Hard work, laughter, keep feminist magazine alive

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Hard work, laughter, keep feminist magazine alive

Publishers say it's a miracle. In the outrageously competitive local magazine market, few would have predicted the survival of the feminist quarterly, If, let alone its success. Such a concept was simply too radical for most publishers in Korea.

But for Park Mi-ra and Kwon Hyuk-ran, the editors and the publishers of If magazine, there was nothing radical about it, just hard work. They spent five years working out of grungy motel rooms, grinding out each 300-page issue, before renting the current Jongno offices.

"We were repeatedly asked, 'Are we in a position to laugh?'" says Ms. Park Mi-ra. In such a patriarchal society, many think that such serious issues should be tackled seriously. But Ms. Park thinks it is important to laugh, "especially when we are put in turbulent situations."

Ms. Park says their journal has been continually assailed by mainstream intellectuals, people with no goodwill for anything that calls itself feminist. Some expressed contempt for the publication's ribald motto "Laugh, Swap and Party" and accused the If editors of being bourgeois feminists -- devastating criticism indeed. Literary critics suggested that the magazine should focus more on issues concerning indigent women, and runs issues that are serious and urgent.

Perhaps the most recent controversy generated by the leftist writer Kim Gyu-hang, who titled a column "Those Bitches and Bastards," paralleling the If contributors with indolent intellectuals, is a sign of how most people feel. In the article, Mr. Kim made direct accusations that the If editors along with a few other mainstream feminists have brought a false awareness of feminism to Korea. The incident led to a debate and triggered heated discussions on Internet sites and in literary magazines.

"There were moments when we expected we'd be beaten with swords," Ms. Park says.

"Some people criticize that our photos of the contributors are too pretty," Ms. Kwon says. "They ask why we let women who are smart and pretty talk about feminism. It's an odd contrast in relation to how most women express admiration for good-looking male intellectuals. That fact itself is very sexist."

The Kim Gyu-hang scandal wasn't an uncommon incident. Ms. Park says many leftist intellectuals in the past have attacked feminist educators for being too bourgeois, and for fighting for selfish rights. There were loud, bitter murmurings that these women aren't approaching women's issues from a humanist point of view, until If's contributor Kim Mi-kyung responded.

"Who said that bourgeois women can't become feminists?," she wrote. "If a wealthy housewife is battered at home, does that mean we can ignore her just because she is bourgeois?" Kim Gu-hyang responded with silence.

For the first time, If began to openly discuss the works by popular male intellectuals through the eyes of women, based on the popular feminist mantra that being personal is being political. But aside from the critical writings, the magazine also featured interviews with notable international feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Barbara Hammer.

An eclectic range of independent volumes have also been published, including Alice Schwarzer's "The Little Difference," a cookbook of homemade recipes written to her son in-law. The Anti-Miss Korea Festival, perhaps If's most influential event, eventually led the three major Korean broadcasters to stop showing the Miss Korea beauty pageant. Another major target of the magazine, hojuje -- the family registry system that forbids mothers from being recognized family heads or heirs to property -- is expected to end in 2007 according to the Ministry of Gender Equality.

"Sometimes maintaining an aggressive tone helps," Ms. Park says. "It helps us to escape from the victims' mentality."

Some readers still find the magazine a challenge to read, which is one of the reasons why the book makes a conscious effort to have a humorous flavor.

"In theory, feminism has reached a very sophisticated level in Korea," Ms. Park says. "But the practical gap is too big. The class issue between those people who are exposed to feminism and those who are not is so wide. There is such a wide gap between theory and practice."

by Park Soo-mee

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