How comfortable are you in your female skin?
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In a TEDxEuston talk, “We Should All Be Feminists”, in 2013, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke of preparing for a university lecture, thinking more deeply about what she would wear rather than what she would say. She chose that day to downplay her feminity, in a bid not to appear frivolous by wearing a “manly, ugly suit”.
This reminds one of another lecture, “Women In Power”, delivered at the London Review Of Books’ Winter Lectures at the British Museum on 3 March, when the English scholar Mary Beard had this to say about the regulation trouser-suit worn by many Western female political leaders, from Angela Merkel to Hillary Clinton: “We have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.”
Adichie went on to recount how, after the publication of her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, about a man who habitually beat his wife, a Nigerian man came up to her and advised her against being a feminist, since everyone knew feminists were unhappy women who hadn’t been able to find themselves husbands. “So I chose to be a happy feminist,” she said. And she spoke of how human beings had evolved but their ideas of gender roles had not.
In a new book, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions—this is a version of a letter she had written to a friend two years ago on how to raise her child to be a feminist—Adichie addresses this very idea: re-engineering the way men and women think about each other. Adichie starts with a single premise—what she calls one of her two Feminist Tools—that everyone should believe in: “I matter. I matter equally.”
Adichie has 15 suggestions, all driven by her belief that “it is morally urgent to have honest conversations about raising children differently, about trying to create a fairer world for women and men”. Adichie’s suggestions are not entirely original or unusual, given that this is an urgent conversation that has been taking place for many decades now, with change itself slow to come. And yet, this is the very reason why this slim pocketbook becomes a reminder of how difficult this process is, how deeply entrenched our ideas of gender roles and behaviours are, and why manifestos such as this bear repeating, and reading.
Guilt, shame, fear, submission—these are all such a large part of our conditioning as women. Adichie addresses gender-defined roles in the domestic sphere, and the gratitude and awe expressed towards men who do their share of domestic work or care-giving. Of how, from their toys to the clothes they wear, children are taught to “behave like” a boy or a girl. She asks that marriage not be treated as a matter of aspiration or achievement for women—she points out how the initial descriptor on even Hillary Clinton’s Twitter account when she joined the US presidential race was “wife”. She emphasizes that a girl’s appearance should never be linked with morality, she should not be taught to associate her sexuality with shame or her gender as justification for social norms that undermine her. And she, most of all, warns against “Feminism Lite”, the “idea of conditional female equality”, where a woman’s well-being is related to male benevolence—a “hollow, appeasing, bankrupt idea”. Adichie illustrates her point by quoting a British newspaper’s description of Prime Minister Theresa May’s husband: “Philip May is known in politics as a man who has taken a back seat and allowed (italics mine) his wife, Theresa, to shine.”
Adichie’s book reminds one of the difficulties, despite being a feminist, of unlearning what we have internalized from our childhood of gender roles. This is a manifesto of awareness on not just how to raise your child, boy or girl, but on how to live your own life.