‘Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe in the full equality of men and women or you do not’.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s beautiful feminist manifesto stemmed from a letter she received from a life long friend. Tasked with the responsibility of giving practical advice to the age old question – how can I raise my daughter feminist – Adichie seriously considers how you can raise awareness of gender restrictions and make sure these restrictions don’t limit your child’s full potential. Far from being a handbook for raising daughters, Adichie’s words speak to a universal audience. As a light, but serious, introduction to feminism, Dear Ijeawele is the perfect choice. Free from technical terms, which can make feminism seem far more complicated than it needs to be at times, Adichie’s writing is clear, precise and relevant. Incorporating many elements, such as gender roles, education, language, sex, consent, marriage, race, identity and likability, Adichie packs a punch with her short but snappy read.
Coming after her famous 2014 TED talk and essay, We Should All Be Feminists, which focuses more on theory, Dear Ijeawele gives us fifteen practical suggestions for how we can become more feminist in our outlook and in our relationships with others. Despite the simple and straightforward way in which she expresses these suggestions, it is often a lot easier said than done. Although most of us who call ourselves feminists would relate to Adichie’s words – that’s why a lot of the time whilst I was reading Dear Ijeawele, I found myself nodding in agreement – it can often be hard to unlearn what has been consciously or unconsciously taught to us about gender roles from birth. For example, Adichie’s sixth suggestion is to question the language we use when talking to or talking about males and females. ‘Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions’, she says. From the different terms of endearment we use for loved ones to the gendered language that abounds when discussing women in the public eye, we should all be more critical of language and how it can further posit girls and women at an unfair advantage.
‘Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people’.
Likeability is another issue that deeply affects women more than men. I was reminded of a seminar I had when I was studying English literature about how female protagonists are always unfairly judged on whether or not they are likeable, whereas their male counterparts never – or hardly ever – are. This resonated strongly with me and it’s something that a lot of us may do unconsciously without thinking. I was – and still am – guilty of it too. The importance placed on teaching young girls to be nice and amenable in a way that we don’t teach young boys is dangerous. As Adichie states, ‘Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. Many girls think of the ‘feelings’ of those who are hurting them. This is the catastrophic consequence of likeability. We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable’.
Although there are obvious gaps in Adichie’s fifteen suggestions – she is aware that her focus on sexual relationships is confined to the heterosexual sphere, for instance – and Adichie has come under fire in the past for her opinions on transwomen, I still think Dear Ijeawele is an excellent starting point for more feminist approaches to challenging confining and restrictive gender roles.
‘That a woman claims not to be feminist does not diminish the necessity of feminism. If anything, it makes us see the extent of the problem, the successful reach of patriarchy. It shows us, too, that not all women are feminists and not all men are misogynists’.