20 Minutes with Julia Kobrik

About the challenges of feminism, her hometown and the advantages of being a journalist

The debate about feminism is on fire. Since #metoo in 2017, a wave of discussions has occurred through media all over the world. Women open up about the daily struggles of sexism, sexual harassment, and rape. The term feminism nearly lost its bitter aftertaste and has reached the middle of our society being printed on Dior and H&M T-shirts.

Julia Korbik, writer and journalist, who grew up in the Western part of Germany, to be more specific in Ruhrgebiet, and lives in Berlin, already dealt with feminisim before it was mainstream. Her debut “Stand up – Feminismus für alle” is like a guide through the paradise of feminism and should have a place in everyone's bookshelf. It not only clarifies the complex terminology of gender studies but also introduces you to many amazing women who contributed to female empowerment.
Moreover, in the biography "Oh Simone", Julia Korbik illustrates an accurate picture of French feminist and existentialist Simone de Beauvoir.
Her work explains the necessity to educate ourselves about feminism, intersectionality, and gender. We talked about the writer's new edition of "Stand up – Feminismus für alle", the current challenges for feminism, the love for her hometown and France, and the advantages of being a journalist.

Helena Elverfeldt: Last year you published a new edition of “Stand up – Feminismus für alle”. Why was it important to you to rewrite it? What has changed for feminism in the past six years?
Julia Korbik: When Stand up was first published in 2014, feminism was still a dirty word. It wasn’t something people wanted to be associated with. There was no #metoo and Beyoncé hadn’t yet publicly proclaimed that she’s a feminist. So my aim was to write an entertaining introduction to feminism for people who didn’t know what it was. Who had prejudices or thought it was no longer needed. Today, six years later, the conversation about feminism has changed completely. Feminism has become “mainstream” in the sense that it is no longer a niche topic – it is very present in the media and in social discussions. For me, it was important to rewrite Stand up to acknowledge this development. I wrote a new foreword, I did new interviews with feminists and new portraits of inspiring people. There are so many interesting and different voices in feminism right now and for me, it was the opportunity to introduce them. Before my publishing team and I decided to publish a new and completely revised edition of the book, I honestly asked myself: Does the world still need Stand up when there are so many great books on feminism today? But in the end, I felt that Stand up still had something to say and to offer. My aim with Stand up was and remains to invite people to discover what feminism is, what it wants and why it is still needed.

"In the end, feminism is not only about empowering women: it is about power, about gender in general and about the intersection of different forms of discrimination."

HE: Many people argue that feminism is not needed in our society today, because women already have the same rights as men. What is the biggest challenge for feminism today?
Julia Korbik: Apart from the fact that there is still a lot of gender inequality, for me the biggest challenge is that because feminism has somehow become “mainstream” and is more publicly discussed than a few years ago, many people now think that this is already enough. Or even too much. As if the mere act of talking about gender inequality would somehow solve the problem. The fact that feminism has become a marketing tool makes things even more complicated: Toothbrushes are suddenly meant to empower us! The American journalist Andi Zeisler calls this “empowertizement”. Honestly, if you’d told me a few years ago that this would happen to feminism, I would have laughed. The question is: If everything, from toothpaste to t-shirts, is feminist, what exactly is feminism then? For me, it is, therefore, important to keep on filling the term “feminism” with meaning, to explain what it stands for – and whatnot. And to point out the numerous gender inequalities which are still very much existent. In the end, feminism is not only about empowering women: it is about power, about gender in general and about the intersection of different forms of discrimination.

HE: Why do solutions against the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, for example the “women’s quota”, still gather so much criticism?
Julia Korbik: Because they seem to favour women and to discriminate men. Many people also think that with quotas unqualified women will be put in positions they do not deserve. But the fact is that the system as it is, disproportionately favours men and discriminates women and this is not going to change without quotas. It has been very clearly shown that companies won’t voluntarily increase the number of women in leadership positions. Optional quotas don’t work, because there are no sanctions. As for the claim that with a quota women will get jobs they’re unqualified for: Firstly, there are a lot of men in jobs they’re not qualified for but they got these jobs because they are men; secondly, it is still about finding the best person for a position. Even with a quota, women wouldn’t get certain jobs because they are women, but because they are qualified. Also, often companies will promote one woman and then present this as a huge success and proof that they’re really progressive. But in order for things to change effectively, a critical mass of women is needed, at least 30 percent. One single woman will always be seen as representative for all women, whereas this expectation isn’t applied to several women.

HE: Instagram often distorts reality by promoting “ideal female bodies” and facilitates body shaming. On the other side, for the women’s day millions of people posted pictures and quotes on social media to celebrate women. Do you think feminism benefits from social media?
Julia Korbik: Definitely. Social media is a tricky thing: it can reinforce feelings of inadequacy, of not being enough, of always comparing yourself to others. But it can also be a great tool for promoting feminist issues, as #metoo and many other campaigns, which originated on social media, show. Social media also allows people to find their feminist tribe: it’s not always easy to find people with whom to discuss feminist issues or maybe even plan collective actions where you live. Social media also allows for more diversity in the feminist discourse, which is sadly not always the case in the so-called “real life”. It’s getting better, but in general, the voices of, for example, women of colour or transgender people still don’t get enough attention and their concerns are not sufficiently taken into account.

HE: Could you recommend any literature, movies, podcasts about feminism?
Julia Korbik: For me, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing was an important book and also Memories of a dutiful daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. The latter is not really about feminism, but about a young woman finding her place in the world. Another book I devoured is Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, a collection of essays. And, of course, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando about a queer time traveler.
One of my favourite feminist films is by Agnès Varda: One sings, the other doesn’t. It’s about two women in the 1970s France who find themselves in very different situations and participate, also very differently, in the French women’s movement. Another one is the hilarious All I wanna do with a young Kirsten Dunst: It’s set in the 1960s and deals with a preparatory school for girls and how the girls are fighting against their school being merged with a boy’s school. As for podcasts, I love The Guilty Feminist, Call Your Girlfriend,Lila Podcast (in German), Feuer & Brot(in German) andLa Poudre (in French).

HE: You grew up in the Ruhrgebiet and then moved to Berlin. What do you like and dislike about Berlin and what do you miss about your old hometown?
Julia Korbik: I left my home region directly after graduation to study in France, and then, at the beginning of 2012, I moved to Berlin. To be honest: I never wanted to live in Berlin. I thought I would just do an internship here and then leave. Then I got offered a job at a magazine and it made sense to stay. But it took me a really long time to feel at home in Berlin – I never got the hype about Berlin being the coolest city in Europe. Maybe because I came here to work and I was primarily concerned about my professional future and earning enough money to be able to pay my rent. Also, I always thought that I would move back to France one day. So I was always struggling with my desire to leave and my desire to stay because I do have a lot of friends and a network here.
Then, a few years ago, suddenly everything fell into place and from one day to the next I was head over heels in love with Berlin. I can’t even remember where this realization came from! I love how big and multifaceted the city is, how you can always discover something new here, something new to eat, watch, experience. In general, Berlin was great for me: it allowed me to grow, to challenge myself. I’m happy that, after struggling for years, I can now wholeheartedly say: At the moment, I want to live nowhere else, this is my home.

Still, I miss my family, and most of all my sister – she’s my favourite person in the world. My family still lives in and around my hometown, Herne, and I try to see them as much as possible. Also, two of my best friends from school live there, too. I feel very connected to my home region which is funny because when I was younger, I just wanted to get far far away from there! But in Herne, it feels as if there are still so many possibilities, especially in the cultural scene. In Berlin, it sometimes seems as if everything has already been done. People in Herne have to be creative because there is basically no money and no space for cultural projects. What I love about my home region is that people there are very welcoming and open and they always want to tell you how great it is to live there! I think that’s also because they have a little inferiority complex, as the Ruhr area is still considered to be this ugly, dirty thing. Berlin inspires me, but if I want to regain my strength and ground myself, I spend time in my hometown.


"All in all, France was such an important experience for me and I truly feel that I have a German mind, a French heart and a European soul."

HE: During your studies in Communication and European Studies you lived in France for a while. What did you keep from this experience, the French culture and could you imagine yourself moving there again?
Julia Korbik: I was always very francophile: I started learning the language at primary school – well, if you can call singing chansons “learning”! I first went to France when I was around 11, as part of an exchange program with another school. Later, I did another exchange, this time with a school in Lille, and I immediately loved this city. By chance, I discovered that you could do a French-German double-diploma in Lille and Münster and I applied. Nobody was more surprised than me when I got accepted – the selection process was quite intimidating.

Going to Lille right after leaving school was the best decision I’ve ever made. I really wanted a fresh start, a challenge – as a child and teenager I wasn’t very keen on challenges, I hardly ever left my comfort zone. My first year in France was hard, I felt stupid and overwhelmed. But I persisted. My time in France showed me that I was stronger and more resilient than I thought I was. And it also confirmed that I love France, I love the language, I love the culture. It’s where I’ve kind of always gotten inspiration from, without having a romanticized idea of France and French people – I know them too well for that. I try to go to France at least once a year, to catch up with friends there and to get inspired.

All in all, France was such an important experience for me and I truly feel that I have a German mind, a French heart and a European soul. I’m an ardent defender of a united Europe and of the European Union, despite its many flaws. Since my time in France, I have always worked in different projects with people from all over Europe and this exchange and trans-border cooperation really inspires and stimulates me.

HE: Gender role behaviour (including female and male roles) and inequality start already with early childhood education. What do you think is important to teach young girls and boys these days?
Julia Korbik: I must confess that this question is a really difficult one for me. I myself don’t have children, but a lot of my friends are parents and I see how tough it can be for them to bring up their kids without pressuring them to conform to certain gender norms – while the media and children’s toys manufacturers tell children that girls like pink and boys like blue and that’s normal and good.

I think it is important to teach children that they can be whoever they want to be and that they should always question people who declare that they shouldn’t do something because they’re a girl or a boy. It’s crucial to show them that they’re first and foremost individuals, and are therefore not solely defined by their sex or gender.

HE: What do you enjoy most about working as a writer and journalist?
Julia Korbik: I always wanted to write, so the writing part is still what I’m enjoying most. Writing books allows me to really immerse myself in a subject, to read a lot and to craft a narrative. It’s nice to have several months to write, which feels like a luxury and, at the same time, always too short. What I enjoy most about being a journalist is meeting people, being curious and asking questions. I’m always amazed by the people out there and what they are doing. I feel really lucky that I can combine writing books and therefore spending a lot of time alone in front of my laptop with journalistic work and the encounters and conversations it involves. Writing allows me to stay curious, to always discover new topics and people. It’s through writing that I understand myself and make sense of the world – sometimes I don’t know what I think before I haven’t started writing about it.

"Like a lot of freelancers I struggle with this idea that I always have to be productive – allowing myself room for just being and trying things out is therefore very important to me."

HE: Personal leeway (=Freiraum) – what does it mean for you and where can you find it?
Julia Korbik: For me, it means being myself, but at the same time getting away from myself a bit. I tend to worry a lot, to question myself and what I’m doing. So personal leeway for me means having the time and space to enjoy myself and at once to forget about myself. Reading is my favourite way to do this, as I enjoy nothing more and I can completely and happily forget myself in between the pages. The other way for me to get personal leeway is to go for a walk: I love walking around Berlin and listening to a podcast or music while doing so. Like a lot of freelancers I struggle with this idea that I always have to be productive – allowing myself room for just being and trying things out is therefore very important to me.

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