Updated: January 16, 2021 9:22:49 am
It’s a truth not acknowledged enough that a woman — single, married or pregnant — is always in possession of a surfeit of useless advice. Seoul city authorities, however, have come up with a category of counsel that can only be described as: How not to inconvenience your husband as you struggle with the minor matter of childbirth. The advisory aimed at pregnant women asks them, among other things, not to look dishevelled as they cook meals for their husbands, clean out the fridge, make sure there is enough toilet paper in the house, and arrange for childcare if they have other children — all this, before they admit themselves to the hospital.
This remarkable piece of condescension was crafted in 2019, but its rediscovery on social media has led to an uproar, followed by demands for an apology. It comes at a time when South Korea is grappling with a declining population and falling birth rates — in 2020, for the first time, the number of deaths in the country outstripped births. For the fourth-largest economy in Asia, this is a crisis — and it hopes to prod women into having more children through public campaigns and generous parental leave policies. The women have other battles to fight. South Korea’s gender pay gap is one of the largest among 37 countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Professional mobility is difficult given the entrenched sexism in corporate life. A growing feminist movement has led to a sharp questioning of the inequalities of marriage in a deeply patriarchal society. As a result, motherhood and the “second shift” it entails is not high on women’s agenda: The number of South Korean women who believe they need to marry fell to 44 per cent in 2018 from 62 per cent in 2008.
In a world not run by patriarchal values, motherhood and marriage could arguably be hard to sell to women, given the cost on their lives and bodies. The Seoul city authorities’ vision of domestic slavery in the service of entitled men illustrates precisely why South Korean women are running away from its tyranny.
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