By B. Zarzur
In the 1960s, the traditional role for women consisted of staying at home, looking after the kids, and making sure dinner was served once their husbands arrived from work. The same cannot be said for the women of Jeju, known as the haenyeo. These women supported their families by diving for edible sea treasures such as seaweed, abalone, sea urchins, reaching depths of almost 20 meters without an oxygen tank. Seen as icons in the Jeju island of south Korea, the haenyeo challenged the current patriarchal values present in society, and often went to extreme extents to provide for their families.
The island of Jeju in south Korea, is home to most, if not all, sea women. Currently known as a fishing town, the island provides a variety of traditional Korean dishes, such as raw whitefish, kimchi and fish stew. Also historically known for tourism, Jeju Island attracts foreigners with its distinct culture, and paradisical views.
Becoming a true haenyeo is not an easy process, and one must follow a strict hierarchy. If a women’s relatives are not haenyeo, she must earn the ‘yes vote’ from every woman in the community in order to be able to dive with them. Six-hour dives in cold waters with no oxygen tanks is no simple task. According to Kang Younghee, a native and experienced haenyeo, it takes around five years for women to become good at the practice. Despite managing to retrieve many products, according to a native haenyeo, Ji-ae Chae, they made around only $17 per day. One must also adapt to the traditions of the diving community. Before dives, songs and prayers are sent to the goddess of the sea, Jamsugut to guarantee safety and a plentiful catch.
Today, almost 40 years later, the number of ‘sea women’ on the island of Jeju has drastically decreased. There are many factors that might have contributed to this change; perhaps the war in Korea, climate change, or simply disinterest in the tradition. The only certainty is that although the number of haenyeo decreased, the interest for their traditions and lifestyle has only increased. The government of Jeju has committed to protect the community and spent over 6 million on preservative measures for the haenyeo A museum in honor of the sea women, Haenyeo museum, was founded in 2006, and since attracted many tourists.
“The Female Free Divers of Jeju.” Roads & Kingdoms, 30 Apr. 2018, https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2017/the-female-free-divers-of-jeju/.
“Culture of Jeju Haenyeo (Women Divers).” UNESCO, https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/culture-of-jeju-haenyeo-women-divers-01068.
“The island of Sea women: A Novel”, Lisa See, March 2019