Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

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Read 14/11/2018-16/11/2018

Rating: 3 stars

This letter written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to her friend doesn’t say anything new. It doesn’t, as the blurb on the back states, start a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today. That conversation is ongoing. Women are having it every day. The book is part of that conversation, though, perhaps in a way Adichie didn’t intend and the publishers didn’t recognise.

Dear Ijeawele is, the subtitle wants us to know, a feminist manifesto in fifteen suggestions. It’s one in a world of feminist manifestos. It’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s set of ways to think about personal feminism and her recommendation to a friend for how she might go about raising a daughter as a feminist.

My first thought was that this shouldn’t just be a recommendation to mothers and it shouldn’t just be about raising a daughter to be a feminist. Persuading women to buy into feminism isn’t feminism’s biggest hurdle. A much bigger hurdle is persuading men to buy into feminism.

Although the premise of the book is the fulfilling of a request from one friend to another for some very specific advice, I think it’s a useful book for starting that conversation with the men in our lives who, hopefully unthinkingly, occasionally express worrisome attitudes towards women. When I say hopefully unthinkingly, I mean that their attitudes are something that can be changed and not hard-wired or actively developed. There were a couple of points raised that made me think that I could use my reaction to them to start a conversation with the men in my life, none of whom are misogynists, all of whom sometimes speak about women without thinking about what is coming out of their mouths.

Adichie addresses the difficulties in and the possible resolutions for persuading men to buy into feminism in her 2012 TED talk that was turned into the essay We Should All Be Feminists. This isn’t what Dear Ijeawele is about. However, I think it’s important to say here that it’s not just the responsibility of mothers to persuade their children of the rights of being a feminist.

The letter starts with Adichie giving her friend a starting premise: I matter equally. It’s such a simple thing, and it isn’t gender specific. It’s human specific. We all matter equally. Men and women frequently behave in a way that makes others feel like they don’t matter. It’s hurtful. It’s isolating. It’s exhausting. My own experience of it has made me increasingly aware that I have to show myself that I matter too. I can’t expect others to do it for me.

Adichie talks, too, about being a full person, expressing every part of yourself, not reducing yourself to a specific role and losing sight of the other aspects to your personhood. “Be kind to yourself,” she writes. “Ask for help. Expect to be helped. There is no such thing as a Superwoman.” She goes on to say:

Our culture celebrates the idea of women who are able to ‘do it all’ but does not question the premise of that praise.

This dovetails with believing that you matter. Both wanting to feel that you matter and behaving as though you are Superwoman can lead to resentment when your inability to ask for help, because you think you need to seem as though you’re strong and independent, doubles up with feeling like you don’t matter because your insistence on not asking for help stops people doing things that let them show that you matter. Adichie points out that, “when there is true equality, resentment does not exist.

Being a full person who believes that she matters ties in as well with Adichie’s point about doing away with ideas of what girls and boys should and shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t measure ourselves or each other against a spurious notion of what a girl or a boy should be, but against a notion of being the best person we can be. We need to be true to ourselves, we shouldn’t silence or stifle any part of ourselves based on it not being what a girl or boy should be.

What is being your full self, what that might mean? Does it mean that we all express exactly what we think without any thought about how that expression might make other people feel? I don’t have a problem with people expressing exactly what they think, I think it’s healthy. I’d rather people expressed themselves than bottled things up or felt that they couldn’t say what they think. I’d also rather they did it in a way that doesn’t wash negativity over other people, where someone expresses themselves clearly and nobody, the speaker included, comes away feeling diminished. That made me think about how women are encouraged to filter themselves, to make themselves likeable. Adichie comments that it’s not our job to be likeable. It’s not a requirement of our existence that we trim bits off ourselves or fold ourselves like a piece of origami paper into a more appealing shape. I would further that with the belief that it is part of everyone’s job to be kind and show consideration to others while being true to themselves. Adichie talks about this, too, in the letter. If we lose our ability to be kind and considerate to others, we are not being our full selves.

Adichie talks about being criticised for being an angry woman. Angry women make other people uncomfortable. I shared some thoughts a few weeks ago about the treatment of Serena Williams when she expresses her anger. Women aren’t supposed to be angry, or we are only supposed to be angry about ‘women things’, whatever they might be. There is power in anger and, as Adichie points out,

… our world is full of men and women who do not like powerful women. We have been so conditioned to think of power as male that a powerful woman is an aberration. And so she is policed. We ask of powerful women – is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough?

Adichie reminds us that these are not questions we ask about powerful men, and that this shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women. Powerful, assertive, confident, full-person women are not witches, or bitches, or harridans, or any other pejorative term designed to keep women in their place and shame them if they decide to be their full selves. They are people exercising their right to be true to themselves and treated equally regardless of their gender. If you don’t believe that, you’re not a feminist. You can disagree with their point of view, you can dislike them as people, but stop name calling and shaming women because they don’t conform to what you think a woman should be.

Here’s a sentence I liked:

Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions.

How you refer to people reveals a lot about your inner beliefs. And maybe something about how you view yourself, too.

In the current era of #MeToo and women becoming more vocal about all the ways society finds to abuse us, Adichie exhorts us to

… question men who can have empathy for women only if they see them as relational rather than as individual equal humans.

… such men do not need to imagine a male victim of crime as a brother or son in order to feel empathy.

It’s almost as though our bodies, women’s bodies, aren’t our own, even when a man is expressing sympathy with a situation. The likeability of women is also a factor for some men, and some women too, in determining whether a woman is deserving of their empathy / sympathy / support. Whether she’s a witch, a bitch or a harridan, for example, instead of a fragrant flower, a demure ladylike creature. Sometimes, apparently, women plain old deserve what they get. The conditioning of women to be likeable means we stay quiet when we’re abused, because if we speak out then we know that our character is likely to be dragged through the mud. Adichie talks about female sexuality being made shameful in every culture in the world, and that shame being about controlling women’s bodies in order to protect men. As Adichie says, this is

… deeply dehumanizing because it reduces women to mere props used to manage the appetites of men.

I underlined something on practically every page, but the section that I scribbled on the most, adding comments as well as underlining, is the one where Adichie talks about not viewing marriage as an achievement. This felt less familiar territory to me, in the sense that I never felt pressure to get married. Having an education and a career was the achievement my mum wished for me. My perception in the UK, which is less of a religious society than Nigeria and traditional in slightly different ways, is that the achievement for women who choose to marry is to have the most extravagant wedding they can, regardless of whether they or their families can afford it. In my own circle, which is full of feminists, almost all of us have chosen to marry. I know that it puzzles some of my friends who don’t see marriage as necessary to a relationship. I have been asked why I got married. The only answer I have is that I love my husband and see marriage as an expression of that love. Everyone is different. Marriage is the tradition that made sense to me and, perhaps because I’d never expected or planned to marry, it felt like a choice and also a celebration rather than an expectation. All of which is the opposite situation to the one Adichie discusses. As a result, I found myself having counter arguments for some of what Adichie had expressed.

Adichie talks about Hillary Clinton again, as she did in We Should All Be Feminists, and the way

our world still largely values a woman’s marital and maternal roles more than anything else.

She also talks about girls growing up to be preoccupied with marriage and boys being the opposite, so that there is an automatic imbalance in the relationship. This, Adichie suggests, leads to women making bigger sacrifices than men in marriage, to their own detriment, in order to negotiate that imbalance. I think this is true the world over, to different degrees. From experience and conversations with married friends, it seems to me that women have an idea of what marriage should be which is different to that of men. It has to be down to the messages we receive from society as a whole, in the books we read, the films and TV we watch, the editorials and opinion pieces we read in newspapers and magazines. It can’t all be down to our parenting, or to differences in biology. It’s something Sara Pascoe puzzles over in the chapter of Animal titled Happily Ever After?

I scribbled most of my comments where Adichie talks about the way married women in Nigerian culture believe that taking their husband’s family name is the norm and anyone who marries without taking their husband’s family name is outside the norm, and about her personal experience of prejudice against her decision to keep her family name. My own experience, as someone who chose to take my husband’s family name for personal reasons, is the opposite of Adichie’s. I’ve been questioned about that choice, with the suggestion that I wasn’t a good feminist at the back of the questioning. The conclusion I’ve drawn is, we need to stop policing each other.

Here’s another sentence I liked:

… social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed.

Relationship norms are the same. Adichie discusses relationships, focusing on love being about taking as well as giving. She means that it’s about receiving in equal measure to our giving. As much as we must give of ourselves emotionally in a relationship, we must also expect to be given to.

I liked what she said about it being odd that most societies don’t take to the idea of women proposing marriage. She wishes for a world

… in which either person can propose, in which a relationship has become so comfortable, so joy-filled, that whether or not to embark on marriage becomes a conversation, itself filled with joy.

That’s another sentence I liked.

I didn’t agree with all of what Adichie puts forward in this letter, but not all of it is aimed at me. I did, however, find it a well set out and thought-provoking piece of writing. I certainly have much to chew over as a result of reading it, and it has helped me to think differently about certain aspects of my personal feminism that often frustrate me.

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