An extremely rich in experience and full of small but significant anecdotes from her life this essay serves as a handbook of definition of feminism for all. She [Adichie] helps us understand what feminism means and how the word has probably been used as an abuse and is still used by many across the world.
This essay is a story of arriving at a definition for herself when she was told that feminists are ‘unhappy women’. This claim not only reflects a stupid argument but complete ignorance of the fact that even men can be feminists. This essay is a story of Adichie becoming what she calls: ‘Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men’.
In the South Asian countries, I happen to be born and bred in one — India, and in a deeply rooted conservative educational system, being feminists has always been synonymous with being ‘anti-men’ and ‘anti-masculine’. And, God forbid if you say that you’re a feminist and you’re a man, you have attracted some questions doubting your ‘masculinity’. And, as Adichie, rightly points out that being a feminist in Africa (or anywhere) meant an influence from the west or reading all wrong books.
Learning about the F-word for the first time
What people ignore, and what Adichie is trying to do, is that she is allowing them to ponder upon this fact that how gender is the root-cause of problems in our lives — of both men and women, through this essay. She begins with essay with an anecdote, the first time — when she was fourteen, her friend Okoloma called her a feminist. That’s how she first learnt the ‘other popular F-word’. She said that from his tone it was far from compliment. It was a way of saying: ‘You’re a supporter of terrorism’. She was determined to look for the meaning of this word in the dictionary.
It was when her novel Purple Hibiscus came out in 2003, a Nigerian journalist said to her that she shouldn’t call herself a feminist as such women are — unhappy because they cannot find husbands. She recalls an incident from her school, where to the class teacher, it was natural and hence, unnecessary to explicitly point out that class monitor should be a boy. And, how the valet parking upon given a tip from her didn’t thank her but said, ‘Thank You Sah!’ to Louis because it was ‘obvious’ whose money it was.
Problem with Gender
Adichie has successfully drawn our attention to the ‘problem with gender’ and the ‘problem with the normalisation or naturalisation of gender roles’. How we are expected to behave in one way or the other because certain genders are socialised to behave, work, and perform their gender identity in a way and by the rules of society. And, if one is mistaken that it is just experiences in the adolescent years, it is not, that just prepares us for the beginning of long years of discrimination and inequality and mistreatment. It has multiple layers to it:
- Say, a women is branded as a rape-victim. And, she is the one who is questioned about ‘her purpose’ there in a hotel or say ‘why travelling late at night?’.
- Gender is the problem when I have to ask fellow passengers in the Delhi metro to ‘sit properly’ because being a man they exercise their right to spread their legs wide enough to disturb people sitting adjacent to them.
- Gender is the problem when we ask our daughters to be at home before it turns dark.
- Or the whole fuss of ‘losing virginity’. It’s as if that ‘respect’ — Izzat and ‘honour’ of the family is only between the legs of all women in the family. (If some of my readers are from India or of Indian-origin, it is a given in the finalisation of marriage that the bride should be a virgin.)
- Gender is the problem when a woman is naturalised to work as a domestic help or home-maid and a man is expected to work outside and earn for the family. And, all this happens in the social arrangement which we call ‘marriage’.
It isn’t that only women are affected by gender roles. Men are equal victims in this game of performance. It is they who are affected by being burdened to earn all by themselves though there can be a smooth economic partnership in the marriage, they don’t get to take care of their children as they’re the ones who are devoid to see their children grow, they’re the ones to pay tips and pay the bills. This is all that is fundamentally wrong with gender.
Some of the quotable lines from the essay are:
‘We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them’.
‘The language of marriage is often a language of ownership, not a language of partnership’.
‘But what matters even more is our attitude, our mindset. What if, in raising children, we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender?’
Conversation on gender is uneasy for both men and women. And, if you allow me to involve in this debate, the whole spectrum of gender — it is uneasy for all, be it hegemonic gender-binary or the gender spectrum. For it takes a lifetime of learning and experiences to bust our myths and win an internal battle as the roles and performances are so internalised by the first educational institution — home. Our first mode of introduction to culture, language, and belonging.
As I said, in the beginning, that the essay happened to be a discovery of her own definition of feminism which is: 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.’