Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a prolific writer who has also become a renowned feminist. Particularly important is the fact that she is a black African feminist who understands the condition of the black woman and works her way through the maze of cultural inhibitions unique to African cultures. So important is Adichie to black women in the 21st century that celebrated artist, Beyoncé sampled her 2013 TEDx Talk in the song, Flawless. She has become a cultural phenomenon whose impact has not only helped redefine the place of the modern woman but the modern man too. After all, her TEDx talk was ‘We should ALL be feminists’, men included.
Feminism: a word replete with negative baggage
“You are a feminist” is rarely ever a compliment. Adichie says the first time anyone called her a feminist, the tone was like that which a person would use to say, “You are a terrorist.” In fact, the word is laden with “negative baggage: You hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture, you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear makeup, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t use deodorant.”
These negative attributes discourage women from owning their equality and spearheading their own empowerment. Bold women are branded deviants and consequently isolated. After all, they intimidate insecure men who quickly accuse anyone who demands fairness of trying to turn herself into a man. It is not similarities that feminists seek but equality which is in no way connected to wanting to be a man. There is no logical connection between manhood and social hierarchy. Adichie therefore helps women take back the definition of “feminist” and refuse to be shamed for it.
Of Narrow Masculinity and Fragile Egos
Among the many things Adichie talks about, none is as haunting as the disservice being done to boys in how they are raised. She says, “We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.”
Stuck in this inescapable cage, boys are taught to be afraid of fear, weakness and vulnerability which are, by the way, normal aspects of the total human experience. It is not wrong then to conclude that boys are being denied their humanity. Partriarchy is therefore not just hurting the women but is denying males the chance to be human. Chimamanda sees a damning effect to this, “But by far the worst thing we do to males-by making them feel they have to be hard-is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.”
Sadly, it is the girls who are raised to cater to these weak egos by making themselves smaller and shrinking to feed the fragile egos of men. Adichie sees the causal link and says, “We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.”
The problem lies in that the locus of masculinity is external yet masculinity is the skeleton of manhood. Men growing up in patriarchal societies have an “exoskeleton” that thrives on impressions and public perception. We therefore have men who look big from the outside yet inside they are just boys crying for help. These men must pull down their women to maintain their public stature. Allowing women to rise makes them look small thus collapsing their exoskeletons to expose the little boys inside. Such men are emboldened in their masculinity by the respect society accords them, the money they make and the importance they are given. Public perception makes them and public perception breaks them. What if masculinity could be confidence from deep within inherent in every man? What if it did not have to be determined by societal expectations or impressions?
Ability Over Gender
Many people blame the condition of the woman in society on biology yet the reality is most handicaps placed on women are biologically unjustifiable. While men work in the formal economy, women are expected to be open to ideas of housework. Where men help, they are branded “effeminate” and “weak”. Clearly, nothing about the biological make of women says they are better suited to performing household duties. It seems like a small problem until young men who could have been chefs are denied their start by social constructs that deny them the right to cook let alone like the cooking itself. Adichie asks the all-important questions, “What if, in raising children, we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender?”
As a side note, household skills are essential for everyone seeing men will not always have subservient women to clean up after them. Deciding that basic skills of cleaning up, washing up and nourishing the self are not essential does not empower men in any way for independent living.
Adichie says her own definition of a feminist is, “a man or woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”
We should all be feminists!