Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Four stars, read in November 2017.

Excellent as always for Adichie, and pretty comprehensive. In her advice to her friend she covers the obvious things—never link your daughter’s appearance with morality, don’t teach her to aspire to marriage, don’t give her father a parade for doing his share of the parenting, give her a sense of identity and full personhood, remember that “because you are a girl” is never a reason for anything—as well as important things that often get left out—teach her to love reading, surround her with adults who defy limiting conventions, teach her about oppression without turning the oppressed into saints.

This is what I love about Adichie, how broad and thorough her feminism is. She reminds us that feminism is about full and complete equality for all people, not just the illusions and baby steps our societies try to pass off as if we’ve achieved our goal. None of the progress we’ve made, anywhere in the world, is enough. We have a long way left to go.

These are my favorites of her thoughts:

“Because you are a girl” is never a reason for anything. Ever.

The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina. Cooking is learned. Cooking—domestic work in general—is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.

Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women. For X please insert words like “anger,” “ambition,” “loudness,” “stubbornness,” “coldness,” “ruthlessness.” Teach her to ask questions like What are the things that women cannot do because they are women? Do these things have cultural prestige? If so, why are only men allowed to do the things that have cultural prestige?

Teach her to reject likeability . . . We teach girls to be likable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice . . . Many girls think of the “feelings” of those who are hurting them.

Teach her about privilege and inequality and the importance of giving dignity to everyone who does not mean her harm.

Never, ever link [her] appearance with morality.

Teach her to question our culture’s selective use of biology as “reasons” for social norms.

Teach her that to love is not only to give, but also to take.

I think love is the most important thing in life. Whatever kind, however you define it, but I think of it generally as being greatly valued by another human being and greatly valuing another human being. But why do we raise only one half of the world to value this?

Teach her that it is NOT a man’s role to provide. In a healthy relationship, it is the role of whoever can provide to provide.

In teaching her about oppression, be careful not to turn the oppressed into saints. Saintliness is not a prerequisite for dignity.

Teach her about difference. Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal. Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or to be nice, but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world, and by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world.

Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people.

My favorite part is in the tenth suggestion (be deliberate about how you engage with her and her appearance). Here Adichie talks about her hair, cautioning her friend not to link her daughter’s hair with pain through hours of “too tight,” “scalp-destroying,” and “headache-infusing” plaiting in conformity with standards of beauty that do not respect her. This is something I feel very strongly about, partly because of my own watered-down but similar experiences throughout my life, and partly because it’s an issue that most white people—even ones who consider themselves allies—are still oblivious to. Jessica Williams explains better than I can, but essentially, our views of black hairstyles are incredibly racist. And of course as usual, this affects black girls and women more than black boys and men, so they are policed and discriminated against from both directions at once.

Adichie encourages her friend to talk to her daughter about beauty, because there’s no way to avoid her learning that mainstream beauty only fits very specific molds. The only solution, she says, is to offer her daughter as many alternatives as possible. To “surround her with a village of aunties,” women with qualities she can admire, and with “a village of uncles,” too—though she knows this will be harder to do.

I still cannot get over that blustering man with the over-carved beard who kept saying at Chudi’s last birthday party, “Any woman I marry cannot tell me what to do!!” So please find some good non-blustering men. Men like your brother Ugomba, men like our friend Chinakueze. Because the truth is that she will encounter a lot of male bluster in her life. So it is good to have alternatives from very early on.

I cannot overstate the power of alternatives. She can counter ideas about static “gender roles” if she has been empowered by her familiarity with alternatives. If she knows an uncle who cooks well—and does so with indifference—then she can smile and brush off the foolishness of somebody who claims that “women must do the cooking.”

If you think about it, this is why it’s so important for us to be ourselves, publicly, visibly, especially to the children in our lives; because providing these alternatives to mainstream conventions is the only method we have of challenging them. I love this image Adichie has created, of a girl surrounded by a village of aunties and uncles who are good, authentic, compassionate people. I wish I had one.

The book ends beautifully, and so I am going to end with it, as well. These are the last two paragraphs:

Please note that I am not suggesting you raise her to be “non-judgmental,” which is a commonly used expression these days, and which slightly worries me. The general sentiment behind the idea is a fine one, but “non-judgmental” can easily devolve into meaning “don’t have an opinion about anything” or “I keep my opinions to myself.” And so, instead of that, what I hope for Chizalum is this: that she will be full of opinions, and that her opinions will come from an informed, humane, and broad-minded place.

May she be healthy and happy. May her life be whatever she wants it to be. Do you have a headache after reading all this? Sorry. Next time don’t ask me how to raise your daughter feminist. With love, oyi gi, Chimamanda.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    Oh, I love her so much. This “Teach her that to love is not only to give, but also to take.” is something that I am STILL learning. I also give a wholehearted YES to the part where she says if you criticise a woman for X but not a man, then it’s not X that you have a problem with, it’s women.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Miri says:

      She is so great about putting things in precisely the right words to make them sound as common-sense as they are. I wish I could read her fiction again for the first time because it was such an extraordinary feeling, discovering her.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Jan Hicks says:

        I’m holding off on Americanah until I feel like I need to read it. I want to savour her. I still think about Half of a Yellow Sun, 18 months after I read it.

        Like

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