With deft humour weaving in between her passionate contention, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful essay We Should All Be Feminists implores us that we need feminism. Despite all appearances to the contrary, the genders are not equal. Adichie works to break down the barriers and to dissolve the negativity we place onto the term ‘feminism,’ putting the onus on men and women to rectify the inequality.
Adichie writes about stories from her home country of Nigeria, but her stories could be transposed to other countries as well; the language of gender inequality is universal, and engrained. She mentions tipping a valet with her own money, only to have the valet thank her friend Louis, not her. “The man believed,” she says, “that whatever money I had ultimately came from Louis. Because Louis is a man.”
At first I thought that I would not be able to relate to her experiences; although I knew I would connect with them emotionally, I predicted that my situation in Australia was far removed from Adichie’s Nigerian experience. But I noticed themes from Adichie’s essay transcended national borders. Although, perhaps, I have never experienced such overt inequality as she describes, the fundamentals of the experiences are the same. As such, Adichie’s essay was reassuringly fresh and vibrant. It was a pleasure to be reminded of the fundamental knowledge, to help me grapple with questions in my own head.
According to Adichie, the perpetual problem is that repetition leads to normalcy: “If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.” When behaviours or social hierarchies are repeated without question, they are naturalised and, when they are naturalised they become a social norm. I have experienced bothering issues, but I have struggled to vocalise why they bother me, to explain why something that seems natural is not in fact right. For me, the power of Adichie’s essay lies in its fluent ability to both expose hidden norms, and provide us the language with which to rectify them.
Some people argue against feminism ignores humans plights, by just focusing on women; instead of advocating for women rights, we should instead encourage universal human rights. Adichie’s argument follows that feminism does not exclude human rights, rather incorporates them into the debate. When we encourage progress on women rights, we are doing human rights a huge favour as well. Adichie argues that we need to include women’s viewpoints and include the feminist stance. Ignoring it is problematic and ignorant: “for centuries the world divided human beings into two groups, and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.” She also acknowledges that speaking about women is necessary: “of course I am a human being, but there are particular thing that happen to me because I am a woman.”
The solution, according to Adichie, involves rethinking the way we construct gender. “We define masculinity in a very narrow way” (italics in original). To reconstruct gender identity, to remove gender biases and stereotypes from our vocabulary, to teach children that there are many ways in which they can perform their gender.
She does not point out how to do this exactly. It would not be easy, given that the gender inequality is so engrained. We internalise gendered norms and, even when we are consciously aware that something is not right, we can’t shake the hidden feeling that traditional gender patterns are safer. It is refreshing to read Adichie’s views on the matter, as she gives a face to the problems I experience: “I am trying to unlearn many lessons of gender I internalised while growing up. But I sometimes still feel vulnerable in the face of gender expectations.”
I believe beginning a dialogue such as Adichie’s, using the power of our speech and conversation is the best way to rectify this, and this is what Adichie is trying to achieve. The more people we speak to, the more awareness there is, and the less the problem is hidden. This is Adichie’s message: everyone should be able to speak about gender inequality. Everyone should be feminist.
Adichie’s essay We Should All Be Feminists helped me to debate my own opinions, reminding me that feminism and femininity can peacefully coexist. Adichie ends her essay by invoking our responsibility to change the culture we live in, and not just live under culture’s power. We think too often that, because something is naturalised, it is natural and so do not make an effort to change it. Adichie’s essay adds to the much-needed dialogue around reclaiming feminism, and offers a fresh and inspiring perspective.
You can listen to Adichie reading her essay at TEDxEuston.