Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

In addition to pink parking spaces (for women who are ‘bad drivers’ don’t you know, and the only ones who take kids anywhere – thus needing the larger parking space), more toilets in newer buildings, and a day off per month for menstrual cramps (at workplaces I’ve never been an employee of), women’s rights are now being furthered in this fair city by discussions about this ‘problem:’

The city government is seeking to add female figures beside the male ones on every crosswalk traffic light in the capital. It has submitted a proposal to a policy-setting committee of the National Policy Agency (NPA) that female figures should be added to the traffic lights.

“It constitutes discrimination against women that only male figures are in crosswalk traffic lights,” the city said in the proposal. In the proposed new signal, a couple wears pants and a skirt, respectively, in the red and green signs.

And did I mention that the whole project is slated to cost 24 billion won ($21 million dollars US)?

I think this is yet another indication of a basic policy making problem which occurs over and over again here. Very serious problems are dealt with by making cosmetic corrections or by applying glossy band aid solutions.

This example actually reminds me some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments I’ve had in the seminar section of my presentation class. While discussing problems and solutions with regard to gender discrimination in small groups, I’ve overheard again and again by female students that Korea is a good place for women because boyfriends carry girlfriends’ bags. Seriously, over and over again. On good days, I hope that this means that my girls have not had to face any serious obstacles in their lives thus far. Girls are just as educated as boys. University age women don’t have to do military service which seems to allow them more chances to travel, study abroad, and enjoy life in their mid-20’s. Therefore, maybe at this point, life seems pretty pro-female….until getting a job requires weight loss and plastic surgery, or female team members start being excluded from decision making or senior positions, or before they get fired for having a child or find themselves overwhelmed by the double burden. Perhaps, (thankfully?) for today’s Korean girls, they are able to get into their 20’s without significant gender barriers, but there must be still the knowledge of what is coming as most of the female students in the class we’re talking about parenting in, wrote in their most recent assignment that they have no plans to get married either because they don’t think they can be a career woman and a wife, or because they think the burden of marriage (their words) is incompatible with modern womanhood. I seriously doubt that those bright girls will see a skirted figure on a crosswalk and say ‘Wow! I think it possible to be a working woman and a wife because society now includes me in its traffic signals.’’

And about that skirted figure – nobody in the government has thought about this?

Some people, including many women, also question whether the signals are gender discriminative, finding fault with the city’s proposal. In representations of the new traffic lights released by the city, the new signals show two people — one wearing pants and the other a skirt.

“The idea that a woman should wear a skirt is more sexually discriminative, I guess. I think the figure in the current one doesn’t have any gender,” an Internet user said.

Sigh. There’s so many other things that money could be going to: maternity leave, parental leave, safe childcare facilities, childcare facilities in government offices!, shelters and support for victims of domestic violence, training for police officers as to how to deal with rape and domestic violence victims……and oh so many more. But those are hard things to develop (properly) and implement (properly). And then we couldn’t point to a visible sign on every street corner and say ‘see, men and women are equally represented on crosswalks, so of course they are equal.’

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You may have noticed that I have a few blogroll links to Mormon sites and wondered why an Orthodox Christian would be promoting (and religiously following) LDS blogs.  Well, as I said to my friend S, ‘all is right in Msleetobe’s world when she can find spiritual fulfilment in debates about New Mormon History.’ 

The truth is, I find enormous encouragement in studying alternative perspectives – especially those that radically shake my understanding of God and the world – and in addition, my academic and personal quests into Mormonism have happily led to be introduced to some truly fascinating and religiously ‘progressive’ people in the LDS world.  Specifically, I’ve become obsessed with John Dehlin’s amazing Mormon Stories podcasts and the advocacy and work of Carol Lynn Pearson.  Pearson is an actor, playwright, poet, and advocate who is interested in feminism and gay rights, especially after nursing her gay husband during his final few days struggling with HIV. 

So imagine my delight when Dehlin featured Pearson on Mormon Stories in a multi-hour interview about her life, advocacy, and work.  You can find the whole thing here, but one part that really stood out – and really makes me want to swamp an LDS publisher site to purchase all of her work, was a poem she read at the beginning of the final segment.


If ‘A’ looks up to ‘B’

Then by nature of the physical universe

‘B’ must look down on ‘A’

Rather like 2 birds


One on a tree

And one on the ground.

Or so thought Marjorie

Who had always wanted to marry

A man she could look up to

But wondered where that

Would place her

If she did.

Imagine her astonishment

When she met Michael and found

That together they stood

Physics on its head.

You could never

Draw this on paper

For it defies design

But year after year

They lived a strange


That by all known laws could not occur

She looked up to him

And he looked up to her.

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Orthodox Wedding Crowns (Stefana)

from Etsy

Russian Crowns

I’ve been refreshing my memory on the key points of an Orthodox wedding ceremony for tomorrow, and in my search, I came across this page.  It’s a good abridged version of the major symbols and rituals and the meaning behind them, and this one point about the crowning portion of the ceremony that really stood out for me. 

 “The service of the Crowning, which follows, is the climax of the Wedding service. The crowns are signs of the glory and honor with which God crowns them during the Mystery. The groom and the bride are crowned as the king and queen of their own little kingdom, the home – domestic church, which they will rule with fear of God, wisdom, justice and integrity. When the crowning takes place the priest, taking the crowns and holding them above the couple, says:”The servants of God, (names), are crowned in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” The crowns used in the Orthodox wedding service refer to the crowns of martyrdom since every true marriage involves immeasurable self-sacrifice on both sides.”

We’ve been legally married and living together for nearly two months now, and I have to say that one of the most unpleasant things I have learned about myself is how self-serving I really am.  Women have heard this ‘sacrifice’ line for so many generations, and it has often been used to subjugate women…or perhaps more commonly for women to make themselves feel guilty because they are not subjugating themselves.  Women have often been the ones more likely to give up their talents, their desires, their wants for their husbands, sometimes for the good, but often to the detriment of themselves and their families, and this is why feminists are so loathe to use the word ‘sacrifice’ and ’women’ in the same sentence.  I’ve always feared giving in too much, or losing too much of myself to a relationship to an unhealthy and dangerous degree which explains some of my prior fear of commitment.

But the flip side, the one that I am guilty of, is not sacrificing in that beautiful way in which people – men, women, children, citizens, strangers – let go of their egos and put someone else first for the benefit of all.  I think the ego bit is key. We should not sacrifice ourselves so that we crush our spirits in great misery, we should suppress our egos to build harmony and create happiness for everyone.  Sacrifice isn’t ‘women’s work’ or ‘women’s duty,’ it must be found on “…both sides.”  Sacrificing can be dangerous if one person is always doing the lion’s share, but it is beautiful when practiced by all.

I’ve been so guilty in these past 7 weeks of looking out for myself, for evaluating the minute details of each action to make sure we are both giving equally at equal times to our home, marriage, and partnership.  I can’t give you any specific examples, but it is a common theme running through my head at all times…looking out for my wellbeing instead of wondering how I can best serve my husband (even though he is always looking for ways to serve me).  I need to work a lot more on slaying my ego, on being joyful in service, and on committing myself to partnership over self gain.  I have heard of or seen so many cases where women’s needs and wants have not been met and they have been crushed in the process, but I am not in this situation.  Mr. Lee is by far a much nicer and more giving person than me (I tend to be snarky, over cynical, and bitchy), and I can learn so much from how he is always looking for ways to please me. So tomorrow when we are crowned in Holy Matrimony, when we are made ‘king’ and ‘queen’ of our residence, I hope that I can embark on a less egotistic journey of ways to better serve my husband instead of serving myself because the best leaders always remember that they are really servants.

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On Money

Money, or the power to spend money, is a common concern for many feminists and for good reason.  In most places, the person who earns the money determines how the money is spent, and in many places in the world, that means men control the finances.  In good situations, this means that men ‘take responsibility’ for their family members and ensure for their wellbeing.  When I was growing up, my father was the primary breadwinner of the house (my mother had a part time job that paid for extras, but made a very small amount compared to him), and he gave my mum a certain amount of money each week to spend on groceries while he paid the utilities and mortgage.  It was probably the same system that my grandparents had used, and it seemed to work well for them.  But all too often around the world, men spend their income on alcohol, gambling, other women, or other vices, leaving women and children in a perilous position.  That’s why so many aid groups and initiatives focus on employment for women, because when women make their own money and control their own finances, family needs are much more likely to be met. 

Women also tend to be more susceptible to financial abuse.  My mother’s friend’s daughter was financially abused for years in that her husband forced her to turn all of her money over to him.  He then controlled her coming and going and every aspect of her life by controlling her cash flow.  She has very serious food allergies, and thus requires special, more expensive food, but by the time her family found out about what was happening to her, she was literally malnourished because her husband had refused to let her buy the food she needed.  After that case, my mother was always adamant that women should take care of their own finances.  

In Korea, however, money is much less a feminist concern than in many other countries around the world.  Even though men are expected to be the primary breadwinner, and a great many women still hope to marry a man capable of financially taking care of them so they do not have to participate in the all-consuming pressure cooker that is the Korean workplace, the contemporary ‘traditional’ practice is for men to give their paycheque to the wife as soon as he gets it. This is one of the reasons, as I have mentioned before, married men will often refer to themselves as ‘ATMs.’

The wife gives the husband a particular allowance per month from his paycheque, or she closely monitors the amount he spends on her credit card (more on that later).  The idea is that, since ‘salarymen’ or men who work for Korean companies, work so late, they rarely have time to go to the bank, run errands, or buy groceries.  In addition, as women are still expected to do the lion’s share of running the household, they are culturally expected to make these purchases instead of men.  Finally, because of the obsession with afterschool education at hagwons, (driven of course by mothers themselves), women contend that they need to manage the finances in order to find ways to scrape together the various education fees for their children.  For the most part, there doesn’t seem to be a large amount of public debate surrounding women controlling finances.  In part because it is probably seen as a private household matter, and in part because the reality of the salaryman is that he does not have any time to do the things that need to be done to keep the household in working order.  However, that does not mean that there are no private concerns about this practice.

One time, when I was teaching business people, I had a late night class with a student who was about to get married, and it must be said, scared shitless about the whole ordeal.  No matter what the topic of the day – interview skills, ethical dilemmas, beauty, military service, conditional sentences – he would always find some way to alert his conversational group partners to the fact that he was getting married as a way of soliciting advice from his older male classmates.  One day, his worries turned to money, and the fact that he was about to lose all power over his bank account, paycheque, and what he believed to be life in general.  I was sitting in on the various small group discussions in order to correct errors when one of the older students looked around to make sure none of the female students were listening, leaned closer to the soon-to-be-married student and myself, and started telling us (in hushed English) about how to set up a secret bank account and how to hide it from your wife.  It was an interesting experience for me not only because I learned a whole lot about inner-family money conflicts, but also because somehow I was being excluded from the category of ‘female’ and allowed to ‘be a boy’ for a short time.

In another case that I know, which I hesitate to write about in too much detail here, a person I know gave his life savings, consisting of a couple tens of thousands of dollars to his Korean fiancée, who then held it basically ransom as a way to force him to marry him.  Really, the money situation was the least of that couple’s worries, they had many issues (obviously), but being from a culture where until recently, men tended to be in charge of the money, it was interesting in those first few years in Korea to see the exact opposite situation.  Another person I know was repeatedly unable to order lunch with us because he didn’t have enough allowance to buy his own meal.  His wife cooked for him and made him coffee in the morning, but he didn’t have enough money to buy his own food. 

Conversely, a Western male co-worker recently told me that long ago he gave his now Korean fiancée all of his money and somehow, ‘magically’ she got rid of his debts and helped him to start saving.  He credits her alone for their financial health and ability to budget in ways he never imagined possible.  Another friend, whose wife is in finance, was able to pay for a large chunk of their wedding though stock market earnings after she invested his money.  He too praises his wife for their financial success.  It’s such an interesting role reversal from Western culture where just a generation or two ago, women were told not to worry their pretty little heads with things like facts and figures.

Money has never been a thing Mr. Lee and I have wanted to discuss at length.  Early on he knew I wanted to be a career woman, and that I intended to support myself rather than rely on a man, and I knew that he was a person with a decent income who spent responsibility.  Neither of us actually even knew each other’s full financial situation until a few months ago, which sounds really dangerous, especially for the ever-prudent me, but it speaks to the general knowledge both of us had about each other’s character and the fact that we had successfully managed our own lives for quite some time before we met each other.  Anyway, when we broke down our budget a few months ago to figure out how much we could spend on our house, furniture, and wedding extras, we finally discussed what we were going to do about household money.

It has always been a given that we would have our own bank accounts.  Sometimes I joke with him that now that we are married he has to give me all his money so I can give him his small allowance back, but the truth is that he has always been deadly serious about not giving up control of his money in the same way that I would be if faced with a more ‘traditional’ Canadian way of financial control.  I think he has seen far too many cases around him of people around him held hostage by wives who have too much financial control.  Again, amazing how context can really change your perception on what is a feminist concern. For my part of course, I have always assumed I would have my own bank account and be able to manage my own money (and decide to combine it with my partner’s if need be), so we came to a very quick conclusion as to what to do with the bulk of our money.  Therefore, strangely, although managing our individual paycheques is very abnormal in Korea, we were both completely on board with this idea from the start with absolutely no pre-discussion needed.

However, in Korea we have an added issue in that there is no such thing as a joint bank account, even for household items.  Most of my friends in North America have dealt with money delegation by merging all or a significant portion of their assets into joint accounts (sometimes retaining individual accounts for ‘fun’ things or for credit purposes).  That’s the modern North American way.  Nevertheless, we do not have that option here in Korea. I’m not entirely sure why that is the case, although I do know that there are numerous situations where people have tried to cheat taxes by putting their own assets into family members’ names, so perhaps this is a banking concern in Korea?  Whatever the reason, no matter what, unless we pay household bills by cash – which would put us at a tax disadvantage and mean that we would pay more for things as many store/cable/phone plan etc systems are built on giving discounts to holders of certain cards – we have to choose one person to put their name on account for household items. 

After a little discussion, we decided to put the household account under Mr. Lee’s name.  When it comes to money issues in international marriage, there is an added problem from many people because expats still have many disadvantages with banks.  We can open bank accounts, but we are often denied credit cards or loans as ‘flight risks’ even when we have jobs that are more lucrative than the bank tellers denying such services, and are married to Koreans (thus showing ‘a commitment to Korea’).  As a result, when it comes to joint expenses and joint purchases, the largest factor in terms of whose name goes on the lease, loan, or account, usually boils down to who is Korean instead of who is the power player in the house or even who makes the money. Such a radically different system here, but again, I’m learning that what is ‘traditional’ depends on whose tradition, and what is ‘normal’ completely depends on the context you are living in.

Anyway, so the account is in Mr. Lee’s name, but I have the credit card (as my schedule permits more household purchases). Strangely, nobody ever checks the signature or name on the credit card, and even if they do, stores seem to expect that accounts are shared within families. In fact, clerks usually process my credit card purchases before I actually finish signing my name because it’s longer than most Korean names. 

We’re not sure if our system will work – it’s only been two weeks – but so far we’ve been able to merge our finances when we want to make purchases together while still retaining control over our own savings.  We’re a strange Korean couple, and I think we’re also an abnormal contemporary Canadian couple, but hopefully neither one of us will ever hide money in order to buy a cup of coffee, and hopefully both of us can continue to increase our savings by separately controlling our money.

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Howmanyofme.com tells me:

Current name: 4 people in the US have this name
If I were to take Mr. Lee’s family name: 156 people in the US have this name

Perhaps one of the most controversial topics in the North American wedding blogging world is name changes. I’ve participated in a few online name-change debates, and I have to say that I’m surprised not by the fact that many women continue to change their name, but by some of the arguments people use to advocate for name change. I am also appalled by the number of online brides-to-be who are distraught at the thought of changing their name, but feel enormous pressure by fiancé, family, or social context into taking his name. So, I’ll try to keep this civil, but I do want to discuss my reasons for keeping my name and never becoming a Mrs. Lee. I am specifically addressing the custom of women taking their husband’s name and not the various hyphenating/men changing names which are also present in various societies. The following are the usual arguments people give me for why I should change my name and my rebuttals.

It’s tradition.

This of course begs the question, ‘whose tradition?’ In Korea, women never change their names. In many Muslim cultures, women never change their names. In other cultures women and men take on a combination name. Specifically in Korea, it would be very strange for me to have the same family name as my husband. There are less than 300 family names in Korea. For instance, Wikipedia tells me that 14.8% of Koreans have a variation of the name ‘Lee,’ while 21.6% have a variation of ‘Kim.’ These Lees and Kims and Parks and Chois and Jungs are not all part of the same family. There are Lees originating from one region and Lees from another. The long standing family registry system in this country makes it easy to track such origins. Until very recently, it was actually illegal for a Lee from one ancestral area to marry a Lee from ancestral area because it was considered incestuous within Confucianism no matter how distantly related the bride and groom were to each other (of course – if you are a distant relation on your mother’s side – that’s okay). Lees from different areas have always been legally able to marry, but it is still considered taboo by many. Mr. Lee’s brother and sister-in-law are both Lees from different areas, but this is a rarity. Women keep their names after marriage because although they are registered under the husband’s family in the family registry and removed from their own family registry, they do not lose their familiar connection or history with their family.

So maybe in Korea this is not tradition, but what about your Scottish-German Canadian background you say? Well, in fact ‘traditionally’ women did not always give up their family names upon marriage in Scotland. It is rather a more ‘modern’ nineteenth and twentieth century ‘innovation’ aka influence brought upon by English law and customs for women to change their names. In fact, if the wife’s clan was more powerful, the man sometimes took his wife’s clan name. But more importantly for me, in contemporary Canadian culture, there are vast numbers of Canadian women who do not take their husband’s name, making it now ‘custom’ in many circles to keep one’s name. In Quebec for example, it is incredibly difficult for married women to legally change their family names. For an increasing number of people and areas, it is becoming common to hyphenate names for both men and women. What is ‘tradition’ should not simply be defined by a Victorian-England reading of world history and customs.

In other words, based on my cultural context and Mr. Lee’s context, it is in fact not our tradition for women to change their names.

You obviously lack commitment to your marriage if you don’t change your name.

This is perhaps the most bewildering argument for me, not to mention incredibly offensive. If men and women were living in a culture where they both changed their names upon marriage, and one of them refused to do so, then I can see how this argument might make a wee bit of sense. However, it does not make sense to me that a woman who does not change her name is considered lacking in commitment for her marriage, but a man who keeps his name is committed. The burden of proof as to one’s commitment should not rest more heavily on women, and above all, marriage should be much more than a simple name change!

We have to have the same name to be a family.

I get the fact that in patriarchal societies wherein children are given their husband’s family name, women might want to have a name connection with their children. Therefore, the yearning to be linked through name makes sense to me. However, the belief that a name makes a family does not make any sense. In Canadian culture, the high divorce, remarriage, and children born out of wedlock marriages, means that a great number of children do not have the same name as one or even both of their parents. In Korea, women almost never have the same name, and yet they are not considered less of a mother. What’s more, if, in Canada, a woman has a daughter who changes her name, does that mean that parents and daughters are no longer family after a name change? Perhaps under past law where women were not treated as full persons and thus wards of their fathers and then husbands, but certainly no woman in her right might would believe such a thing today. I do not feel less of a connection to my mother’s relatives or my cousins who have vastly different family names from my own; therefore, I do not believe I will have any less of a connection with my children because we do not share the same family name. In fact, there are so many other ways to be connected to one’s family through name. For instance, I hope to give my future children a Scottish or German first name to go with their Korean family name, and that first name will come from one or more of my female relatives.

My kids will be confused.

I don’t want to spend much time on this argument as I think it is linked to the previous objections. I don’t think that my cousins are confused about the identity of their mother because she kept the name given to her at birth, and I don’t think Korean children are perpetually at a loss as to who their mother really is. I hope we give children a little more credit for being intelligent beings than this argument purports.

It’s romantic.

This is an emotional rather than a logical argument. In making this statement, I do not want to imply that it is thus less important because it is emotional. I just mean that romance is a feeling that means different things to different people. If a woman feels that it is romantic to take her husband’s name, then that is her feeling which is her’s alone. The opposite is also true. Therefore, if a woman feels changing her name is a romantic gesture, then she should by all means do it, but it should not be a reason given to all women for the reason why they should make that change.

Your name is from your father anyway – so you are being less of a feminist by keeping your birth name because you did not choose it.

I’m not sure if most women who keep their name are concerned about the patriarchal tradition of giving children the father’s family name (when they have children, this custom may become a larger concern). Most women I talk to feel more concerned about the patriarchal assumption that it is women who must change their name, and thus in some ways their identity in order to demonstrate their commitment to marriage (see above). Some of the older crowd in English-speaking Canada still believe that Jane Smith becomes Mrs. John Johnson when she marries. That’s the kind of identity change I want no part of. Yes, my family name comes from my father, but over the past almost 30 years it has become my name and my identity apart from my father and his ancestors. If I were to take my husband’s name that would be taking on his history and culture into my name in a sudden moment without cultivating that identity over time myself.

I do not mean to suggest that women who change their family names are bad or oppressed in any way. Name change, no matter if it is for marriage or another reason, should always be a deeply personal decision which should be based in a particular person’s context and background. And for me, I believe I will be connected to my husband and children regardless of my name, and above all, my name is my name.

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Every time I think about wedding traditions, I have a momentary flashback to a pivotal moment in my youth. Sitting on the couch, I was showing my older female 2nd cousin photos from my uncle’s then-recent nuptials, when I pointed to one picture and said, ‘And here is Aunt S’s father giving her away.’ My dearly loved cousin responded snappily ‘there’s no such thing as GIVING a woman away.’

As a twelve year old, I didn’t fully comprehend why my cousin, just married herself, was so vehemently adverse to the giving away custom. In fact, a year before she had entered a church on her father’s arm, further confusing my adolescent mind. It was only as I got older that I realized that my cousin was not opposed to the idea of walking with her father, but rather the description of this act as a transfer of ownership from father to husband.

This story illustrates the minefield that weddings, with their centuries of traditions, concealed patriarchal strains, and sudden familiar expectations pose for the feminist bride…or even just the modern bride. What have these symbols and rituals represented? Do they still represent these values? Does a symbol have one essential meaning which can be obscured but never fully changed, or can we frolic Derridianly through cultural symbolism and play with a variety of meanings? The following is a discussion of problematic symbols and rituals followed by another post on how modern feminist brides negotiate these issues.


One of the most ubiquitous Western wedding symbols, the veil was used in the past as a symbol of virginity. It was also an important component in transferring the bride under the patriarchal authority. Veiled until at the altar or after the wedding vows, the lifting of the veil was both an important part of the great ‘reveal’ of the bride in her bridal glory and the groom signifying that he was taking responsibility for (possession of?) his wife. The traditional symbolism of this piece of cloth should be enough to horrify any modern woman with a shred of self dignity.

However, in Roman times the veil was physical protection against evil spirits. In the tradition of evil eye amulets and protectors (one of my favourite academic areas of inquiry), the veil functioned as a way to shield the bride from envious eyes and to hide her from malicious beings jealous at her good fortune.

Korean norigae, or decorative tassels, represent wealth or prosperity, but they are also amulets in the same way as the Roman veil. That is why they are attached to the kama or palanquin the bride is carried in on her way to the wedding site. Norigae are also attached to the front of women’s hanboks or traditional clothes. In place of a veil, traditional Korean brides themselves hold a decorative cloth in front of their faces, for the duration of the ceremony, a feat that I hope to accomplish by building up my arm muscles before the wedding.

The Dress

Of course there is a reason why the dress is white. Virginity, purity, innocence. If there is any doubt dear reader that this is still held to be true in certain circles, I have a story for you.

I once worked in a tiny village with a very large and strict Dutch Reform community. A grade 12 coop student from the local high school from a less conservative church community told me she was going to a wedding for her 17 year old classmate one day. Sensing the urgency of the event, (the girl marrying in May on a school night 2 months shy of her high school graduation), I asked if the classmate was pregnant. The next day the coop student came back to work reporting that the girl was indeed pregnant and forced by her mother to wear blue instead of white because she was now impure.

Giving the Bride Away

Like my cousin before me, I have grown to loath the phrase “And who gives this woman in marriage to this man?” There’s a reason why traditionally a variation on this question has not been asked of the groom’s parents. Under British law (and thus, the law in most colonies and former colonies), women were essentially considered men’s property, or at the very least not a ‘person’ with all the rights that entails, for many centuries. Thus, the ‘giving away’ and ‘asking for her hand in marriage’ customs are often considered an extension of this concept of ownership.

In the traditional Korean wedding, the groom ‘travels’ to the brides’ family home and presents the bride’s family with a wild goose symbolizing fidelity, devotion, and long life. While these values do not go against feminism in general, in Confucian culture, when two geese were displayed together to symbolize the couple, the ‘female’ goose often had a string tied around the beak. (It is still common to find bound-beaked ducks for purchase in Insadong, the ‘traditional’ culture tourism street here in Seoul).

Bowing to Submission?

When I first came to Korea, I had to do a lesson on ‘preference’ with my 20-something students. One of the topics for discussion was ‘do you prefer a traditional wedding or a ‘Western’-style wedding?’ My female students almost always answered ‘Western. Because I want a white dress and I don’t want to bow more times! That’s not fair!!!’

An important part of the traditional ceremony involves the bride and groom bowing to each other in ‘big bows’ or bows to the ground. Not only is this extremely difficult as a bride when wearing several layers of bulky material and holding a piece of cloth in front of your face, it is also difficult because the bride performs twice as many bows to her groom as he makes to her. As deep bows are not only signs of respect but submission, bowing becomes a point of feminist contention in the Korean wedding.

During the pyebek ritual after the main ceremony, the bride and groom also traditionally bow to the groom’s family as a way for the bride to pledge loyalty to her new in-laws. Since the couple traditionally lived with the groom’s family, this was an important moment for reinforcing the family’s power structure.

Introducing…For the First Time…Mr. and Mrs. John Smith

My mother, not an overtly feminist woman, used to fly into a mini rage in my teenage years when she would receive a letter addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Father’s First and Last Name. Inevitably, these letters would come from well meaning elderly Emily-Post devotees who thought they were following proper etiquette. However, again, as I grew older, I realized the significance of not only changing your family name when getting married, but also the loss of your given name. If men also changed their names, and combined their first name with their wife’s name, the custom might make sense in a feminist sort of way: equally combining lives in order to be joined in holy matrimony. Alas, the tradition is not so accommodating to the woman.

Of Rice and Chestnuts

What is the purpose of marriage? Some (not me) would say to bear and raise children. Certainly there are enough rituals around the world which attest to the importance of carrying on the family line. Whether rice, bubbles, or confetti, showering the couple with fertility-symbolism is a way to tell the bride and groom exactly what is expected of their union.

In Korean culture, the groom’s family also traditionally throws chestnuts and/or jujubes at the couple, who then catch the items in the cloth the bride holds in front of her face during the ceremony. It is said that the number of chestnuts caught corresponds to the number of children, or more specifically sons, the couple will have. While children are in no way antithetical to feminism, the overemphasis on fertility, especially on the women’s ‘duty’ to bear sons, has been an enormous burden for women throughout time.

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So what is a feminist bride-to-be to do with these traditions seeped in the patriarchy? If we incorporate these traditions into our weddings, are we willingly subjugating ourselves to the patriarchy and an unequal world view? Can we actually escape from the patriarchy while not abandoning our customs?

I do not in any way believe that traditions are stagnant. I believe that forms move freely between cultures, times, and peoples. We ascribe our own meanings to things and they are infused with the power of our own imaginations. However, this is not to deny the power of rituals in terms of how they have been and are used to create realities. Legally changing one’s name does not change a person in any physical way, but it change’s people’s perspectives of you. Likewise, marriage does not physically bind two people, but they are treated differently under the law and their union is often treated more permanent and ‘real’ by family members even when the couple has been together for years.

So, this is my conclusion about patriarchy-seeped rituals – each and every one depends on how the ritual has been transmitted to you.

The Dress

I have known very brides who were virgins on their wedding day, but I have never met a Western woman in a Western ceremony who has not worn a white dress (yes, there are a few, but I haven’t been to their weddings). That is to say, with the exception of the Dutch Reform bride, who I never personally met, I have never had a direct experience with women themselves associating white with virginity.

Personally, I would love to wear a black lace dress. As a subdued goth myself, I have not worn white since I was about 8 years old. I am known for always wearing black, so much so that my mother cornered me on my last trip to Canada imploring me not to swath myself in noire. On this point, I have decided to give up the battle. If wearing white means a ‘normal’ wedding for my mother, and if white does not carry any patriarchal trappings of an innocent virgin for me, then this is a battle I will not fight.

The Veil and the Bows

When it comes to Korean wedding clothes, the practicality rather than the meaning is a bigger concern. You see, not growing up Korean, it is hard to associate ‘Korean style veiling’ with subjugation. Rituals have to mean something in order for them to have power over you. I admit that the Korean wedding itself seems more of a costume ball or pageantry to me. I know my part and I will play it for the audience. Negotiating the clothes and the headpiece is more about not fucking up than about physically subjugating myself (pyebek included). In fact, bowing to my white Canadian mother in pyebek would be absolutely bizarre and probably make her uncomfortable from a cultural perspective. I am also protected by the fact that we will not be living with Mr. Lee’s parents, and as a modern woman of my own means, I am not financially or otherwise dependant on the kindness of my in-laws. Since Mr. Lee is also the youngest son who is marrying later in life, we will also be supporting his parents instead of the other way around which shifts the power balance considerably. See – context is everything. With these considerations in mind, bowing becomes a sign of respect rather than a symbol of submission.

As to the Canadian wedding veil…I admit to being undecided. As a former religious studies academic, I am enamoured with evil eye and malicious spirit symbolism. But I am also disturbed by this custom, possibly because of my deeply held views about women being ‘encouraged’ to cover in the Orthodox church….not to mention the practicality of walking down the aisle with my vision partially obscured! I may find peace with this ritual if I do the lifting – or, as my mother has suggested, I may decide on a half birdcage veil as a way to modify the custom.

Giving Away

As I have written before, my father died a few years ago. My mother has spoken about asking a male relative to ‘walk me down the aisle.’ I guess in this kind of ceremony, the officiant’s words could change to ‘who comes with the bride and gives the couple their blessings?’ This change in wording has certainly been a common way for modern women to reconceived of this ritual while making more conservative family members happy. However, after discussing the situation with my sister, we realized that walking with another male relative would only serve to highlight our father’s absence and bring more grief to a joyful ceremony. As a result, I’ve decided to walk down the aisle by myself.

Name Changes

Whoever we pick as our MC will be explicitly instructed to never utter the words ‘Introducing for the first time…Mr. and Mrs. His First Name Lee.” I will not be changing my name. I will never be known as ________ Lee in the Korean context. Women who choose to take their husband’s name do so for a litany of reasons including tradition, pressure from others, problems with their birth families, and having little connection with their birth name. I on the other hand love my name. I have grown up with a strong grounding in my clan history, and most importantly, changing my name after 30 years of being this person would critically damage my sense of self.

Rice and Chestnuts

We will not be having rice, confetti, or bubbles, in part because there is an ‘immediate $200 charge at the moment confetti is thrown’ clause in our Canadian venue contract (and who wants bubbles on their wedding dress?) As to the chestnuts – again, it’s more like a game than an archaic custom to me. That and the fact that as a strong advocate for birth control, I have control over my own fertility. We may work out the ‘catching’ part so that we nicely catch 2 chestnuts and leave the others scattered around on the floor. Children are a definite part of our marriage plans, but they will not define our love or our partnership.

So are weddings seeped in the patriarchy? Yes. But is there only one reading (ie. The ‘traditional’ … which may not be so static) of said rituals and symbols? – A resounding ‘no.’ I have strong views about certain things, such as taking my fiancé’s name, but in being faced with Korean customs which are also deeply archaic…but equally ‘foreign’ to me, I have seen that women choose to follow, modify, or abandon customs based on a complex combination of personal experience, family/social pressures, historical background, and interpretation. Seen from this perspective, ‘feminism’ is less about hammering down ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘patriarchal’ and ‘matriarchal’ customs and more about listening to women’s individual needs, experiences, and voices.

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I’m less than 2 hours away from entering the final year of my 20’s. 29 on the 29th. That means it should be ‘my year’ right?

When I was 12 I had my whole life planned. By 29 (because after that life didn’t exist), I was going to be traveling the globe as a foreign correspondent or UNHRC aid worker. I would know a minimum of 5 languages, be married, and have 6 children (two sets of twins). When you are 12 and the next 6 years of your life are neatly laid out for you, a mandatory goal in sight (graduating high school), and your parents to cook and clean for you, this plan looks quite easy. It is only after you emerge from the haze of first year university parties and final exams studied for after returning home at 4am from the clubs that you realize the older you get, the harder it becomes to turn back. If you start out as an English major, it becomes harder to switch to engineering second year. If you graduate without studying Russian, it’s harder to set aside time later to learn the language that suddenly becomes essential to get a promotion. And if you spent more time partying than studying, it’s difficult to find another time later in life when you have the luxury to study.

So, by the time the clock strikes 12, what will I have accomplished in this life thus far? A life abroad, yes, but certainly nothing as romantic as reporting in a flak jacket or feeding a malnourished baby on a telethon. I’ve studied 5 languages, but have yet to master a second language. I have two cat kids which are not twins. And I’m certainly not living the jet setting life I had once imaged ‘being an expat’ entailed. So perhaps comparing my reality to my 12 year old dreams is not the best way to evaluate my successes or real failures.

So what then have I accomplished in the past calendar year? I left a job I loathed for quite possibility the best job I’ve ever had. I neither lost nor gained a pound (although I gained 20 in the early days of said loathsome job). I adopted another cat child and ushered him through the early life changes as a cat. I saved a miniscule amount of money as a result of a very indulgent trip home. I got a ring and Korean family and a met more new people than lost those who left. I bought a new computer and started a blog – which really means that I started writing again and found a new creative outlet to pour my love and rage. I saw my family twice in two different countries, and I inched ever closer to becoming more competent in Korean. In all, it’s been a pretty decent year.

Of course, I still feel torn in the usual present day feminist-woman-way about my accomplishments and failures. In staying here I have given up my dreams of a PhD in my chosen field. I have put on hold any interest in politics. I have to grapple with the feasibility of being a working woman in Korea where it is still common for women to be fired or pushed out because they got pregnant (or…horror of horrors…actually took the 3 months off guaranteed to them by law!). And I have to worry about how far a foreign woman can really go not only in a male dominated culture, but an expat culture where women rarely stay long term or achieve the same management roles that their expat male counterparts achieve.

But despite all of this, I do feel like I am moving forward, chiselling a life here, etching out a small niche and a home.

So I have not become the perfect mother and perfect career woman. I am not as worldly and wise as I first imagined I would be. But perhaps in the next decade of my life I will have one child, become fluent in one other language, and write a few articles for a newspaper. And that will probably be sufficiently fulfilling for one more decade of life.

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Meenakshi was born to South Indian royalty who were desperate for a baby. After both petitions and rituals, Shiva granted them a child, an incarnation of his wife Parvati. But Meenakshi was not a normal girl. She had enormous fish eyes and a third breast. Her father, the king, lamented that she would never find a husband. She was raised a fearless fighter. She was exceedingly brave and waged many wars to conquer nations. But she still had one part of the world to conquer: Mt. Kailash where Siva himself ruled. Without fear she led her troops to face the god who dissolves all things, but when she laid her eyes upon him, her third breast disappeared, and she humbly lowered her eyes.

Meenakshi is the story of the great power of shakti, or female energy that permeates the world. But many commentators also note that this story functions to subdue this fierce goddess and domesticate her by submitting her to Shiva. Her third breast is often interpreted in academic circles as a penis, and her androgyny is reconfigured by the end of the story into a peaceful Mother-goddess and faithful spouse.

The story can also be interpreted as the endless tantric repairing of Shiva and his Shakti. Meenakshi is Parvati is Shakti. She is sent by Shiva as an incarnation of Parvati, (and also as an androgynous unification of Shiva/Parviti as woman-with-third-breast), to be then reunited to Shiva in the endless dance of sexual energy which creates, dissolves, and recreates the world.

And when you are in a fiercely feminist woman in love, Meenakshi also becomes the story of a goddess who compromises: a deity who relinquishes some of her individual ferociousness to become part of a passionate partnership. She completes one part of her life cycle to join another and funnels her energy into another realm.

I’ve been toying with using Bjork’s Unison in my Canadian wedding ceremony. My best friend is a PhD candidate/musician, and we plan on playing with the song to use as a potential recessional. It truly encapsulates the spirit of my new view on Meenakshi. “I can obey all your rules and still be.”

One hand
loves the other
so much on me

Born stubborn, me
will always be
before you count 123
I will have grown my own private branch
of this tree

You : gardener
You : discipliner
I can obey all of your rules
and still be : be

I never thought I would compromise
I never thought I would compromise
I never thought I would compromise

Let’s unite tonight
we shouldn’t fight
embrace you tight
let’s unite tonight

I thrive best
hermit style
with a beard and a pipe
and a parrot on each side
but now I can’t do this without you

I never thought I would compromise
I never thought I would compromise
I never thought I would compromise

Let’s unite tonight
we shouldn’t fight
embrace you tight
let’s unite tonight

One hand
loves the other
so much on me

Let’s unite tonight
we shouldn’t fight
embrace you tight
let’s unite tonight

Let’s unite tonight
we shouldn’t fight
embrace you tight


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