“By the 17th century, as men went to sea to fish or row warships and never returned, diving became exclusively women’s work,” said Kang Kwon-yong, curator of the government-run Haenyeo Museum.(1) Haenyeo, literally meaning “sea women”, are female divers in the Korean province of Jeju. They are representative of the matriarchal family structure of Jeju.(2)
An 18th-century document recorded that officials flogged the women, and even their parents or husbands, when they failed to pay steep taxes in dried abalone, a prized delicacy among Korea’s elite, forcing women to dive in cold water even when pregnant.
The work has always been perilous. The women work long hours in icy water as deep as 40 feet. Old haenyeo ballads speak of “diving with a coffin on the head” or “toiling in the netherworld so our family can live in this one.” For ages, the sea women of Jeju, an island off the southern coast of South Korea, have braved the treacherous waters of the Korea Strait, even during the frigid winters. Using only flippers and goggles — no breathing equipment — they scour the sea bottom for abalone, conch and octopus. They duck under water more than 100 times a day, grabbing sea creatures barehanded or sometimes with a spear. Resurfacing a minute later, making a plaintive whistle as they exhale, they deposit their catch into a net sack tied to a float.(1)
“Haenyeo were Korea’s first working moms,” said Koh Mi, an editor at the Jeju newspaper Jemin Ilbo and a participant in a nine-year research project on the sea women. “They were a symbol of female independence and strength in Korea.”
On Mara Island, where sea products accounted for almost all sources of revenue before it became increasingly attractive as a tourist site, gender roles were entirely reversed. Often men would look after the children and go shopping while the women would bring in money for the family.
“Diving was the lifeline for the entire family,” said Ku Young-bae, 63, one of 270 sea women from Hado-ri, a cluster of villages on Jeju’s eastern shore, before swimming into the waves recently. “Men are lazy,” she said. “They can’t dive. They are weak under the sea, where it’s really life or death.”
This reversal of traditional gender roles, with women being the chief breadwinners, made the island an outlier in Korea’s patriarchal society and the evolution clashed with Korea’s Confucian culture, in which women have traditionally been treated as inferior. As a result, administrators from Seoul (unsuccessfully) tried to bar the women from diving, ostensibly because they exposed bare skin while at sea.(2)
Despite their essential role, the divers were held in low esteem by a society that frowned on women traveling outside their villages and revealing bare skin. Until full-body wet suits became available in the 1970s, they wore homemade cotton suits that showed the thigh and often shoulders.
“Jeju children did not like to admit that their mother was a haenyeo,” said Lee Sun-hwa, a female member of the Jeju Provincial Council, whose mother and grandmother were sea women. “The women always elected their men as chiefs of their villages.”(1)
But Jeju female divers enjoyed more freedom, independence, and self-respect than other women. They usually worked in groups, and during breaks, they built a fire on the beach, dried their clothes, shared some food, and chatted. Diving was also a relatively good source of income. They were not only skilled in gathering seafood, but also had great interest in various cultural and social issues. During the colonial period, they led the anti-Japanese campaign and also established cooperatives to preserve marine resources. They also worked to preserve the haenyeo culture. Haenyeos were awarded medals for their contribution during the anti-Japanese campaign, and saw the creation of a monument and a commemorative park in their honor, located in Hado-ri, Jeju-do.(3)
While it is not known when the first female divers appeared in Jeju, they are believed to predate the Common Era. Ancient shrines honoring fishermen and female divers indicate that they have been around since humans began gathering food from the sea. And divers have long been a part of Jeju Island. When the number of divers reached the market limits, some moved in search of areas with more abundant shellfish.
During the Japanese occupation, they even went as far as China, Russia, and Japan to make a living.(3)
Today, haenyeo culture is disappearing, from 26,000 sea women in the 1960s to fewer than 5,000. About 80% to 90% of the haenyeo are over the age of 60 with only seven haenyeo in their thirties. The economy on the beautiful volcanic island, which now receives millions of visitors each year, is dominated by tourism, not seafood harvesting. Recently, the UNESCO organization, which manages World Heritage Sites, declared haenyeo culture a candidate for the list of “intangible” cultural assets. A listing could help mobilize support to preserve the dwindling numbers of haenyeo, and give added prestige to the profession.(4)
To help keep the tradition alive in today’s times, the Jeju government pays for their wet suits and subsidizes their medical and accident insurance. Their government-financed shelters are now equipped with heated floors and hot-water showers.(1)
But Ms. Kim, 80, who raised five children and paid her husband’s college tuition by diving, says she will be the last haenyeo in her family.
“My only daughter doesn’t even know how to swim,” she said.(1)
1. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/world/asia/hardy-divers-in-korea-strait-sea-women-are-dwindling.html?_r=0 + Feature image