“Women Who Fight in Universities” Won’t Disappear

Keeping University Feminism Alive: Look Beyond the Abolitions of Women’s Student Councils

Park Ju-yeon 2021-02-12

The year 2018 was filled with fervent #MeToo movements that shook Korean society. Sexual harassment incidents even within universities and “chat-room sexual harassment cases,” in which male students made harassing and offensive remarks about female students and professors, were disclosed.


When students make sexual harassment charges, there’s “no student council for the victims”


In Sungkyunkwan University, students who supported the #MeToo movement against an ex-professor with the surname Nam were blocked from entering the meeting between students and the school committee for “not being elected representatives.” The student council—composed of elected representatives—reluctantly announced that it would stand together with the students; however, because the “stances of the accused professor and the school differed too much”, they decided not to do anything.


Activist Yoon-Kim Jin-seo of the “Whither Gender Equality in Sungkyunkwan University” club stated, “At that moment, I realized there wasn’t any elected student body for the victims,” and that the alternative she thought of was a women’s student council.


However, the voices of the female students who tried to change the atmosphere of their schools with women’s student council activities were met with harsh backlash.


Some members of the academic community requested that women’s student councils close or argued against the reconstruction of such a body. With the general voting system under the so-called “university democracy,” women’s student councils in many universities had to close down. As of today, there aren’t any women’s student councils in universities located in Seoul.


▲ At the forum “Keeping University Feminism Alive: Look Beyond the Abolitions of Women’s Student Councils” held on May 28th at the University of Seoul by Next Generation Feminism Research/Activism. ©Next Generation Feminism Research/Activism Planning Team

The continuing abolitions of women’s student councils couldn’t help but injure the feminists within the university. Nevertheless, they didn’t give up.


On May 28th, in the forum “Keeping University Feminism Alive-Look Beyond the Abolitions of Women’s Student Councils”, co-hosted by the University of Seoul and the Korean Association of Women’s Studies, the activities, history, and the abolition of women’s student councils were retraced and people discussed the ways to move forward. This forum, held by the University of Seoul’s Institute for Urban Humanities and sponsored by the Seoul City Fund for Gender Equality, was an event planned by the “Next-Generation Feminism Research/Activism” group.


Next-Generation Feminism Research/Activism, consisting of thirteen members including leaders Joo Young-heo and Yoo Jin-song, is a committee that the Korean Association of Women’s Studies is promoting; it has held “next-generation feminism research/activism” seminars on five different occasions. The group revealed that the forum “Keeping University Feminism Alive: Look Beyond the Abolitions of Women’s Student Councils” is “not only for retracing the history of university feminism and imagining the future” but also for expanding the “Sinchon-centered” Next-Generation Feminism Research/Activism network.


1980s “Female-student movements” already engaged in anti-sexual violence activism


In the forum, Project BRIDGE, which researched women’s movement activities from 1989 to 2005 in Pusan National University, was introduced. Activist Bong Lim stated that she is pursuing this project to “ask the women of that generation to spread their history and to answer the question of this generation’s feminists in universities on whether there weren’t any women student movements among our great history of student movements.”


According to the committee, the 1980s university women movements can’t be separated from democracy movements: “At the time, student movements and social movements were referred to as ‘framework movements,’ and women’s movements had to ‘assist’ them. The established order went, ‘There are urgent problems in Korean society that need to be solved, and we should all join forces to solve them, and then we’ll handle other important issues sequentially after that.’"


Some people participated in the women’s movement at the time because they thought it was part of the student movement, and each member had slightly different reasons for joining. "However, through the activities of the women’s student councils and the study of women's issues, women's goal of liberation came closer, and gradually the women’s movement was separated from the democratic movement and began to be recognized as a separate movement."


Among the findings of Project BRIDGE, a notable point is that the women’s movement “started an anti-sexual violence movement early on." "It is said that in 1986 and 1987, women (students) joined the student councils of colleges and universities in an effort to open and resolve cases of sexual violence against professors at the department level. What's interesting is that this fact is not recorded at all in the Pusan National University newspaper.”


At Pusan National University, the first women’s student council in the university was launched on March 8, 1989 along with the first student council. However, only three years later, in 1991, a bill to abolish the union was introduced to the student council. Activist Lim said, "We couldn't find any records from that time on why the abolition bill was introduced, but it was probably because for the people who valued the ‘national democratic movement’ the most, the women’s student council was probably worthless.”


However, the Women’s Student Council steadily led an anti-sexual violence movement by enacting a school rule regulating sexual violence in the school. “In 2000, 10 cases of sexual violence were reported and made public at Pusan National University, and with the explosive discourse on sexual violence cases, there was a new wave of the women's movement. A group was formed through a ‘Carnival of the Witches’ event (organized under the title of feminism), and in the following year, their movements led to the feminist webzine ‘Monthly Record’.


But the feedback from the student community was harsh. “The ‘Women’s Student Council / women’s movement,’ which deviated from its existing position as a ‘student movement,’ was widely perceived as the domain of overly-sensitive women,”’ and “the newly created women's community established in an attempt to tear down the hierarchical order could not last long. The fatigue that women’s movements’ activists have was building due to ‘the threats that follow when they try to attack men vested interests.’”


Eventually, they came to think that "the university women’s student council should be transformed into a different framework, not a student council system of its own.” “In 2002, they launched the student magazine herstory and tried to stand as a feminist press outlet by becoming an official body of the school, but they were turned down by the representative council” and “the Women’s Student Council in Pusan National University ended up stopping its activities.”


The “Keeping University Feminism Alive: Look Beyond the Abolitions of Women’s Student Councils” attracted so many participants that the lecture hall was packed, and there was keen interest in the activities of university feminists.


▲ The “Keeping University Feminism Alive: Look Beyond the Abolitions of Women’s Student Councils” attracted so many participants that the lecture hall was packed, and there was keen interest in the activities of university feminists.

Why did the women’s student council grow weak in the 2000s?


Hwang Joo-young, a lecturer at the University of Seoul who served as a member of its Women’s Student Council in the 1990s, cited several reasons for the decline in women's student council’s activities as they moved from the 1990s to the 2000s.


Hwang firstly pointed out that the rather exaggerated memory of the young feminists as centralized around so-called “Sinchon-feminism” and “Gwanak-feminism” [the sites of Ewha Womans University and Seoul National University, respectively] and the general biased evaluation influenced by Seoul centralism, educational prejudice and blindness to class differences means that “some hidden people are being left out.” In other words, the differences between each university’s situation and between their members could not be revealed.


It means the women’s student councils “could not respond to the many problems that went unnoticed that were actually the biggest problems in life for some female students." The University of Seoul’s Women’s Student Council tried to find its own agenda, but it was too busy following the cultural movement of “Young Feminism.” “We failed to draw up the whole picture with poverty, labor, and economic concerns at the center, which were the main problems for women at the university," she recalled.


“Discussions on sexual violence should have focused on the sexual violence against women in cheaper rented rooms who have several part-time jobs. We should have shared the agenda of eradicating sexual violence with the focus on the sexual violence that low-income female students had to face.”


Another reason for the decline in women’s student council activities is social change. “With the end of the Cold War and the launch of the civilian government, the core power of the ‘student movement’ was already getting smaller in universities, and the folk culture movement in universities died down as popular culture exploded amid the economic boom that continued from the 1980s. De-politicization also accelerated across society. The IMF economic crisis has been a decisive blow to such changes.” They’ve concluded that the reality that university students had to find jobs rather than get involved in student movements had a big influence on the women’s student council and the whole feminist movement.


“In the mid to late 2000s, when university was completely redefined as a ‘process needed for employment,’ rather than as a community of academic and life movements, political activities became a very small part of universities, and student councils that students wanted became more like community centers or customer service centers.”


The situation has also affected the identity of the women’s student council. “A women's lounge is not just a rest room, but a refuge for women to escape from the men’s sexual harassment and gossip about their looks; however, if you look at the women’s student council just as a facility like a customer service center, it becomes a form of reverse discrimination to men.” The moment the lounge is defined as a rest area, something that should be provided to anyone in the university, the specialness and necessity of women’s student councils are eliminated."


In addition, “Women’s student councils (as opposed to general student councils) do not have any sub-organizations such as women's associations in each college and department,” so “hardship in ‘reproducing’ activists” was also a reason for the lack of activity. Hwang said, "The main reason why women’s student councils have not survived at the university for a long time is because the internal power has disappeared."


Universities in 2019: communities destroyed and only the formality of democracy left


The history of the women’s student council and women’s movements at each university, which has been dynamic, is now once again in a turbulent era. The current discussion of the university communities over women’s student councils is in part similar to the past, but also definitely different.


Yoon-Kim Jin-seo, the activist at Sungkyunkwan University who led the struggle to rebuild the Women’s Student Council in her university, the positions of which had been vacant since 2009, claimed that the lack of a solution or the “total abolition” trend “clearly show the collapse of the university community.”


‘“Many of the inquiries that question the need for women’s student councils have revealed that the university space is no longer being considered as a community. If it were a community, a minimum agreement that all members of ‘our’ community should strive to be equal and safe would have been reached. For college students now, because the university space is just a physical space for individual life, rather than having a sense of community, no consideration for the underdog or the minority is made.”’


Activist Yoon-Kim also said that “unlike the ‘anti-politics’ term that refers to the phenomenon of low student council vote turnout rates or growing political apathy since the 1990s, the current anti-politics phenomenon in universities is of the ‘not-considering-the-community’ kind, and presumes that only individuals can be the main determinants of a decision.”’


On the university-wide “total vote” held at each university in connection with the abolition of the women’s student council, it was also suggested that this process carried out under the name of democracy should be read more critically. Although the “total vote” system is direct democracy that is believed to be a way of asking the opinions of all members equally, “the mythification of majority rule in accordance with anti-politicization may be linked to the decline of the sense of community these days.”


Feminists who dream again of women’s student councils and beyond


The remarks by Ahn Do-hee, who served on a human rights panel created at Sungkonghoe University in 2016, showed problems that could arise even if there were a “human rights commission for all, not just for a women’s student council for female students” [the stated desire of some of the councils’ opponents]. These problems include “questions being raised about its expertise and legitimacy” that the commission in the university faced, and its “being considered a troubleshooter organization.” Ahn pointed out the problem is that “today's student society is leaned towards ‘individuals with will,’ not ‘common consensus.’”


Ahn proposed that ‘“feminist groups, including women’s student councils, are disappearing, but that doesn't mean the people who drove the movements are gone. We need to think about the ways that individuals can be the active subject within movements. We need solidarity and movements that slowly branch out from each individuals’ sphere.”


▲ Univ Feminism, a platform whose members would be student feminists in their twenties from any university

The activist who led the “Women Who Fight in Universities” project that reported on the feminism of today’s university movements, said, “The women’s student council is the only elected representative body that responds to sexual violence in universities, and with this single fact, it holds value,” but “efforts to ensure gender equality within universities are needed” even if they’re not made by a women’s student council. Gender studies faculty recruitment, demanding amendments to school regulations on sexual violence and the establishment of campus human rights centers, continuing feminist groups and seminar series, and public discussion of sexism on campus are a few of the examples.


Some even suggested imagining a new community outside of universities. “Whither Gender Equality in Sungkyunkwan University” activist Yoon-Kim Jin-Seo suggested that “it is time to find the possibility for calling together a new community outside of universities and to imagine a platform in which agreement on carrying out political activities can be reached.” She explained that a committee was working on creating “Univ Feminism, a platform whose members would be student feminists in their twenties from any university”.


In the 2019 Next-Generation Feminism Research/Activism forum “Keeping University Feminism Alive: Look Beyond the Abolitions of Women’s Student Councils,” new suggestions were made about the women’s student council and women movements, the hardships and efforts women’s student councils have gone through, and for the past and the future of the women’s student council. The forum once again proved that the “women who fight in universities” have never disappeared and will never disappear.


By Park Ju-yeon

Translated by Inseo Yeo

Published July 13, 2019


*Original article: http://ildaro.com/8483


◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English-language blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).

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