I was ten years old when one evening during dinner, I asked why was it that my mother ate after everyone else. Why was it that she did not eat with us? Why was it that when she did eat, no one asked her if she’d like more gravy, like she always asked us? Simple questions that only a ten year old could ask. My brother, then twenty three, responded with a smirk, “You sound like a feminist.” I asked him what that meant and he told me it was someone who asked such questions. A vague explanation, and a tone that taunted more than appreciated. My mother chimed in saying how feminism is wrong and shouldn’t have a place in the world, because it was a woman’s place to compromise, to see her family was well fed, with selfless devotion. It was a woman’s place to eat last.
I can’t say why but even at that age, this caused a lot of rage within me. This went beyond something I could accept or even comprehend or make peace with. But so much of social conditioning and internalizing goes on within that far too many times, I accepted certain injustices because I thought that was normal. That normal must not be questioned.
A couple of years ago, a good friend told me that while he respected women very much (I can say for a fact, he did, and more than most men I know) he wished women would just stay at home. He did not mean this in a sexist or malicious way; at least, that was not his intent. He said men with their fragile egos get only more riled up and feel threatened when women compete with them at the workplace. This leads them to turn more violent in order to keep women “in their rightful places”. In short, the way to curb sexual politics was to go back in time when men hunted and women cooked. Cos men, it seemed to my resigned friend, were reluctant to change.
We keep hearing about this: men and their fragile egos. Men almost seem proud of it. I don’t see why anything described as “fragile” should be cause for pride, but whatever. Around the same time as the above conversation happened, I came across the quote I’ve shared at the beginning of this post. And I thought, “Holy shit this is so true!” I did not know the quote was from a book. I had not even heard of Purple Hibiscus or Half of a Yellow Sun at the time, so even the author’s name did not ring a bell. I was just struck by the simple, stark truth of the statement. Which is of course why I still have that image on my phone, though I have changed three phones since I first saved it.
But enough about me. We should be talking about this wonderful book. Originally a Tedx talk given by Adichie, it was later published as a book. Short as it is, it covers all the right topics, and may I begin with this first:
“Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. 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. ‘Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?’ This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences. There are particular things that happen to me because I am a woman.”
The number of times I have had this argument (interestingly, almost always with other women who think feminism is something other than what it really is) has sapped me of all my energy. At this point, it’s like I’ve given up trying to explain to these women that standing up to that sexist boss is also feminism, standing up against the man who groped you on the street is also adding to the feminist dialogue. I mean, come ON! What is so difficult to understand?
As for the fragile egos, she says how men are pressurized into believing they have to be a certain way, and the stronger they’re told to be, the more “masculine”, the more pressure there is, and the weaker their ego becomes. Sad, really. Equality takes that pressure off of men. Equality means a happier world, just simply stated.
Adichie describes how she is never greeted by waiters at restaurants, but they always greet the man she is with. Something similar always happens to us at the supermarket. At the exit gate, quite a few guys rush to the Mr. imploring him to fill out credit card applications. They ignore me completely. Like I’m invisible. When I pointed this out to the Mr. one day, he asked, “Do you even want a credit card? I thought you hated credit cards.” I told him that was not the point. The point was, they assumed I need not be asked, cos as a “woman” what use would I have of anything like a credit card or money, when there’s clearly a man with me. Adichie says, “Does it occur to you to ask the waiter, ‘Why have you not greeted her?’ Men need to speak out in all of these ostensibly small situations. These are little things, but sometimes it is the little things that sting the most.”
Sometimes when I see anti-feminist slogans, I sulk for whole days. I slowly begin to understand why Sylvia Plath killed herself. I go through the same emotions – an intense desire to put my head in the oven. Then every once in a rare while, a Trudeau or an Adichie come along to lift up my spirits. Adichie says in the book that at first she believed her talk would not be appreciated, but the standing ovation she received gave her hope. Essays like this one give me hope. I wish it was longer. And I wish people who currently have no clue about feminism picked this up.
May we all read this book. May we all be feminists. 🙂