Rating: 4 stars
This is an essay in book form, a modified version of a TED talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2012. It’s less than 50 pages long, but it packs a punch.
The event at which Adichie was speaking in 2012 aimed to challenge and inspire Africans and friends of Africa to think differently. In Nigerian culture, Adichie’s culture, being a strong independent woman is frowned upon. In her talk, Adichie identifies the different ways in which women are kept down in Nigerian society. I recognised some of those ways in my own culture, despite the fact that women were supposedly emancipated a century ago in Britain.
I liked the way Adichie got across the fact that her personal belief that, intellectually and creatively, in the spheres that carry power and influence in modern society, men and women are no different is an inherent one. To the extent that, when a friend told her scornfully at 14 that she was a feminist, she had never heard the word and had to look it up.
In a similar way to Grayson Perry in his book The Descent of Man, but with a different agenda, Adichie talks about how boys and girls are conditioned from an early age to think about their gender and how they should behave in accordance with society’s rules. She talks about how both boys and girls are done a disservice through this social conditioning. She identifies how women, particularly in the West, are invested in being likeable. The recent US Presidential Election was fought negatively on how likeable Hillary Rodham Clinton was. It didn’t matter whether Trump was likeable or not. Men don’t have to be likeable. Women, as a consequence of this pressure to be likeable, mustn’t show anger, be aggressive or disagree loudly. Men, in comparison, are told how manly and, therefore, how successful they are whenever they show those traits.
Adichie, like Perry, also identifies how narrowly masculinity is defined and how this stifles humanity in boys and men.
We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian-speak, a hard man.
In Adichie’s view, this leaves the male ego in a fragile state. And then women are trained to pander to this weakened male ego, so that men don’t feel emasculated by women being as strong and successful as them.
Adichie has lots of interesting things to say about the double standards in relationships and in sexual freedom. The most interesting thing for me was what she says about girls being taught shame. This is something that also struck me in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. Women are trained to hate themselves for not being the thing society says they should be. We are trained to make our true selves small.
One of the things my brother and I spoke about at length with the minister who conducted our mum’s funeral service was how Mum didn’t place expectation on any of her children. She accepted our individuality and encouraged us to be who we naturally are. For me and my sister, though, she also fought for us to have the opportunity to go to university and have careers, and taught us that we would need to work harder than boys to get to the same place, because the world wasn’t fair. My mum taught me about feminism in her daily life. And yet both my sister and I still struggle with feeling vulnerable because we are women and because society expects certain things from us. Perhaps my sister, who is 11 years older, more than me because by the time I was making my own way in the world, more ground had been gained in terms of gender equality and my fight was slightly easier. Most of the sexism I encounter is tedious social sexism, rather than career limiting sexism, which goes back to the way boys and girls are socially conditioned.
Recent political decisions, though, make me worry that the ground gained for equality during the 20th century is going to be rolled back. Especially as things like the EU Referendum vote for Britain to leave the EU seems to be being used as an excuse to duck out of certain obligations to fairness. Not just gender fairness, either.
Adichie ends her essay with these words:
All of us, women and men, must do better.