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We should all – male and female – be feminists #BookReview

Chimamanda Ngozi Adhichie

In a modified version of a TEDxEuston talk that she gave in 2012, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presents a personal and articulately argued essay that explores the “not-so-popular” subject of feminism.     

When a woman is called a feminist, especially by men, it is hardly ever meant as a compliment.  The stereotypical and negative title is commonly reserved for women who: ‘are unhappy because they cannot find husbands’, ‘hate men’, ‘abhor African culture’, ‘are un-African and influenced by Western literature and media’, ‘think women should always be in charge’, ‘are always angry’, ‘detest grooming’…the list is endless, but I am sure you get the gist.

In as much as we have made significant strides in female history as a result of movements such as the Beijing Declaration and the suffragette movement (which then subsequently led to significant changes in policies and laws), the personal stories Chimamanda shares (that many women can relate to) will make it crystal clear that we still have a long way to go in changing attitudes and mindsets.

Adichie explains that the problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are.  We would be happier and freer if we were at liberty to be our true individual selves without the weight of gender expectations.  Males and females are undeniably different biologically, but socialization (we are social beings and internalize ideas from our socialization) exaggerates the differences and in turn, starts a self-fulfilling process.

Take cooking, for example, women are more likely to do housework than men.  Is it because women are born with a cooking gene or that over the years we have been socialized to see cooking as our role?  Lest we conclude that women are born with the cooking gene, bear in mind that the majority of renowned cooks in the world who are given the fancy title of ‘chef’ are (you guessed it) men.

By using cooking as an example, some readers may see it as a distraction from the fundamental issues of gender and equality that feminism seeks to confront.  In a separate article, she addresses this and makes it clear that cooking symbolizes the idea that a woman’s role is solely domestic and this, in turn, implies that a woman’s worth is measured by how good she is at domestic chores.

In light of the fact that gender problems are numerous, widespread and multifaceted, I have selected a few noteworthy gender injustices (from her essay) that make for good talking-points:

  • There are slightly more women than men in the world (52 percent of the world’s population is female) but most positions of power and prestige are occupied by men.  Today we live in a vastly different world and not all positions require brawn so the person most qualified to lead is not the physically strongest person.  It is the most intelligent, the most knowledgeable, most creative or most innovative and there are no gender-hormones for such attributes.
  • We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them but the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable.
  • The World over there are more articles or guides telling women what to do, how to be and not to be in order to attract or please men.
  • We raise women to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or accomplishments, but for the attention of men.
  • We praise or excuse men for the very things we tell girls not to be – tough, angry, aggressive, outspoken.
  • The threat of ‘not having a marriage at all’ applies to women more than it does to men thus a woman is expected to make her life choices bearing in mind that marriage is the most important accomplishment.
  • We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys by defining masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.  By making boys feel they have to be hard we leave them with very fragile egos.  Consequently, we then do a much greater disservice to girls, by raising them to cater to the fragile egos of males.
  • We teach girls to shrink themselves, to makes themselves smaller.  Have ambition–but not too much; Aim to be successful–but not too successful, otherwise, you will threaten the man.
  • If you are the breadwinner, in your relationship with a man, pretend you are not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.
  • We should be asking ourselves. Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man?
  • We have raised both girls and boys to associate masculinity with money.  So men have the added pressure to prove their masculinity through material means.
  • We use respect for something a woman shows a man, but not often for something a man shows a woman.
  • Society teaches that an unmarried woman of a certain age has failed, while an unmarried man of a similar age has just-not-quite-come-around to making his pick.
  • We teach females that in relationships, compromise is what a woman is more likely to do.
  • The language of marriage is often a language of ownership, not a language of partnership.
  • More often than not most men mistakenly think that ‘everything is fine now’ things were only bad in the past that the problem has since been taken care of hence they remain oblivious to the gender injustices.

Now just in case readers may be thinking (firstly): ‘But, women have the real power, ‘bottom power’ (Nigerian expression used for a woman who uses her sexuality to get things from men)’ and secondly that ‘women are subordinate to men because it’s our culture’, she aptly states:

Sexual power or ‘bottom power’ is not power at all it’s just another route to tap into another person’s power.  What then happens if the man is in a bad mood, sick or temporarily impotent?

As for the ‘it’s our culture’ excuse, culture is constantly changing (and so it should).  A hundred years ago birthing twins in certain cultures e.g. Igbo was seen as an evil omen and the twins would be taken away and killed, today that practice is inconceivable. Culture does not make people, people make culture.

Furthermore, some may ask: Why the word feminist? Why not just say human rights? Feminism is part of human rights in general but to make it synonymous with human rights is to trivialize the specific and particular problem of gender.  It would be a way of pretending that it is not women who have, for centuries been excluded, a way of denying that the problems are specifically about being a female human being. It is only fair then that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

I am pleased to say, however, that in my respective professional and social circles we often discuss the gender problem at length, and without a doubt there are some game changers out there that are not only geared to change the status quo but are well on their way, effecting change in their homes and various positions of influence.  Change is never an overnight thing but starting is what counts and it starts with being open to debate.  Add to that making a concerted effort to unlearn the gender injustices we (male and female) have internalized over the years and now perceive as normal.

The first time I read the title of her essay, I took the word ‘all’ to mean ‘all females’ and accordingly thought the book was intended specifically for women.  What a pleasant surprise to realize as I finished reading that the responsibility lies with everybody, male and female, parent or not.

She closes by leaving readers with a powerful challenge and redefining the word feminist:

“We must begin to dream about and plan for a different world.  A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves.  And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently.  We must also raise our sons differently…”

A feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there is a problem with gender, as it is today, and WE must fix it, WE must do better.  ALL of us, women and men, must be feminists.

Renowned Nigerian novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a woman who needs no introduction.  Her work has been translated into thirty languages and is featured in various publications including the New Yorker, Granta and Financial Times to name a few.  The award winning author of four highly acclaimed novels i.e. Purple Hibiscus, Americanah, Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck, is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.  Notable awards for her novels include the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; Orange Prize; National Book Critics Circle Award.  She was described in the Times Literary Supplement as “the most prominent of a procession of young Anglophone authors that is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature.   She currently splits her time between Nigeria and the United States.  

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Sarah Nyengerai
A Zimbabwean born (and raised) academic, currently lives and lectures in her home country. She holds a Master’s in Business Administration from Notre Dame University (Australia) and a Bachelor in Business Administration from Solusi University (Zimbabwe). An avid reader-her literary interests include biographies and fictional novels with a predilection to African female writers that call attention to the social and cultural issues that affect women. In addition to being a fervid reader her interests include travelling and marathon running.
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