The novel, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, illustrates the struggle of an ordinary Korean woman, Jiyoung, to prove her worth in a surrounding that insists on putting a feather in men’s cap, even when they do not deserve it. She is a reflection of all those women who leave their jobs and careers because of marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare or for the education of young children. Cho Nam-Joo had written this fiction to bring on the table issues that had long been sneaked under the carpet because women were taken for granted. She achieved her mission. When Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was published in 2016, it generated criticism and praise of equal proportion. One of the endorsements was the handing out of the novel to the President of Korea, Moon Jae-in, from a politician, with the left-wing Justice Party. He implored the President to have a look at Jiyoung’s struggle and set aside additional money for childcare in the upcoming budget. Seoul’s mayor also promised “there would be no more sorrows for Kim Jiyoung”.
Jiyoung quit her job to look after her children. It means two things: one the society does not support working women. Two, the workplace does not provide basic infrastructure to facilitate child-rearing.
Let us explore how this relates to working women in Pakistan.
We begin by recalling two important legislations. One was enacted in 2010 as “The Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act-2010”. The Punjab Assembly passed the second law in 2013 as “The Punjab Shops and Establishment (Amendment) Act 2013”. The former law obligates organisations to ensure that women are not harassed at the workplace either by sexually demeaning attitude or by compelling them to work in an environment that is hostile, offensive and intimidating. Initially, this act addressed only the “employer-employee” relationship in a typical setting of an office, organisation, shop, factory, etc. Later, the Lahore High Court’s (LHC) landmark judgment, on June 3, 2019, in a sexual harassment case of a university, extended the ambit of the law to include women who enter the workforce as self-employed individuals and those hired on contract. In both situations, a woman who faces harassment is entitled to be heard of, and her concerns addressed through a robust and responsive complaint management system. Therefore, each organisation is legally responsible for constituting an inquiry committee to hear harassment cases. The aggrieved women can also take their cases to ombudspersons Punjab.
As for the second law, it binds an organisation to provide a day-care centre where children below the age of six are taken care of while their mothers work. To facilitate the establishment of day-care centres, the Women Development Department of Punjab also gives financial assistance under the Punjab Day Care Funds Society.
Notwithstanding the legislative value of these laws, their manifestation on ground is negligible. No one is serious about implementing the laws in letter and spirit. Even those for whom the laws are made — women — are not prepared to push boundaries. The dearth of employment opportunities, the fear of losing jobs and being stigmatised, and lack of coordination among women at the workplace have reinforced women’s subordination at the workplace.
Women in Pakistan have to bear pervasive sexism throughout their lives. The common refrain is to belittle a woman and make her feel inferior. If age and white hair on the temples fetch men reverence, similar attributes are twisted and scoffed at in case of women. For her to be needy is more relevant than being ambitious. A career woman, irrespective of her financial position, finds an equal measure of resistance form her male counterparts. Our society is rife with the likes of Kim Jiyoung(s). Women who leave their careers to raise children and sulk every moment of their lives on seeing their talent wasted because the system refuses to acknowledge their contribution. For women who cannot leave their jobs, either because they are serious about their career (and are rightly called ambitious) or because of financial constraints, raise children who lack parental care/attention resulting at times in serious health and personality hazards.
Cho’s personal experiences pushed her to pen Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982. Like most Pakistani women, Cho and her female colleagues were denied, during their jobs, choice assignments, which were given to less competent but higher-paid men. When married and in the family way she was the one to stay home since her husband could make enough money. Money, unfortunately, is the only scale on which women’s ambitions, aspirations and desire to make a mark are calibrated. If the scale tips in favour of her husband, she is expected to give in. If it tips in her favour, even then she is expected to give in — this time because of her right to be with her children at the workplace or her right to not be harassed by her male counterpart.
The #Metoomovement was precisely about the context in which a woman is viewed as inherently vulnerable and dependent on men for her advancement. Since the start of the #Metoomovement in the United States, innumerable women from across the world have come forward to tell their side of the story: about the forceful intrusion of men in their lives, affecting their performance at work.
Not surprisingly though, Cho’s novel generated a backlash among men who opposed her feminist message.
This is Korea, an extremely wealthy and modern country. If women from Korea can experience despair, exhaustion and fear, one can well imagine the condition of a woman from a less developed country like ours.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2020.