“I am a feminist. And when I looked up the word in the dictionary that day, this is what it said: Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. 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.“
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a novelist and feminist campaigner whose passion for books started at a young age. Her parents expected her to be a doctor and for a year she studied medicine at the University of Nigeria but her heart was not in it. Chimamanda wanted to write. So, she decided to pursue her ambitions as a writer, dropped out of medical school and took up a communication scholarship in the United States.
She was just 26 when she published her first novel Purple Hibiscus in 2003, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her second, 2006´s Half of a Yellow Sun, was set during the Nigeria-Biafra War in which the Igbo people sought to establish an independent republic. It won the Orange Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. The next year, she won a MacArthur grant and finished a master´s degree in African studies at Yale. The following year she released The Thing Around Your Neck, a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, followed by 2013´s Americanah, an intimate multigenerational story about family and immigration set in Nigeria and New Jersey. It won the National Book Critics Award and has become an enduring best seller. Her novels and writings encompass race and gender, and our tendency to accept what we are taught without recognising rooted prejudice.
In “We Should All Be Feminists”, an essay adapted from a speech she gave at a Tedx Talk in 2012, Chimamanda offers an important worldwide conversation about feminism and the damaging paradigms of femininity and masculinity. She says that “We teach girls that they can have ambition, but not too much, to be successful, but not too successful, or they’ll threaten men. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you’re not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him”. Because we are females, we are expected to aspire to marriage, to make our life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. A marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why don’t´ we teach boys to aspire to marriage as well? Sometimes men say “Oh, my wife said I can’t go to the club every night, so for peace in my marriage, I do it only on weekends”. On the other hand, when a woman says “I did it for peace in my marriage,” she’s usually talking about giving up a job, a dream, a career. We teach females that we do, as women, compromises in relationships, we raise girls to see each other as competitors for attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.
She asks that we begin to dream about and plan for a different, fairer world — of happier men and women who are truer to themselves, and this is how to start: we must raise our daughters and sons differently. “We do a great disservice to boys on how we raise them; we stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way, masculinity becomes this hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves (…) Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations”.
In Dear Ijeawel, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen suggestions, published in 2017, Chimamanda gives suggestions in a letter of response to the question from her friend about how to raise her baby girl as a feminist, a strong, independent woman. She offers advice such as teaching a young girl to read widely and recognize the role of language in reinforcing unhealthy cultural norms, encouraging her to choose a helicopter, and not a doll, as a toy if she so desires, having open conversations with her about appearance, identity, and sexuality; and debunking the myths that women are biologically designed to be in the kitchen, and that men can “allow” women to have full careers. Teaching her to be a full person who doesn´t define herself solely by motherhood and to reject likability. Her job is not to make herself likable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people. Dear Ijeawele represents the start of a needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.
By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern