“Haenyo – The Indomitable Diving Grandmas of Jeju Island”
They call themselves haenyo (pronounced hen-yuh), which literally means sea women and the whistling sound they made preceding their exit from the depths is called sumbisori. They are representative of a centuries old tradition, one which transformed their island in to a functioning matriarchy but a way of life which today is in danger of disappearing forever.
The island of Jeju, 53 miles south of mainland Korea, lies at the watery crossroads of the Yellow and East China Seas. Diving for conch, octopus, urchin, and abalone had always taken place there but due to large taxes was never very profitable – something men would take up if there was no alternative. That was until a canny group of women in the 18th century realized that women did not, unlike their men folk, have to pay taxes. A loophole was about to become a living.
The haenyo (sometimes spelled haenyeo) do not use oxygen tanks, which would only weigh them down and make their difficult task even harder. Their black wet suits and goggles are all they need to descend to the sea floor to collect their bounty. The skills they possess serve them well now – and did so too under the Japanese occupation of the Second World War. Many haenyo became heroines of the Korean resistance movement.
Learn more about these awesome women over at Kuriositas!
[via The Presurfer]
[tw mentions of brutal state violence and sexual violence]
notes: i use south korea and “ROK” (republic of korea) interchangeably. i also use north korea and “DPRK” (democratic people’s republic of korea) interchangeably.
if you’re going to reblog something about the haenyo, then PLEASE read about how jeju island, home to the haenyo, fierce and peaceful villagers, and so much ecological beauty is in danger of being turned into just another strategic location for the US military. the US military and the south korean government want to construct a naval base on the village of gangjeong, which is “surrounded by three UNESCO World Natural Heritage sites and nine UNESCO Geo-Parks on an island that is designated a Global Biosphere Reserve. Construction is accelerating daily with the dredging of the island’s seabed and its coral communities currently underway. Many observers of the region believe that the Jeju Island naval base will serve as a port of call for the U.S. military’s sea-based component of its ballistic missile defense system.” (savejejuisland.org) the militarization of jeju island (an extension of US imperialism and the US/ROK war machine) is supposed to be to “defend” against DPRK. it won’t, if only for the fact that the destroyers that are planned to be stationed there aren’t even designed to defend against DPRK’s missiles.
jeju islanders haven’t just fought against japanese colonialism, but have also struggled against different imperial forces as well as the south korean government (which, of course, HAS ALWAYS BEEN an extension of the US empire). in 1948, the people of jeju island rose up to refuse the blatantly skewed and corrupted election that brought syngman rhee, a korean american US puppet, into power. upon taking the presidency, rhee (with the backing of the US and UN) massacred about 30,000 people (others estimate between that and 60,000), killing at least ten percent of the island’s population and razing about 70% of the villages on the island to the ground. the sexual violence and prolonged gang rapes committed at that time were horrific. of course, this was to “suppress communism.” few years later during the korean war, jeju island was still repressed and also used as a site to detain communists. this history, which is still pretty recent, serves as an important background (or at least i think it does) for thinking through what’s happening in jeju and in korea. especially because the same types of people have pretty much continued to be in power. current president lee myung bak follows the exact traditions of all the shitty oppressive exploitative korean leaders before him. militarism, anti-communism, love for US imperialism, political repression, police state tactics, neoliberalism and capitalism, same shit different time.
it’s disgusting and appalling that after what the south korean and US governments put jeju island through, traumatizing generations of the indigenous people, they’re pushing ahead to build a naval base on gangjeong village, destroying the environment, completely disregarding the votes and wishes of the people, arresting protesters, and censoring the media. the ongoing construction of a naval base on jeju island, along with the recently (illegally) passed KOR-US FTA (which was passed in FOUR MINUTES in a sealed chamber amidst huge demonstrations), demonstrate the continuing unity between US imperialists and the south korean ruling class in fucking over the rest of korea (north AND south). this has been the case even during the days of japanese colonialism (see: taft-katsura act and how the elite korean collaborators/officials installed by the colonizers were kept in power by US forces post-“liberation”).
this is all relevant to the article i’m reblogging because 1) the haenyo live in jeju, 2) the pollution that would come from the naval base would destroy the environment that haenyo need to fish in, and 3) the struggles that jeju islanders continue to experience are results and projects of imperialism.
i also take issue with how this article exoticizes haenyo and their “way of life,” as if they didn’t also experience misogyny and oppression. being a haenyo is some fuckin grueling work. does being a woman diver actually mean that these women have institutional or economic power equal to or over men? it is some bullshit white feminism to assert that haenyo doing some hard physical labor is indicative of “equality.” and while it is sad to see that such a long-standing tradition seems to be fading, i think it’s being heavily romanticized in the way that most articles about haenyo just make me feel uncomfortable.
a recent survey taken in gangjeong indicated that “50 percent of haenyo were suicidal and 70 percent are extremely psychologically stressed.” how you gonna romanticize that? and back to the military base: haenyo were bribed by government and naval officials to support the construction of the naval base, promised economic compensation and a hospital for elderly haenyo. and that indicates something more sinister at play than a benign passage of time. an elderly haenyo said that “if there was no money, they would all protest the base,” as the haenyo of hwasoom and wimi also did. if we are to be so concerned about the continuation of haenyo tradition, then i think it’s important to examine what these women are experiencing economically and why. apparently, the money they were bribed with was what they could make in one year. (Naval Base Tears Apart Korean Village)
the construction of this naval base is tearing apart a community. haenyos who have dived together for the past forty years are divided and fighting with each other bitterly. (Naval Base Tears Apart Korean Village). the destruction wouldn’t simply stop at the construction of the base, either—US military presence and “US interests” in general (which always comes w/ sexual violence and rape) in korea have always been especially devastating for women and girls. and the environment that so many jeju islanders and haenyo rely on would be damaged irreparably.
i think it’s extremely irresponsible to circulate and exoticize images of haenyo (even if they are incredibly beautiful) without taking stock of what is happening in jeju right now, and what is threatening haenyo’s livelihoods in a very immediate way aside from this depoliticized trope that is more about old ways slowly becoming obsolete THAN about thinking through WHY certain ways of living become less and less feasible with time (here are some clues: imperialism, globalization, capitalism, militarization, which all have to do with gender violence as well). the OP was apparently written just five days ago. what i wanna know is, how the FUCK do you write about haenyo and include such beautiful photography of them and jeju island without even fucking mentioning that all of that is in danger? are you shitting me???? UGH. okay i’m done.
you can read up more on SAVEJEJUISLAND.ORG and KPOLICY.ORG, on the current status of the struggle and what you can do to support jeju. sorry if this is really sloppy writing but i wanted to respond to this somehow while i still had energy to write. :\
This photoset is making the rounds again. Please read miswritten’s commentary. It is important.
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