East Versus West: What of Goddesses and Strong Women?

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Below is a a presentation I gave at the Business & Professional Women Forum on Jeju Island addressing the WEP within the context of culture.

Women’s Empowerment Principles have been co-created by UN Development Fund for Women in collaboration with UN Global Impact, for the purpose of gaining economic equality for women across the globe. BPW International’s primary function is to “foster economic sustainability for women on a global scale, while nurturing their professional goals.”

These 7 empowerment principles, while designed to be globally applicable, cannot simply be applied as is to each cultural setting, however. It’s imperative that they be made as culturally relevant as possible in order to achieve maximum success in outcome.

The principles can serve as goals. The objectives – the steps taken to achieve each of these goals – can and must differ from one locale to the next. Thus, as a so-called “western woman” living in Asia, as a professional with a keen interest in culture and how it affects the individual and societal psyche, I would ask each of you: when contemplating how best to achieve these very worthy goals in your region, how can you work within your own cultural matrix in order to effect change?

Jeju women have a very longstanding reputation of strength. “The Strong Jeju Woman” is legendary. Feminists in Korea’s mainland point to Jeju’s women as an example of indigenous feminism. Words like “matriarchy” and “amazonian” get used frequently.

On Jeju, scholars, feminists, and professional women also question this identification. It’s surely true that the women of this island – and, in all likelihood, the women of Taiwan, of Japan, and of many island cultures that have known hardship – share qualities of diligence, fortitude, and courage.

It’s also true that, within Jeju’s most well-known female-oriented profession found in the diving women, highly structured economic cooperatives have long existed. In village life, collaborative labor practices in general have always been the norm, as villagers needed to work together to overcome adverse conditions.

The valid point is also made that women within Korean society, and certainly in Jeju, wield a great deal of power in matters of the household.

However, outside of these economic organizations for occupations of manual labor, Jeju’s women have not yet attained substantial positions of leadership. There are few if any female heads of corporations or high-level managers. Women are not at the helm of local village councils. And no woman has ever been elected to public office, though local legislation now includes the appointment of five women to the Provincial Council.

Jeju women’s pay-scale in comparison with that of men is notoriously low, while rates for domestic and sexual violence, including prostitution, are high. And so: even for such strong women, there is still a great deal of progress to be made before it can be said that any measure of true equality and economic sustainability has been achieved.

And the daughters, the next generation of Jeju women? As the element of hardship and adversity decreases in this increasingly affluent and modernized, technologically driven society, mothers express concern that their daughters want easy lives and lack the strength of their forebears.

There are some dominant themes in Jeju’s society which must be considered in order to achieve true empowerment for Jeju’s women: the more recent overlay of Confucian social structure versus a much older inheritance of Goddess mythology, coupled with communal labor methods and an egalitarian, matrifocal traditional culture.

Jeju Island’s creation myth is that of a giant goddess, the grandmother of all, Seolmundae Halmang. Numerous other goddesses can be found in the mythology of Jeju’s traditional culture, indicating the true underpinnings of the Jeju woman’s strength.

It has been said, for some time now, that Seolmundae sleeps. In the Neo-Confucianism that took stronghold in Korea several centuries ago and on Jeju more recently, the woman is relegated to a secondary role in the society, her place “in the home.” The hierarchy of Confucian social structure also carries over into the workplace, which keeps working women at an artificially lower status. Several women in mainland Korea have advanced to high corporate positions, to which much recent press coverage has been given – but in every case it is directly related to family ties.

In Korea, corporations and government are typically modeled after the military system to which all young men are conscripted and of which women for the most part have no knowledge – a distinct disadvantage for women in the workplace. As we stand witness to the anniversary date tomorrow of a 1948 wide-scale massacre from which Jeju’s people are still recovering, we are also aware of Jeju’s powerful commitment to peace and human rights initiatives.

These conflicting notions, in conjunction with cooperative economic traditions, provide several considerations by which to approach the empowerment of Jeju’s women.

And so, the 7 Women’s Empowerment Principles can be addressed within the context of Jeju’s indigenous culture:

  1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality”: traditionally matrifocal and egalitarian cultural principles;
  2. Treat all women and men fairly at work; respect and support human rights and nondiscrimination”: traditional communal labor practices; current peace and human rights initiatives;
  3. Ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all women and men workers”: also, as above;
  4. Promote education, training and professional development for women”: in keeping with Confucian value placed on lifelong education;
  5. Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women”: the diving women’s economic cooperatives and decision-making processes in a structure known as ‘bulteok’;
  6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy”: island-wide system of small villages with local councils; numerous NGOs; strong community bonds known as ‘kwendang’;
  7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality”: numerous research institutes [NGOs, private and public] and government initiatives

Each principle can be supported by an existing or traditional feature of Jeju’s culture, if highlighted and enhanced for this purpose. This also reframes features of Jeju’s traditional culture in modern terms, which may serve the purpose of cultural preservation and encourage an increased valuing of traditional ways.

The 21st century has been referred to as “the Asian Century” and also as “the Women’s Century.” I would propose that this, then, in particular is the “Asian Women’s century” – wouldn’t you?

And so, in addressing the need for empowerment of women – of Jeju’s and Kaohsiung’s women – I would ask you first to consider the strengths to be found in both “Asian Ways” and “Women’s Ways.”  East and West can learn from one another. But the true strength lies within one’s own cultural matrix.

The same can be said for male and female. Feminism in the 20th century emphasized similarities between genders – “women are just as competent as men,” “women can be just as tough as men in business,” etc., and encouraged women to do business in typically male ways.

In the 21st century: women’s ways and women’s wisdom can provide a strengths-based model for economic empowerment. Rather than fixing what’s wrong, this allows us to build on what’s already working for us.

And what are Asian women’s ways?

Relationship. Diplomacy. Consensus. Community. Nurturance. Mentorship. And, as we psychologists often call it: The Feeling Function.

Networking — based not on connectedness for the sake of personal advancement, but on relationship for the sake of community development.

East and West, Male and Female – we can learn from one another – but we must take the best of who we are and build on this, for a strengths-based approach.

Women of Kaohsiung: I’m certain that your cultural backdrop offers equally rich opportunity for enhancing women’s empowerment from within.

Women of Jeju: It is time to awaken Seolmundae Halmang.

In the words of my friend, scholar and mythologist Koh Hea Kyoung, from her 2010 book about Jeju’s Seolmundae:

Discovering great goddesses from the beginning of the world and reviving them in today’s world is my dream as well as the path to a new era – when reason and emotion, humans and nature, and men and women can co-exist in true harmony.” Photo credit from kimolssen.wordpress.com.

Dr. Anne Hilty
Dr. Anne Hilty is a Cultural Health Psychologist with a focus on the interplay of Eastern and Western theories of mental health as well as the mind-body connection. Her grounding is in the fields of cultural, transpersonal, and health psychology; she is additionally influenced by classical Chinese medicine, somatic psychology, and Asian shamanic traditions. Originally from the city of New York, Dr. Hilty lives on bucolic Jeju Island in South Korea, having previously lived in Seoul and Hong Kong.
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