



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by Winnet Shamuyarira on January 27, 2017 at 10:38 am

As women, we are always vulnerable to violence but there are shades of violence directed to women who do not conform to the social expectations of what it means to be a good woman: lesbians, sex workers, feminists and all women who challenge the status quo in their countries, homes, society, become even more vulnerable to violence.” These are among the sentiments shared by women activists who were part of JASS Southern Africa (JASS SNA) Cross Movement Dialogue (CMD) that took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. The gathering brought together women activists from Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa to identify and map the key actors, politics and policies driving the “closing space for civil society” and increased backlash against women activists in Southern Africa. Across the region, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are forced to navigate an alarming increase in criminalization, harassment and intimidation as well as restrictions on civil society organizations which is fueling fear, and closing the space for democratic engagement.

Zooming into the operating context for WHRDs in Southern Africa

Across the region the levels of violence, vulnerabilities, risks and threats women face are on the rise. For example:

In Zimbabwe, there has been heavy militarization and securitization of civic involvement following a spate of protests that have rocked the country in the past few months. Police brutality and policing of women’s bodies has also increased with a recent picture of an unarmed woman being brutally assaulted by the anti-riot police in front of the Magistrates court in the country’s capital city, Harare.

In South Africa, the increasing levels of violence against, and murder of women and LBTIQ+ people continues to happen with impunity. Women land rights activists and farmworkers, in particular, continue to be at risk of violence by power holders including multinationals and the state. Education uprisings through #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall have made the strong leadership of black women visible, many of whom are black non-binary and black LGBTQI+ leaders who are equally vulnerable given their positioning.

In Malawi, women with albinism are in danger of “systemic extinction” due to persistent attacks fueled by superstitions. Discrimination and violence against the LBTIQ+ community and sex workers is rampant.

’Even in the face of adversity, we continue organizing’

JASS joins Fikize MarchThe aforementioned gives a grim picture of the organizing and operating contexts for WHRDs in Southern Africa. However, regardless, women continue fighting for justice. Women’s organizing and how they mobilize and organize in these fraught contexts, their wellbeing and how they sustain their activist fires and passions, how they understand the operating context, at local, regional and the global level has thus become ever so critical and as one participant put it, ‘even in the face of adversity, we continue organizing. The CMD was a space that allowed for activists to think about their operating contexts, their bodies, the meaning of cross movement work, solidarity in movements and what it means to learn from other resistance movements across the globe. The CMD was also a space to reflect, laugh, vent, strategize, create knowledge dance, connect, reconnect and dream about the world we want. While the dialogue managed to surface a sizeable number of issues, I have chosen three major issues that stood out for me:

  1. Our bodies as the first site of struggle, violence, resistance and wellness – For JASS SNA, the body is the first site of engagement as women’s bodies are constant sites of violence. Given women’s positioning in society, where they are expected to be nurturers as well as do twice (and even more) as much work that is not valued and within terms of remuneration (where it applies) less than their male counterparts, the need to center women’s lived realities is ever so critical. The conversation about bodies, which was facilitated using a collective body mapping exercise, enabled women to speak about how they experience the world and how their bodies carry the pain, love, violence that the body is subjected to. The vagina was identified as constantly being vulnerable in the context of power, control and vulnerability, with women being constantly told who to have sex with and what the vagina can and should be used for. “We have developed capitalist necks, our bodies ache from overworking,” one participant put forward. The conversation surfaced the real need to prioritize and strike the balance between the need to provide for family through paid work and women’s self-care, collective healing and wellness in light of the real threat posed by the general lack of wellness, pain and trauma that WHRDs experience at the personal, professional levels.  
  2. The mutating face of shadow power – corporates and State becoming one –The dialogue deepened understanding and analysis of power given many political shifts happening in the world. In today’s context, corporates have become very powerful, such that sometimes it has become difficult to separate the State from these powerful corporations. This power has manifested itself in violence, for example, in extractive industries, there is complicity between government officials and corporations. Over the years the role of transnational companies and corporates in determining how states respond to issues has become a real threat to WHRDs’ personal security. While human rights issues and safety nets have been delegitimized, corporate interests have been given priority. The state has responded with violence to silence people who speak out.
  3. What does solidarity and collective organizing look like - As one participant put it, “How do we cultivate a shared politics so that divide and conquer cannot happen as easily to us?” Solidarity across movements looks a particular way, which can be riddled with contradictions and tensions. It is therefore important in thinking about working across movements to acknowledge the tensions that exist within and across movements and how to work around them. The story of Honduras (mobilization around #JusticeforBerta) and how women from different movements have come together to challenge injustice is an example of how cross movement work can help amplify issues affecting women. The CMD also participated in a March to reclaim Fezekile Kuzwayo’s identity. Fezekile was raped by President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, in 2005 and had to assume a new name and identity (Kwezi) given the violence that surrounded the case. JASS participated in the march as a show of solidarity, cross movement building in action, and what it means to have and mobilize numbers as we think of building women’s collective power, security and protection.


Movements bring all the seeds that will give rise to new vegetation – seeds can give nourishment”. These words shared by one of the participants sum up the need to continuously nurture, reflect, evaluate our work and our movements so that they can flourish and give seeds for nourishment. The CMD managed to bring to the forefront the importance of self and collective care as part of building strong movements, as well as the need to take stock of important shifts taking place globally, locally and regionally. As the world shifts, so should our analysis and strategies in order to fully respond to the increased militarization, securitization, violence and the general un-wellness of women’s bodies. It also provided a safe space for release, re-energizing, and strategizing for the feminist future that we want. The importance of such spaces for collective organizing can never be over emphasized and JASS SNA did this so well.

 Photo credits: Fungai Machirori

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