As a bright-eyed University student, I was often vocal about my thoughts and after a particularly good presentation about the representation of women in media, my Media Research professor, casually remarked, “I think you’re quite a budding feminist.” To my dismay, the entire class turned towards me, one even mouthing “Are you?” with horror. I was, of course, nonplussed by the entire thing and completely unable to comprehend this animosity towards feminism. 12 years down the line, while reading an essay by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award winning Nigerian author of ‘Americanah’ and ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, I finally got it, the trepidation associated with the word “feminism”.
The slim volume “We Should All Be Feminists” by Adichie is based on TEDx talk that she did in Euston in 2012. Although the book may not be path breaking but it is definitely one of the clear-headed and empathetic exploration of feminism that I have ever read. It brings to light one of the serious issues plaguing the world, “the specific and particular problem of gender.” What makes this book stand out from angry militant rants that have led to the fear of feminists is how Adichie treats a deeply volatile and divisive subject. The book is straight forward and honest. Her argument is that rather than berating men, society as a whole needs to change if gender equality is to be made a reality. She tries to make sense of the deep rooted insecurity towards feminism. “Some men feel threatened by the idea of feminism,” Adichie explains. “This comes, I think, from the insecurity triggered by how boys are brought up, how their sense of self-worth is diminished if they are not ‘naturally’ in charge as men.” Rather than criticizing men, she holds responsible the society for creating the deep-rooted feelings of insecurity in boys and propagating gender stereotypes.
Drawing on personal anecdotes from her life, Adichie tries to unpack the baggage associated with the term “feminism”. The anecdotes from her life in Nigeria while being funny and fascinating, manage to bring forth the insidious inequalities between men and women skilfully. Recalling an incident after her novel Purple Hibiscus was published, she says, “A Nigerian woman, told me that feminism was not our culture, that feminism was un-African, and I was only calling myself a feminist because I had been influenced by Western books. (Which amused me, because much of my early reading was decidedly unfeminist: I must have read every single Mills & Boon romance published before I was sixteen. And each time I try to read those books called “classic feminist texts,” I get bored, and I struggle to finish them.)”
In fact she refers to herself as, “a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not For Men.”
An anecdote from her childhood about how the teacher at her school enforced an arbitrary, “obvious” rule that the class monitor had to be a boy despite the fact that the 9-year-old Adichie had earned the privilege by winning the highest grade in the class is a distressing reminder about how menacing and entrenched gender bias is and how detrimental it is to the tender psyches of children.
She says, “If we do something over and over, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point we will all think, even if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem “natural” that only men should be heads of corporations.”
Another crushing experience that she had was when she tips a man for helping to park her car, only for the man to thank her friend – again, a man. She also unravels how society views marriage and single women who when unmarried after a certain age are viewed as freaks. Married women, on the other hand, are expected to give up their “job, a career goal, a dream” all for the sake of appearances.
In the 52 pages of the book, Adichie has made her point that, “Gender matters to everyone and gender stereotypes are harmful to one and all.” Her anger at the injustice may be subtle but it gets the point across in very few words. It is a must read for women and men of all ages who are interested in feminism and how it affects the world around us.
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