This summer, together with other class graduates, I formed a team to pay a two-day visit to our juniors, who were helping out in the farms in Bongwha County of Gyeongbuk Province as part of the universities' rural community service program.
A slogan that I had not seen in my days caught my eye. It said, "Make rural community service free from sexual violence." Last year, one of the female students on rural community service had been sexually harassed by a farmer, resulting in the students making a protest to the Farmers' League. The slogan had been added this year to mend fences between the students and farmers and to prevent sexual violence during the rural community service program.
I had expected the students to hold discussions on how to prevent sexual violence, but was disappointed to find that it was just a slogan added to the regulations that students were required to adhere to during the program. Perhaps I had been expecting too much. A friend commented, "What has rural community service got to do with feminism? Feminist talk while working on a farm? That'll be weird!"
I disagree. Patriarchal customs are still deeply-rooted, even in the lives of university students considered progressive enough to organize themselves for greater social involvement. So how could feminist talk be useless? The problem lies not in the student organization but the mentality of individual male students; not in policies but in everyday life.
When students live communally, be it for rural community service programs or camping trips or any other cause, covert gender discrimination against women still exists; things are no different from any other organization in society. When I was a student, my seniors put me to work writing wall posters, simply because "being a girl," I had prettier handwriting. During school festivals when students sold beer and snacks, I was always relegated to the kitchen, like the female seniors before me who took care of deciding the menu and shopping for groceries. When I was on rural community service in my sophomore year, the senior in charge of housekeeping was a female student. I remember holding her hand and crying with her as she talked about how sorry she felt for herself, the kitchen drudge who slept in the warehouse next to the kitchen and got up at the break of dawn to cook breakfast.
Sexual violence not only refers to acts of sexual violence per se but also includes all verbal, psychological and physical assaults. Men, and sometimes even women, do not realize that sexual violence means all the suffering that women go through simply because they are women. I have talked to my boyfriend about the range of acts that can be considered sexual violence, and the more we talked, the more he nodded in agreement. Likewise, discussions are a good way to deal with misunderstandings or ignorance about the issue of sexual violence.
This year, I had secretly hoped that the housekeeping duties would go to a male student. I imagined him jumping up to claim, "You should watch me cook!" But the housekeeping duties were once again assigned to a female student, and the head of the rural community service program was once again a male student. The question of why the head always has to be a male student aside, my complaint is, why does the housekeeper always have to be a female? It's really unfair.
In my junior year (I was student vice-president of my department and therefore the "natural choice" for housekeeper during that year's rural community service.), I was appointed housekeeper, and I was outraged at the unfairness of it all. I did not even know how to cook, and so you can imagine how ridiculous being the housekeeper made me feel.
I refused to take the job, but only ended up being shamed as an irresponsible person and labeled a lazy girl reluctant to make the effort to learn. Everyone probably assumed an older female who had been the housekeeper in previous years would help me learn the ropes. Sure enough, I had to wake my predecessor everyday at dawn to answer my stupid questions and help me with the cooking. And of course I had to listen to people remarking that I was only "half a woman" because of my unsatisfactory culinary skills. Those who made such remarks may protest that they were "just kidding," but I definitely did not find anything to laugh about.
Before leaving my juniors, I left the girls a note advising them to "boil the tap water before drinking to prevent stomach aches" and to "keep the meat in the fridge." It was a bitter feeling to realize that I had nothing better than that to say to them.
If the housekeeper had been picked based on the assumption that women are better housekeepers and always have been, then the students should realize that that in itself constitutes sexual violence. It is a pity that the new slogan limited the scope of sexual violence to actual molestation only. But as they say, the more you know, the more you see. I only hope the day will come when the male students realize that they are no better than the farmer who had been found guilty of sexual harassment.