Since 2018, the School #MeToo movement has exposed a number of sexual crimes in Korea. Students across the country have broken their silence and are now feeling empowered and demanding justice. Thanks to these courageous voices, more and more young people are coming forward and denouncing crimes in classes. One young feminist who led this movement is Yang Jihye, representative of WeTee, one of the most influential feminist networks in Korea.
Would you please introduce yourself and WeTee?
WeTee is a network that started in June of last year to coincide with the School #MeToo movement. Two years ago, Korea saw its first school #MeToo rally, and from that, WeTee was created to provide continual support for teenagers, who tried to announce such crimesto the world. One of the most important features of WeTee is that more than half of the teenagers, who are members of the group, participate actively and vote on agendas, so they are active in our decision making. I am a WeTee co-CEO, and I first joined the social movement during the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014. I refused to enter university after high school and instead decided to devote myself to living as a young activist.
What are the specific triggers and subsequent effects of feminism on adolescents?
I was just a plain-looking persona in my youth. I used to wear vintage clothing instead of going shopping for something new because I didn’t have enough money to afford them. Therefore, I never conformed to the image society demanded of young women. People said that my appearance and behavior were not lady-like, and I knew then that I was being discriminated against. I first encountered the idea of feminism in 2014 when I was 16, and I realized that the idea of feminism meant respect for my body and my way of life; that is, those were not my faults. I came to think that society was forcing women to dress up. I became determined to make changes in society, and I vowed to practice feminism in daily life. I continuously studied feminism and engaged in discussions on the topic with friends.
What made you decide to go public with School #MeToo?
In my opinion, a school #MeToo movement was needed to better connect with people because nothing much has changed at schools in the last 10 or 20 years. There is still a steady occurrence of sexual violence at schools. In April 2018, a graduate of Yonghwa Girls' High School filed a complaint regarding her experience with sexual violence in the school on the hand-written posters. Reading about that, I knew that the time was now for students to speak out loudly at school. I sympathized with the idea of School #Metoo. Since most school victims are women, especially teenaged women, the public is not willing to hear their voices, nor make changes. Therefore, I want to show that the movement is a movement by teenagers themselves who are demanding changes in society beyond just talk of injuries and damages. I also want to provide students battling their schools, a place of solidarity to know that they are not alone.
What difficulties have you experienced, and how did you overcome them?
What is most difficult with the School #MeToo is structuring and organization, which at times are hard to bear since there are so many accusers. Also, I am always saddened by the lack of support in reality for the victims. Personally, what's hard to bear as a social activist in the face to face, personal traumas that I hear daily. I've been giving political statements since high school. At that time, I wasn’t afraid or felt challenged, believing in myself, but I have been attacked indiscriminately online and have experienced cyber-bullying. Once, I was interviewed about the brassiere-free movement last year, and it results in about 60,000 malicious comments directed at me. I knew that I had to work to change a society that supported such comments and criticism, so I sued the writers of those malicious comments.
When do you feel most rewarded with your work?
I feel most rewarded when I hear stories that I wouldn't have heard had I not been doing this work. Also, when I visited a youth feminism camp in 2017, I had the chance to lecture on female teenagers' sexuality and experiences of gender discrimination. If I hadn't had that opportunity, I think my path in life would have only been a hopeless memory. I am grateful to be able to listen to others and show them concern. Also, I am proud that I can be someone they can talk to, and that I can hear stories that are typically hidden in society. These experiences give me the strength to go on with thiswork in my life. WeTee is a reward itself for me.
As a feminist, what special beliefs or values do you hold dear?
When I first encountered the notion of feminism, it helped me to create my own language of expression. I could then speak freely about my body and sex. On the one hand, within the feminist movement, there are protectionist narratives in place for teenagers and the different genders so that they are protected. For example, the feminist movement shares a variety of social issues. I critically assess whether they are true feminism ideals by ensuring they do not rule out diversity or strengthen gender binary. Also, there are some women who do not fit into the typical homogeneity of women. These are women who were not permitted the language or the space to discuss women's narratives during their teen days. Therefore, I want to focus our movement at a point on where human rights and feminism of youth are intersected. I believe once women's narratives are free to show more diversity, women's desires, which reflect feminism, will show.
Do you have any thoughts on policies or specific solutions that should be established for young women?
After the School #MeToo, the most problematic issue that arose was the limiting of #MeToo measures through institutional procedures rather than giving students the power to resolve problems. Therefore, I think the power should be given to them. The government should enact a student human rights law that guarantees freedom of expression so that female teenagers can speak without fear. Furthermore, I think that after the School #MeToo movement, it has become even more difficult for schools to discuss sex education. Some teachers have voiced comments like, "Are you going to accuse me by the reason of ‘#MeToo’?" For a better school environment, there is a need to develop sexual sensibility, not just creating a space that is for introducing formal procedures and carrying out public debate. Alternatives to forums for public debate on sound sex education are necessary such as the founding of a gender equality organization.
WeTee plans to present alternative sex education for teenagers. How will it be different?
Our members have always felt that sex education in Korea does not help true learning. In other words, we think it doesn’t really focus on the bodies of teenagers who are the subjects of education. This is because most sex education lessons in Korea are conducted in extremely closed conditions and are centered on pornographic frames rather than individual desires. Indeed, most teenagers have already been exposed to sexual acts through pornography. This way of exposure can lead to rape, as it focuses only on the desires of men. We hope teenagers will learn to see sex as natural through proper education. Therefore, we have planned alternative sex education lessons. As a result of it, a workshop was held to analyze male-centered narratives in pornography.
As part of your idea for sex education, I heard WeTee held an event that exchanged bandages for condoms.
Condoms and bandages are both classified as medical devices. For most people, however, bandages are everyday items while condoms are the things that should be hidden from others’ views. However, sex is a normal action, and it is not the event presented in pornographic media. I hope talking about sex will become routine and focus on more feministic issues, so I promoted the project. We exchanged bandages for condoms at an exhibition that revealed one’s sexuality. During the exhibition, one of the main events was a question and answer session on why teenagers are praised for abstinence, and why condoms are only available at martial aid shops. Also, ‘sensory maps’ revealed that the views of young feminist artists were also exhibited.
The National Assembly revised its election voting age, allowing 18-year-olds to participate in the general election. What do you think about the 'politicizing the classroom'?
I don't think the school should be a de-political institution. School administrative staff and regulation prevent them from being overly political. The fact that schools are not political is also rather conservative in that it is a politically neutral stand. Some say that students should not be allowed to vote because they are too immature. However, voting rights should not be regulated based solely on age, which doesn’t always equate to maturity. Politics affects all citizens’ lives, including teenagers. Therefore, I think the classroom should be more politicized only in that students should be able to express their political opinions in an open forum and not be criticized for those comments.
You were selected as one of the five young activists driving Asia’s future last year by CNN. How did that make you feel?
First, I am proud of the fact that the School #MeToo movement has become a social phenomenon across Asia. In fact, the School #MeToo’s success is related to its policy of keeping names anonymous compared to other #MeToo movements. Despite the hostility they face, the School #MeToo gained momentum. Besides CNN, the UN has also commented on the School #MeToo movement, calling for the strengthening of child protection laws, especially harm from indirect sexual crimes and more policies that standardize sex education in Korea. These are the greatest achievements of the School #MeToo movement. Indeed, I hope that such support and attention will be the step to change and move forward.
What are your plans as a young activist for feminism?
I hope to make WeTee a more sustainable space for younger feminists. We may not be changing the world right now, but I believe that through our various activities, we can pave the trail to the future. I think the same steps will serve as the basis for a big change. Also, I'm planning to create a platform for young feminists that provides proper sex education to teenagers from this year. This is the first attempt to provide people interested in feminisms with the means at their disposal to get proper sex education with the initiative in arguments of sex. By continuing to work toward this, I hope to further promote schools’ gender equality movement.
Last, please leave a message for Sookmyungians.
Once feminism becomes properly discussed in the media the old patriarchal system will dissolve. I believe in a world in which feminism adds to the creation of a new equal society. Being students at a women's university does not free you from sexual discrimination. I hope all feminists at Sookmyung continue the fight against the threat of anti-feminism so that all the struggles we have battled do not end in despair.
-Co-representative of WeTee
-A co-author of <Girl Feminism>
-One of Young people across Asia pushed for change in 2019 by CNN
-Graduated Goyang Jungsan High School
Jung Kim Hyeseung / Society Section Editor
Kim Han Yujin / Woman Section Editor