Book Review: Thoughts on Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Dear Ijeawele’

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Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele is a crucial discussion of issues that are especially relevant today for both men and women, for people generally no matter how they are gendered. The casual humour she infuses into her discussion does not remove anything from the seriousness of her treatment of the issues.

After picking up the piece, I didn’t drop it until the end, except for the few bathroom breaks I had to make in between. Her Manifesto is in the form of a letter, which contains fifteen suggestions on how to raise a feminist daughter in Nigeria and in the 21st century. Adichie opens her letter by expressing so much joy at the news of Ijeawele becoming a mother. She praises her friend for having done a magnificent thing by “bringing a human being into the world.’’ Her commending Ijeawele may be interpreted in terms of responsibility. That is, you (and your husband) have brought forth a child because you are prepared to take full responsibility for that child. In many cultures around the world, women are often applauded for giving birth on instrumental basis—you have done what is expected of you by the society, which is to become a mother, as if you are automatically and only good at nurturing babies.

Although parents often hope that their kids would turn out into what they (the parents) wish them to be—-say, a feminist, a medical doctor, etc.—the reality may, in the long run, prove otherwise. Adichie addresses such parental expectations by saying: “But remember that you might do all the things I suggest, and she will turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing” (p.7).

Her first suggestion to the new mother is not to relegate herself to motherhood only but to embrace and explore the other aspects of her being. “Be a full person.’’ Adichie is concerned about the notion that motherhood and work are mutually exclusive. She reminds her friend that many Nigerian kids are raised by working mums, be they farmers, petty traders, journalists, or employed in other white-collar jobs. A mother should be able to do other things alongside raising her kids, and should seek help as needed. She notes that a woman must recognise that her husband should be as involved as she is in caring for the child. She must, therefore, “Reject the language of help” and insist on duty, because he has a primary responsibility of raising the child as well.

In demystifying the myth of “gender roles,” Adichie admonishes Ijeawele to teach Chizalum (the newborn) not to see marriage as a prize, and to as well avoid phrases like “[b]ecause you are a girl’’ you should and must become an expert in countless domestic chores. Girls must be treated equally as boys, play with similar toys, and not be restricted to dolls and teddy bears. “If we don’t place the straightjacket of gender roles on young children, we give them space to reach their full potential” (pp 17-18). In this sense, parents should see their female offspring as individuals in terms of both their strengths and weaknesses, and must try to help them succeed by supporting them and not limiting them.

Although I chuckled at the term “Feminism Lite,” I recognise Adichie’s attack on it as a needed corrective. Adichie defines it as “the idea of conditional female equality” (p.20). Females and males should be treated the same, end of story. Words like “allowed” should not be tolerated. That a man “allowed” his wife or any other woman to become “this or that” presupposes that men are superior and are the authorities who grant permission to women to do what they wish at all times. In such a relationship where the man is the grantor and the woman the grantee, equality is obviously absent. She goes on to bring up the heartbreaking truth that in the world we live in women and men do not like powerful women because We have been so conditioned to “think of power as male that a powerful woman is an aberration” (p.24). Little wonder powerful women are referred to as unfeminine, angry, nasty and even bitches. This, she reasons, is simply because “We judge powerful women more harshly than we judge powerful men. And Feminism Lite enables this” (p.24).

She brings up the importance of exposing the female child to books beyond school subjects.

The author in many instances asserts the importance of using appropriate language towards a kid in a relationship of any kind—the language of equality toward one’s partner as well as toward other people. Most importantly, Adichie argues that a female child must be taught “to question language” (p.26). Language is not neutral. Words such as “princess” used to address a girl carry connotations that do not promote equality but rather fragility and delicacy. Also, throwing around feminist jargon will do no good if those words are not explained and put in context.

Furthermore, in choosing how to talk to a female child, marriage should never be spoken of as an achievement or something to aspire to, as marriage can turn out good or bad. The author perceives the idea of female name-change after marriage as an unnecessary burden on women, and argues that women should be able to retain their names without having to make excuses for doing so. After all, men are not expected to change their names after they get married.

A girl should be taught self-love, rather than seeking to be loved by everyone. Adichie rejects the norm that young girls should sacrifice themselves to please others all in the name of love, insisting that likeability should not be a priority. Rather, being kind, honest, and brave would be enough for a girl. These qualities will help her stay true to herself. In the end, she will be liked by those who choose to and she will also choose whom to like.

To avoid identity crisis, Ijeawele is advised to raise Chizalum to love her roots through learning Igbo culture. In learning Igbo culture, both its enabling and unfavourable aspects in regard to women should be pointed out. Adichie hopes that the girl will be exposed to racial discourse and the contestability of the constructed standards of beauty often promoted by the media—a reality every girl has to deal with. In a world where media and schooling are generally tailored to showcase the dominant culture and ideology, and the unwary child is very likely to be exposed to “many negative images of blackness and of Africans” (p. 40), Adichie tells Ijeawele that “you will have to do the pride-teaching yourself” (p.41).

Another crucial point she draws Ijeawele’s attention to is that “Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive’’ (p.43). Adichie encourages the young mother not to discourage her daughter from embracing femininity, and one way of doing so will be in carefully addressing her physical appearance. At no time at all should clothing be linked to morality, “[b]ecause clothes have absolutely nothing to do with morality” (p.44). Femininity can be expressed in many ways, not restricted to the norms or expectations of society.

The importance of using the right language cuts across Dear Ijeawele, such as rejecting biology to explain male superiority and as the root of social norms. This will be achieved if a girl is taught to question language. Adichie reiterates the position that “social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed’’ (p.51). The same issue of language arises in how sex should be discussed with girls. Explaining the consequences and pleasure is just the right thing to do because the child will find out anyway. It may seem trite that she reiterates the importance of calling sexual organs by their proper names, and not by euphemisms. The truth is that even many adults, among themselves, often resort to convoluted and confused lingo when they talk of vaginas, penises, and the simple facts of sexual behaviour. Others prefer demeaning terms for describing the female sexual parts.

I think Adichie may be generalising a little when she says “In every culture in the world, female sexuality is about shame. Even cultures that expect women to be sexy—like many in the West—still do not expect them to be sexual” (p.53). The West has its ways, which are given wide circulation through its control of global media, but what about Kunyaza in Rwanda, a practice meant to facilitate female orgasm during coitus? What about goddesses of love from Yoruba mythology to Greek mythology—Osun, Oya, Aphrodite? What about Kama Sutra from India? No doubt that shame is often attached to female sexuality, but is it as grievous as Adichie generalises in all societies and in all ages?

As regards differences in sexual orientation, Adichie argues that such differences must be portrayed to the child as being normal, the variety that spices things up and makes all of us gay in our choices. For instance, kids who have two fathers should be described as having their own different family set-up. One can reason with her definition of love as “being greatly valued by another human being and greatly valuing another human being” (p.56). The child will eventually learn of the many things that come with love–such as heart breaks.

Adichie’s fourteenth suggestion is about talking of oppression while not turning the repressed into saints. “Saintliness is not a prerequisite for dignity” (p.59). I must commend her for adequately expressing the idea that it is normal for women not to like other women. However, one may be confused about Adichie’s impression of women who say “I am not a feminist,” especially considering that she has all along made it seem that differences of opinion are fine and welcome. I am not sure of what to make of her conclusion that patriarchy is responsible for why some women vocalise the view that they are not feminists, again in view of her insistence “that not all women are feminists and not all men are misogynists’’ (p.61). I hope Adichie is not propagating the either-or stance that you are either a feminist or a misogynist here, because binary dichotomies may not work in this context.

As the author of “The Danger of a Single Story,” she might also be falling for telling a not-so-complete story here. The term feminism has always generated much controversy, and, notwithstanding Adichie’s stance against Feminism Lite, she must know of the fact that there are women who may not choose to self-identify as feminists, but who are nonetheless champions of women’s causes in their own right and in their own ways.

Perhaps, labelling people as feminists and non-feminists is not enough, and not even helpful. There are many people who are not familiar with these terms and jargons, but who still devote their efforts on practices and expressions that promote women’s position in society. Often, there seems to be a disconnect between activists who are privileged in their backgrounds and/or education, and everyday people who do not have the “means’’ or even platform to articulate their stance on the problems of women’s oppression, but still have to confront this reality on a daily basis. The terminology of feminist theorising is not part of their active or even passive vocabulary, nevertheless, they deal with these issues all the same. Translating its ideas into other frames might be one way of effectively communicating the purpose and intentions of feminism, and the importance of combating the issues of female inequality and oppression by speaking a mutually intelligible language. For instance, if we may use Christianity as an example, I think that the followers of Jesus Christ, regardless of what sectarian language they speak, understand that they hope to end up in heaven or a blissful afterlife if they do so and so. And they are called Christians for being believers of Christ. Why can’t we have a similar situation with the different schools of thought in the women’s movement, feminist or otherwise? Jesus warned that not all those who call him Lord would enter into the kingdom of heaven. Labels are easy to put on. I am thinking here of all those who have their feminisms tattooed on their foreheads.

Roxanne Gay has called attention to the recurring problem of how the “other’’ is cast in the feminist circle in her 2014 book Bad Feminist, where she centres upon feminism’s insistence on an obsession with an unhelpful purist intellectualism. This intellectualised wall of division obviously hampers the progress of the feminist movement, as it widens a gap that ought not to be left unbridged. For feminism to thrive, this issue will have to be properly addressed, otherwise, feminists would be guilty of “oppressing’’ those who do not speak their language.

Little wonder many in the feminist mainstream are wary of the strategies of a woman like Beyoncé, even though she has been visibly speaking up for women through various media. One outstanding moment was the 2014 MTV VMA Awards when she performed her hit “Flawless” in which she featured Adichie’s views about the need for girls to overthrow the rule that they should not aim to be too successful in order not to make men feel threatened. I consider Beyoncé a feminist regardless of her attitude toward Jay Z’s infidelities (which is actually their personal business), regardless of how many millions of dollars she earns from what she does with her body in her music videos and shows.

I should think that most people have moved past the stage of denying there is a problem of female inequality, and that the next step is to, in our different ways, work on making society a place where we would not judge female politicians based on their clothing or makeup, and highly educated women would not look down on my mother because she doesn’t understand feminism (Lite or Weighty) even though she openly fought some man who tried to take advantage of her naive daughter. We seem to fixate largely on terminological issues. And in this terminological battlefield, we have other gender equality-oriented theories, most of them by non-Western activists, that heedlessly cast feminism as a monster. Could it be that we have a problem of not being attentive enough to the many contexts and strategies of the struggle?

Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele is meaningfully crafted to address middle-class audiences in Nigeria and beyond who are aware of the issues confronting women around the world. Her emphasis on the power of language in these discourses—equality and differences—must not be overlooked. One might be pushed to wonder if her manifesto takes cognizance of the need to reach the mass of Igbo women, especially as it is largely hinged on Igbo culture. I mean women who might not be familiar with feminism, who do not speak English but are determined to enshrine fairness and equality as principles of everyday practice. My friend tells me of his grandmother in Ghana who is part of decision-making in their village. She might not be seen as educated by Western standards, but she is highly commended in her family and society for supporting and encouraging her grandchildren to attain their highest potentialities. My friend cooks well and I sometimes jokingly say I would like to employ him as my chef.

Adichie may have written this manifesto on “how to raise a baby girl a feminist,” but I daresay her ideas are translatable into the context of raising a feminist male child as well, or, for that matter, a female or male child whose commitment would be to promoting the equalization of gender relations, whether or not such a child is labeled feminist or non-feminist, lite or heavyweight.

In sum, Adichie’s Feminist Manifesto is a pleasurable read. Her opinions are an invitation to a conversation.

Tolulope Odebunmi

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