Women resurrected through sisterly love
The funeral commemorating the 14 victims of the fire in the red light district of Gunsan on January 29 was held at the site of the accident on February 8. It was a 'feminist funeral,' the first of its kind in Korea. On the same day, women activists including members of the Korean Women's Association United (KWAU) held a funeral procession in front of the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency.
Many women of social significance such as ex-comfort women grandmas and Gijichon women (hostesses patronized by American soldiers in Korea) have died in the past, but their deaths sparked nationalistic antagonism against Japanese or American atrocities rather than indignation against the violation of women's rights. When Poet Go Jeong Hee, known for putting her feminist ideas into action, died in 1991, her funeral was a 'National Literary Funeral,' much to the chagrin of women activists. Perhaps that is why so many women are showing an interest in this unprecedented 'Feminist Funeral.'
The significance of the 'feminist funeral' lies first of all in showing how far the women's movement has come. Till now, women were rarely allowed to fully participate in the social ritual of death, the natural conclusion of life. They were relegated to the role of grieving guests standing behind the men who took charge of the funeral. But now, women can be in charge, ensuring that a fellow woman's death moves beyond a personal incident to take on social, historical importance.
Kim Hyun Sun, representative of Saeumtuh, says, "The fact that a 'feminist funeral' was held for prostitutes shows that the arena of the women's movement has expanded. Prostitution is not a matter of individual choice but a problem of women's human rights. Just as Jeon Tae Il's death is not the death of one individual, the deaths of the 14 women served to expose the problems of prostitution in this country. If the rest of us women make an effort to solve these problems, then those poor women would not have died in vain."
Literary Kim Hyo Seon of the publication 'Another Culture' (representative of Biz Woman) says, "Until now, the social network of women was not strong enough to influence 'death,' the most important ritual in one's life. No wonder people make light of friendships among women. But the 'feminist funeral' has shown that women are capable of developing deep friendships and a sense of solidarity that can provide emotional support to women."
The history of the feminist funeral, seen from its contribution to fostering emotional solidarity among women, dates back to the commemorative ceremony held in honor of Kim Gyeong Sook.
Kim was an YH worker who lost her life to the police suppression of the workers' occupation of the Shinmindang (New People's Party) office in 1979. For more than 20 years, women workers have been holding annual ceremonies to commemorate her courage. The event was repeatedly dispersed during Chon Du Hwan's military regime, but women workers met in secret to commemorate the martyr. And in the late 1980s, women workers raised funds to erect a gravestone in her name in Moran Cemetery in Maseok.
Wang In Sun, vice-president of the Korean Women Workers Associations United, recalls, "Back then, we were unfamiliar with the concept of a feminist funeral, but colleagues and younger workers gathered on the anniversary of the death of a long-forgotten fellow woman to commemorate her ideals and strengthen our resolve. In this context, the Kim Gyeong Sook commemorative ceremony can be seen as a feminist funeral."
Women's solidarity is also being nurtured steadily through various events held by women in honor of Poet Go Jeong Hee. The event held on the 10th anniversary of the poet's death was not only rich in content but also in terms of participation - girls participated actively, providing an opportunity to bridge the generation gap in the women's movement.
Such commemorative events, imbuing women's deaths with social significance and resurrecting their ideals in the lives of women today, have formed the basis for creating the 'feminist funeral.'
Many have also pointed out the need to enrich this ritual with feminist ideas not only in terms of its concept but also in terms of form and content.
The original plan for the Gunsan feminist funeral included various programs to add new meaning to the lives and deaths of the 14 women and to share this with the public. The organizers had had a song written for the women, and had planned a funeral march on the streets of Gunsan with the marchers stopping for requiems at the women's favorite beauty salon and their alma maters. Unfortunately the program had to be moderated considerably following the request of the bereaved families and opposition from Gunsan City.
Lee Hye Ran, head of Oreum, the theater group that had planned the feminist funeral, says, "It is high time for concerted cultural efforts to create effective ways to commemorate women's deaths and raise social awareness about the discrimination and oppression of women."