To celebrate International Women’s Day, SIWA invited students from selected international schools in two divisions, Junior and Senior, to submit essays addressing this year’s theme, #PressForProgress

Shee-Yeon Grace Park from Seoul Foreign School submitted this winning essay in the Senior Division. She was awarded a certificate at SIWA’s March Coffee Morning where she read an excerpt from her essay. In addition, 500,000 KRW will be donated to her vetted charity of choice, Soyang Rainbow Children’s Home, in Grace’s name.

In early January, I visited my grandmother’s house to celebrate the New Year. It was a festive occasion — all of my cousins, uncles, and aunts gathered for quality food and bonding time. However, as do most family meetings, the event became progressively lackadaisical, with adults dawdling and drinking in the living room and my younger cousins watching cartoons in a separate room. I, as the only adolescent that was present, belonged to neither groups, so I found myself my own space and began to flip through my nine year old cousin’s textbook from a Korean local school, partly out of boredom and partly out of curiosity.

While I didn’t expect to find anything striking in particular, I noticed an interesting trend as I perused the textbook. In general, there were more images and illustrations of boys than those of girls. What’s more, boys were generally dominant, while girls were subordinate; for instance, illustrations would show boys explaining concepts and girls attentively listening to boys speak. Out of all these questionable illustrations, one particular sketch caught my eye: a sketch of kids playing volleyball. While it seemed harmless at first glance, I noticed that all the players were boys, the coach was a man, and even the judge was a man. Girls could not be seen on the court; they were sitting in a corner with pompoms in the air, saying, “We cheer the players on so that they can gain energy and win!”

I later confronted my cousin about this and asked her if she had noticed these trends as she was reading her textbook. She replied that she hadn’t really noticed. When I tried to explain to her how sexist such illustrations could be under a certain light, she tilted her head and frowned, as if she couldn’t grasp the gravity of the issue I was addressing. She simply responded, “But boys are good at sports and girls aren’t!” I was rendered speechless — there were so many things that I yearned to correct from her response, yet I didn’t know where to start. It appeared as though her school was inadvertently preaching sexism and the kids were soaking it all in without a second thought.

After that day, I did some research and discovered that some people took my findings a step further; in 2015, it was disclosed that out of the 6,380 kids present in 16 textbooks, there were 350 more boys than girls[1]. According to Hankook Ilbo, a fourth grade social studies textbook used only women figures to display housework in images.[2] What’s more, in 2015, a booklet for sex-ed distributed by Ministry of Education claimed that “crop tops and short skirts are not safe.”[3] The more I researched, the more I felt disgusted at the nonchalance of society at these ridiculous textbooks that taught nothing but sexist stereotypes and encouraged narrow mindedness. Eventually, a cold realisation dawned on me: the root of sexism and plights faced by women lie in the education system.

In order to press for progress and put an end to all the hardships that women face in this world, the current education system must change; rather than implanting sexist ideals in the children’s head, it must encourage kids to break stereotypes and walls between men and women and challenge conventions that women are inferior. Though I only looked at Korean textbooks, I know for a fact that Korea isn’t the only country with an inherent problem in the education system. The currency of sexism in Hollywood, the frequency of derogatory slang about women in society, pre-existing notions of gender roles in high school, and the general sentiment of negativity towards feminism… The trigger to all these problems that pervade this world is the education system.

Education is the foundation of this world. It teaches more than just science, english, or maths — it delivers crucial virtues and morals that anyone entering society has to know. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. Respect your elders. Love your friends and neighbors. Love yourself. Yet, having sexist tenets taught alongside such invaluable lessons automatically places “don’t cheat” and “crop tops and short skirts are dangerous” at equal significance. It renders sexism as the norm and induces kids to accept it as a fact without resistance.

We need to start with elementary school. According to psychologist Martyn Long, “elementary education can be compared to the first stride that a person takes in life; it is impossible for people to run without first learning how they can walk.”[4] We need to ensure that this first stride heads in the direction of justice for women. At a young age, kids are more malleable; their minds change quickly and their temperaments are volatile, but this also means that their mistakes are easily corrected. We need to constantly remind kids that men and women are equal and continuously correct them when they unknowingly make sexist remarks. It will be too late to start at high school; at that point, adolescents are no longer shaped so easily; they formulate and fixate their own thoughts, views, and ideas. If such ideas hold that women were inferior to men, then society as a whole will shift to a dismal future.

Of course, this is easier said than done — this problem that has persisted for decades and across centuries cannot be amended in a day. That’s why I know that every effort for feminism counts and that I have a huge role to play in this world’s transition to a place void of unjust struggles for women.

I am a woman. I’m a proud woman, yet I always shied away from announcing myself to be a feminist or an activist to others because people tend to regard feminism with a tinge of distaste or negativity. In seventh grade, I told my friend I was a feminist, and he looked at me with both amusement and perturbation, continuing to ask with a cynical tone, “You’re a feminist?”  As if being a feminist entailed controversial values and disagreeable character. Indeed, feminists are often regarded as stubborn, argumentative, and generally unpleasant. In Korea, some call feminists “femi-choong” which literally means that feminists are insects. However, I have realized that evading discussion about feminism with others out of fears that I will get judged or be addressed as one that is not even worthy of being called a person is contributing to the challenges that women worldwide face today. Feminism is not embarrassing. Feminism tackles issues that women face and galvanises people to confront parochial viewpoints. As a woman, I will play a role in pressing for progress by becoming a feminist. I will challenge injustice towards women; I will encourage other women to step up and join this movement; I will spread feminist ideals to my immediate community, social media, and my family. Though such effort may seem futile in the face of the astronomical problems women face, I believe that slowly but surely, my actions, alongside those of other feminists, will make a difference in my community’s perception of feminism and spread this movement until fundamental change can take place. With combined effort by other feminists, I believe that I will be able to create a synergy that can instigate people to rethink their outlook on women’s lives and the struggles they go through in our world.

Many argue that the problems women go through are myths; women rights advanced immensely throughout the years. This is true — they have gained the right to vote, to work, to have political standing. But this is not enough; they were still subject to stereotypes and norms regarding gender roles that obstruct the entrance to their dreams, hopes, and aspirations. Only a combined effort by various societies across numerous countries will change this unfortunate state of affairs. By reforming the education system and how it portrays women, our world can start a transition to world that transcends walls that oppress women. A world where “mansplaining” doesn’t persist, where women don’t have to go outside at night and worry about getting raped, where women aren’t told that fostering a family and taking care of kids is their duty. We need to press for progress now, and this initiative starts with me: a feminist.

[1] 이 재은. “‘페미니즘 교육 의무화해주세요’… 교실 여혐에 선생님 발 동동.” 머니투데이 , 18 Jan. 2018, news.mt.co.kr/mtview.php?no=2018011615071269792.

[2] “‘교과서 속 성차별, 그릇된 고정관념 확대 재생산.’” 한국일보, 14 Nov. 2016, www.hankookilbo.com/m/v/f1aef0c58ad34bb392e07125c4a8cd9b.

[3] “‘배꼽티·짧은 치마는 안전하지 않아’ 성차별·편견 부추기는 왜곡된 성교육.” 경향홈페이지로 이동, 11 Aug. 2017, m.khan.co.kr/view.html?artid=201708112153005.

[4] Long, Martyn. The Psychology of Education. Routledge, 2011.