Religious Women in the Transnational Era

By Gowoon Jung

How do individuals adapt to a changing multicultural society and negotiate the tensions and contradictions of macro-social transition? I pose this question within the context of South Korea (hereafter Korea) and focus attention on emerging, transnationally mobile and religiously conservative young women. The two religious organizations that have allowed me to have an insight into the way women adapt are the World Vision Church (an evangelical Protestant Church) and the Unification Church. Being in the field and talking to people in these churches for seven months meant I could experience how Asian societies are becoming ethnically and culturally more plural.GNS_GowoonJung

After an official preaching at 12:30 pm at World Vision Church in Seoul, ten new visitors gathered to introduce themselves in a large hall. One Korean woman, Sunhee Yang, had lived in New Jersey for five years and came to the church upon her arrival in Seoul. She had heard about the Vision vice-pastor Kim’s leadership from her church friends in New Jersey. Another woman, Nari, who had worked on Wall Street for more than six years, also visited the church. The stories of Sunhee and Nari exemplify those of many Korean Evangelical Protestant women who have travelled overseas for advanced education or careers.

These stories of transnational lives similarly appeared among women in Unification church. In a large cafeteria in the Yongsan Unification center in Seoul, several women who are Indonesian, American, and Korean were paying attention to the presentation of Nowrouz, an ancient Iranian celebration, spoken by an Iranian woman. Kate, an Indonesian woman who married a British man and settled in Korea with her four children, was helping to set up the presentation. Hajeong, a Japanese Korean with a Japanese mother and Korean father, was also listening. She recently resettled in Korea after several years work experience in Indonesia. While these two religious groups, Evangelicals and Unification, have, despite some similarities, different religious teachings and practices, a common feature among members in both groups is their transnational experiences and associations with foreign countries and networks, and their exposure to liberal humanitarian, Western ideas.

Korea is one of the most rapidly changing societies in an increasingly diversified global world. The country is transforming into a global leader in information technology and overseas education, with more than 115,000 Koreans having studied abroad in 2015 (UNESCO 2016). Korea is also a global center of conservative and evangelical Protestantism, with the largest number of Christians in East Asia (29.3 % of the population (Pew Research Center 2011)). It is considered the most Confucianized country in the world, and collectivist-hierarchical notions of social relations and ethics permeate its entire society, including its religious institutions. Amidst this complex mix of traditions and modernity, how can traveling religious women bring harmony to conflicting values? Are transnational, religious Korean women smoothly reconciling different ideas such as liberal humanitarianism, Christian sexual morals, and Confucian-familial discourses? How do they adapt in the rapidly changing Korean society, and develop their perspectives of others?

My dissertation project tackles these complex questions about women’s identities and discourses. In particular, I examine how these women in evangelical Protestant and Unification churches talk about ethnic and sexual diversity. Women are situated in multiple positions being religious, Asian, Confucian, and mothers in a transnational environment. They make sense of the world around them in unique ways. With growing numbers of ethnic migrants and LGBT people who have become more publicly visible, society has had to think more deeply about the value of pluralism and diversity. It is not only Korea that has experienced a compressed modernity and that is currently grappling with diversity: many other Asian societies such as Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong are becoming increasingly diverse, seen though their ethnic racial groups and widening political perspectives and religious views. Diverse social environments, at their best, make people leave moral confusion, self-doubt and conflicts behind them.

Gender and religion scholars have argued that religions are seen as a resource to help women adapt to modernity. In some senses, women deal with modern life stresses and marital patriarchy by relying on religious culture and its resources. It is true that religions have had dual functions of oppression and liberation in women’s lives in the modern world. How has religion changed in the way it influences people in the postmodern, transnational era? Does religion function as a powerful source through which people can make sense of multicultural transition?  Capturing Korean women’s narratives in their variety is more complicated in increasingly fluid social environments. The findings of my project would benefit our understanding of how Asian women have adapted to and considered other minorities in a changing society. The cases of Sunhee and Hajeong shed light on how individuals adapt to macro-social transitions, illuminating the moral and identity conflicts that individuals face in a time of worldwide social change.

Gowoon Jung is a Ph.D. Candidate in the department of Sociology at SUNY Albany. Her research focuses on religious women and discourses of immigration and LGBT politics in South Korea, transnational family, educational migration and international student mobility.

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