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Chimamanda Adichie Explains Why ‘We Should All Be Feminists’

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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.

Adichie: The ‘Angry’ Feminist We All Need In Our Lives

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.”

1: In Which She Pretty Much Tears Internalized Misogyny To Shreds

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.

2: In Which She Has Some Important Things To Say About Toxic Masculinity

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.

3: In Which She Has The Perfect Answer To A Common MRA Argument

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 Should All Be Feminists, For A Better, Happier World

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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