A male student, who stood under the roof of a student lounge at a university in Seoul to avoid pouring rain, was shooed away by a stern-looking female. What had he done wrong?
He had set foot in the wrong place ― an area where only women were allowed. The incident, which took place on the campus of Yonsei University in May, caused a stir when the angry student posted an account of it online.
According to him, the staffer told him that standing under the awning might make female students uncomfortable.
"Everywhere but the women's lounge is pretty much male territory," she claimed. "Male students don't need a male-only lounge since they can sleep and rest anywhere, but this is not the case for female," she added.
The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family has introduced a slew of measures to level the ground for males and females.
All people agree to some extent that women including those with children should be provided with special care. But as some of the measures put in place include absurd directives it has triggered "reverse discrimination" against men and thus worsened confrontations between members of the opposite sex.
Library seats reserved for women
A member of the rightist online community Ilbe posted a photo of a notice on the door of a public library in Guro-gu, southwestern Seoul, on Aug. 12.
It states that the library has allocated certain seats only for women after female visitors filed several complaints. Faced with the notice, a hoard of men scurried to the website and posted comments claiming that this is another form of discrimination against men.
As the controversy grew, the library removed the notice and said that it decided to scrap the original plan to allocate female-only seats.
"We first conceived of the idea, because female visitors reported cases of sexual harassment and submitted complaints several times," said an official at the library said to local media, explaining that the policy was planned with consideration of such cases.
This is not the first time that a public library has become embroiled in a dispute over gender-discrimination. Last year the one-and-only women's library in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, made headlines, when members of a male-rights activist group staged a protest, claiming that that the library breached their equal rights to use the public building.
Since it was founded in 1994, it has not allowed men to enter and does not have a bathroom for men either. After the protest, the library opened a first-floor book cafe for men, equipped with a restroom for them.
Many companies allocate rooms only for women. In these female-only lounges, women workers can relax, rest and recharge.
"The lawyers and staffers at our firm were very supportive of building a female-only lounge, including our male staff," said employees of Bae, Kim and Lee LLC, a large local law firm.
She added that people don't see it as a benefit just for women because the two genders have different needs.
Kim Ji-yon, a 23 year old university student, is also supportive of such a lounge. According to Kim, male students complain all the time that they need a male-only lounge. "They don't understand why women need a female-only lounge," she said.
She said that the lounge is needed for female students to feel protected while they rest. "You never know what could happen while you're sleeping."
Other female students say it is necessary because of menstruation.
"I experience severe cramps during my period," another student said. "Sometimes, I just have to lie down on my stomach to keep it warm. I know other students who feel exhausted during that time of the month."
Male students say that its existence is not the problem.
"Students, male or female, feeling fatigue, need some place to rest. It is only fair that male students be given a place without having to worry about disturbing others around them," he said. "People say that men can sleep anywhere at any time ― but that's only because we have nowhere else to go."
Some people question the effectiveness of a series of woman-only areas. "I see lots of parking spaces referred to as ‘pink zones' lately. But, since these are not legally designated but instead recommended, I don't mind parking there," said Park Sang-chul, a 37-year-old office worker.
The gender equality ministry introduced women-only parking spaces in 2009 and big shopping malls and marts allocated spaces for female customers accordingly. But, angry male customers ask why they have to have such places for women, while there are none for the elderly.
"Is being women a free pass to getting as much care from society as the disabled?" asked Park.
Although most "women-friendly" measures are well-intended, there are some cases that go beyond reasonable boundaries.
To name a few, there are special pink buses exclusively for female passengers. "The idea of having a safe bus ride is good. But having a bus which men are banned from, is tantamount to criminalizing all men and viewing them as potential sex criminals," said Kang Hyun-chul. "It reminds me of the old-time black-white segregation of the South Africa. It is very insulting."
Others include a female-only smoking area in Boseong, South Jeolla Province, which provides female smokers with an allocated place to smoke freely, away from the finger pointing of their male counterparts.
The hard facts still suggest that the status of Korean women lags behind those of other countries ― the World Economic Forum's global gender gap report for 2012 ranked Korea 108th out of 135 countries around the world.
Yet, some of the measures that have been introduced without being given much thought as to their implications only jeopardize the status of women.
"As more women pursue careers and succeed in these, the traditional viewpoint that regarded women as weak members of society has changed," said Kwak Geum-ju, psychology a professor at Seoul National University. "Consequently, some males now go as far as to perceive women as competitors, exacerbating confrontations between the two sexes."