International Women’s Day, beyond the date itself, is an opportunity for us to commit to the advancement of gender equality within today’s society. Therefore, with this article we want to pay tribute to you, woman.
«Obtained thanks to Heaven, consumed on land» says a common Korean saying among the haenyeo, to which one could add «and collected in the sea» to make it more descriptive with its unique craft, but who are they? Called by UNESCO “legendary divers of the island of Jeju” and declared as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, for centuries, these women have dived in apnea by abalone, hedgehog, octopus and other products of the sea, to provide for their families and peoples.
The vast majority are elderly women who have developed for years the skills necessary to dive up to 10 meters under the sea and collect these shellfish only with the most essential tools, all this even in 7-hour days where they enter and leave the sea protecting the harvest.
This craft is taught between family generations from an early age and a woman can be a haenyeo once they are of legal age and have knowledge about the crops, breathing techniques or traditional customs of the women of the sea. When these women first start practicing the craft they are known as Hagun, over time they will develop techniques and skills, in addition to gaining a new role. Hagun can dive from 3 to 5 meters, but when they have more expertise in the area they can be considered Jaggun being able to dive and get faggots to a depth greater than 5 meters. While Daessangun are the few women who have decades of experience and can dive to over 10 meters, they are the most experienced and advise others.
Their traditional diving technique in apnea is called muljil, this technique is developed through extensive training and experience. Haenyeo learn to swim and dive in shallow water at age 8. The divers manage to master this technique considered “superhuman” after long periods of work on the sea. A very curious fact is that they can only perform these tasks if they manage to control the immersion time autonomously, detect the accuracy of the water and calculate the amount of oxygen they have left and the distance that separates them from the surface.
The haenyeo of Jeju do not see nature as a simple set of objects to collect but have transmitted the various ways of coexisting from generation to generation preserving the natural environment and are a notable phenomenon in a Confucian society based on the male patriarchy. The traditional techniques of these divers contribute not only to enhancing the female status of the island population, but also to preserving the marine environment.
As this article points out, International Women’s Day beyond being a particular day is a step towards recognizing the contributions of women in our work and making gender equality a matter for all.
Edited by: Mónica Pinzón