“I am trying to unlearn the many lessons of gender I internalized while growing up. But I sometimes still feel vulnerable in the face of gender expectations.”
In a society which often conditions us into having certain harmful beliefs, award-winning Nigerian writer-academician Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a glimmer of hope—not only because she teaches us to question and challenge such beliefs, but also because she’s a kindred spirit, who has had to struggle out of the same harmful conditioning. Adichie’s powerful TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which has now been converted into a seminal text, is a whirlwind from start to finish, and drops some powerful truth bombs about the dual oppressions surrounding race and gender. The text has become a significant voice against patriarchy in recent times—not only immortalized by Beyonce in her song, ‘Flawless,’ but also made compulsory reading in Swedish schools—and it’s finally giving an entire generation the means to recognize and fight against the oppressive structures they are surrounded by.
Born in an Igbo family in southeast Nigeria, and the fifth among six children, Adichie grew up acutely aware of gender politics in her somewhat conservative family. “We Should All Be Feminists” is peppered with personal, autobiographical anecdotes of Adichie as a child, and her gradual realization that the world around her doesn’t see her as an equal because she’s a woman (and a black woman, that too). One such incident that she recalls is from her school life—of how, when she was in fifth grade, her teacher promised the most academically accomplished student of her class the position of ‘class monitor’ but ultimately declined to make Adichie the monitor (despite her earning the top grades) because ‘only a boy could be made the monitor’. These very instances of casual, everyday sexism are what spurred her political and social awareness.
After studying medicine briefly at the University of Nigeria, Adichie moved to the US at the age of 19—where she not only attended prestigious universities such as Yale and Johns Hopkins, but also received the highly coveted MacArthur Grant for her research. Her first novel, ‘Purple Hibiscus’ (2003) won her universal acclaim and multiple awards, and since then, she has been writing prolifically (both fiction and non-fiction) about African identities and how they intersect with gender-based issues. In her own words, she is “angry” at social injustices in the world, and says: “We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.”
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”
The most iconic sections of “We Should All Be Feminists” is Adichie’s haunting commentary on how society constantly degrades women and makes them feel inferior. She cites examples from her personal life—of both herself and her female friends and colleagues—instances of women having to leave their jobs for husbands, of women not being seen independent of their male partners, and of women constantly having to meet ridiculous patriarchal demands; and talks about how insidiously these misogynist norms get perpetuated and internalized.
She talks about how women, from a very young age, are taught to aspire to marriage, and taught to stifle their own passions and professions in favour of their husband’s. And what’s worse—finding a husband (or male partner) is turned into a means of fostering competition between women, leading to girl-on-girl hate.
“We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”
And that’s just the least of it. Adichie goes into various other issues that plague women worldwide—moral policing, sexual policing, the shaming of ‘femininity’ (i.e, conventionally “feminine” women not being taken seriously), of constantly having to cater to the male gaze, of not allowing them an independent identity and agency, and so on. In one of the finest mic-drop moments in the text, she says: “The problem with gender[as we know it today] is that it prescribes how we should be, rather than recognizing how we are.”
“Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.”
Adichie’s revelations about the kind of toxic masculinity that society conditions men to exhibit are perhaps the most powerful bits from the text. She reflects upon how, under the garb of this vague notion of ‘masculinity’, boys and men are told not to show emotion (because it’s considered a ‘weakness’), and how, in doing so, they are left with fragile egos.
Since women are constantly taught to feed these male egos (and the men are used to it), the moment a woman goes beyond the status quo, the man starts feeling ‘emasculated’. And, Adichie says—”there is no other word in the English language that I hate as much as the word ‘emasculate.’”
She talks about how ‘masculinity’ in itself is a vague construct which has no cultural basis, and the fact that oppressive male behaviour is both fostered by this concept and excused on the basis of it, and ultimately preys on the freedom and contentment of men.
“Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?‘”
We’ve all been asked this at some point or the other—either by well-meaning mansplainers or straight-up bigoted MRAs. And while all of us have a different answer to this question, Adichie has a truly one:
“Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”
Her argument is so brilliantly on point that it makes us go ‘Yaas, Queen!’ every single time.
Here, Adichie also recalls an interesting incident from her childhood. As a teenager, she was once called a ‘feminist’ (in a derogatory tone) by a friend for voicing her opinions too fiercely. At that time, she was too young to know what the term meant, and when she looked up into the dictionary and found out its meaning (“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes“), she was baffled by why the term was so derogatory to her friend. Even when the word wasn’t in her vocabulary, she knew that she (and many women before her) identified with it:
“My great-grandmother, from stories I’ve heard, was a feminist. She ran away from the house of the man she did not want to marry and married the man of her choice. She refused, protested, spoke up when she felt she was being deprived of land and access because she was female. She did not know that word feminist. But it doesn’t mean she wasn’t one.”
“More of us should reclaim that word,” Adichie says, very aptly. The word, which has come to be associated with a lot of negativity, needs to be made accessible through common vocabulary and needs to be normalized in common discussions.
She highlights the hilarity of some of the negative connotations that come with the term: “You hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear makeup, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t use deodorant.”
In a powerful statement, Adichie concludes: “My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”
“We must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently.”
While this text is all about learning to break out of patriarchal conditioning, it’s also about learning to bring about change—even if it’s in subtle ways. And one of the biggest ways in which Adichie suggests we bring forth change is to actively not inculcate the same patriarchal beliefs we grew up with into our children. She suggests that we bring up children in terms of “ability, not gender,” and keep traditional gender roles (i.e, the girl being asked to cook, while the boy being asked to do the more ‘physically demanding’ stuff) away from them.
She again recalls an incident from her childhood, when she and her friends were often given pocket money with which they used to buy chocolates. However, even when the girls had more money, it was always the boy who was supposed to pay for them—because in a weird, warped, way, boys were told that because of the virtue of their masculinity, they are the ones who can hold ‘material’ power. And to perpetuate this from childhood means this continues to persist in their adult lives. Hence, she says:
“What if both boys and girls were raised not to link masculinity and money? What if their attitude was not ‘the boy has to pay,’ but rather, ‘whoever has more should pay.’ Of course, because of their historical advantage, it is mostly men who will have more today. But if we start raising children differently, then in fifty years, in a hundred years, boys will no longer have the pressure of proving their masculinity by material means.”
“If we do something over and over, it becomes normal,” says Adichie—and that, in itself is the message she wants us to take away. That the more we instil beliefs and ideas about gender equality, the more such discussions will be normalized, the more it’ll become a part of our collective cultures.