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Attacking the Traditions of Marriage
By Mike Weisbart
Korea Times Columnist
Victoria, British Columbia _ Wasn’t that a nice thing the Korean Supreme Court said the other day? In a state of heightened enlightenment, it announced that men and women were equal in marriage, noting in effect that contemporary Korean society treats men and women equally in general so why shouldn’t they be treated equally in the institution of marriage and under the family tree?
You might find their conclusion _ that men and women are equal marital partners (just in case it needed to be spelled out for any shocked readers out there) _ to be self-evident, but lower courts had ruled precisely the opposite. Initial rulings had it that women were mostly equal but not when it comes to receiving a share of the proceeds from the estate of a deceased parent. Confucianism being what it is, the oldest son has always had the ``responsibility’’ of divvying up the family treasure and, if he decided to cut some family member out, well, that was his prerogative.
Supporters of the lower court rulings, irrespective of the legal issues, likely asked themselves why that member of the family would need the money if the husband is prepared to take care of her. In the end, the new ruling swept those rulings aside.
Koreans might be interested to know that Canadian high courts have also been busy attacking some of the more old-fashioned traditions of marriage. Last year, one provincial Supreme Court ruled in a case brought before it that to not allow gay couples to marry and enjoy the same status and benefits as straight couples is discrimination. Again, just in case it needs to be spelled out, the court said that homosexual men and women should have equal rights as heterosexual men and women.
The court’s landmark decision led to a prolonged period of public debate and discussion over the issue. Politicians faced a relatively simple yet potentially painful political choice. They could have overridden the court’s ruling, invoking a controversial clause in the constitution that would have simply put aside having to deal with the gay marriage issue for another five years, or they could risk opprobrium at the ballot box by agreeing with the court and adopting a new law to legalize gay marriage.
First of all, no federal parliament has ever used that power to disagree with the courts before (the province of Quebec uses it routinely to keep people from using English. Hard to believe, right?). Second, polls show a majority of Canadians to be in favor of same-sex marriage. In the end, members of Parliament were allowed to break from their party policies and vote freely, with the result being a majority in favor of extending equality to homosexuals.
In addition to Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain also allow gay marriage.
A good slice of the population remains vocally opposed. Most of those people are caught up in religious dogma (the Vatican labeled Canada’s decision as ``a distortion of God’s plan for the family’’) or its increasingly quaint perspectives on marriage, but they are nonetheless entitled to their opinion, which was heard and rejected by a majority of lawmakers.
The dissenters are not unlike the Korean Confucian scholar who, when asked to comment about the Korean Supreme Court’s decision last week, opined that making women equal in marriage will make everyone confused. Obviously the poor man is caught in a bit of a time warp. Then again, look at it from his side. Before the court’s decision, everyone knew that women were subordinated to the husband’s family upon going over to his side. Now who’s going to make dinner?
Traditionalists can take heart, though, because no court decision advancing gender equality in Korea will actually do so quickly. The case decided on by the court last week involved 35 billion won in the late father’s estate, meaning that the litigants had enough money to access the legal system and protect their interests. For most families, however, disputes over the father’s fortune will continue to be fought out over the rice table well into the foreseeable future.
In Canada, by contrast, there will be no such delay. Long before the new legislation was voted on, gay couples had been taking advantage of the court decisions to get hitched. They’d even been driving up from the United States to take their vows. Indeed, just before my wife and I got married last year in Toronto, we met with our wedding commissioner to go over the details. After our meeting, she cheerfully got into her car and headed off to officiate a wedding for two lesbian Americans.