Chimamanda Adichie pens a lengthy essay to her friend on how to raise a feminist daughter
This is the second and last part of Chimamanda Adichie's nine thousand word article on how to raise your daughter as a feminist.
The 9,000 word proclamation on feminism, which was posted on her Facebook page, was an open letter to her friend Ijeawele who recently gave birth to a girl and reached out to her author friend asking for tips on how to raise her daughter as a feminist.
"11. Eleventh Suggestion: Teach her to question our culture’s selective use of biology as ‘reasons’ for social norms.
I know a Yoruba woman, married to an Igbo man, who was pregnant with her first child and was thinking of first names for the child. All the names were Igbo.
Shouldn’t they have Yoruba first names since they would have their father’s Igbo surname? I asked, and she said, ‘A child first belongs to the father. It has to be that way.’
We often use biology to explain the privileges that men have, the most common reason being men’s physical superiority. It is true that men are in general physically stronger than women. But our use of biology is selective. ‘A child first belongs to the father’ is a common sentiment in Nigeria. But if we truly depended on biology as root of social norms then children would be identified as their mothers rather than their fathers because when a child is born, the parent we are biologically – and incontrovertibly – certain of is the mother. We assume the father is who the mother says the father is. How many lineages all over the world are not biological, I wonder?
For many Igbo women, the conditioning is so complete that women think of children only as the father’s. I know of women who have left bad marriages but not been ‘allowed’ to take their children or even to see their children because the children belong to the man.
We also use evolutionary biology to explain male promiscuity, but not to explain female promiscuity, even though it really makes evolutionary sense for women to have many sexual partners – because the larger the genetic pool, the greater will be the chances of bearing offspring who will thrive.
So teach Chizalum that biology is an interesting and fascinating subject, but she should never accept it as justification for any social norm. Because social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed.
12. Twelfth Suggestion: Talk to her about sex and start early. It will probably be a bit awkward but it is necessary.
Remember that seminar we went to in class 3 where we were supposed to be taught about ‘sexuality’ but instead we listened to vague semi-threats about how ‘talking to boys’ would end up with us being pregnant and disgraced. I remember that hall and that seminar as a place filled with shame. Ugly shame. That particular brand of shame that has to do with being female. May your daughter never encounter it.
With her, don’t pretend that sex is merely a controlled act of reproduction. Or an ‘only in marriage’ act, because that is disingenuous. (You and Chudi were having sex long before marriage and she will probably know this by the time she is twelve) Tell her that sex can be a beautiful thing and that it can have emotional consequences and tell her to wait until she is an adult and tell her that once she is an adult, she gets to decide what she wants sex to mean to her. But be prepared because she might not wait until she’s 18. And if she doesn’t wait, you have to make sure she is able to tell you that.
It’s not enough to say you want to raise a daughter who can tell you anything, you have to give her the language to talk to you. And I mean this in a literal way. What should she call it? What word should she use?
I remember people used ‘ike’ when I was a child to mean both anus and vagina and anus was the easier meaning but it left everything vague and I never quite knew how to say that I, for example, had an itch in my vagina.
Most childhood development experts and pediatricians say it is best to have children call sexual organs by their proper names – vagina and penis. I agree, but that is a decision you have to make. You should decide what name you want her to call it, but what matters is that there must be a name and that it cannot be a name that is weighed down with shame.
To make sure she doesn’t inherit shame from you, you have to free yourself of your own inherited shame. And I know how terribly difficult that is. In every culture in the world, female sexuality is about shame. Even cultures – like many in the west – that expect women to be sexy still do not expect them to be sexual.
The shame we attach to female sexuality is about control. Many cultures and religions control women’s bodies in one way or the other. If the justification for controlling women’s bodies were about women themselves, then it would be understandable. If, for example, the reason was – women should not wear short skirts because they can get cancer if they do. Instead the reason is not about women, it is about men. Women must be ‘covered up’ to protect men. I find this deeply dehumanizing because it reduces women to mere props used to manage the appetites of men.
And speaking of shame. Never ever link sexuality and shame. Or nakedness and shame. Do not ever make ‘virginity’ a focus. Every conversation about virginity becomes a conversation about shame. Teach her to reject the linking of shame and female biology. Why were we raised to speak in low tones about periods? To be filled with shame if our menstrual blood happened to stain our skirt? Periods are nothing to be ashamed off. Periods are normal and natural and the human species would not be here if periods did not exist. I remember a man who said a period was like shit. Well, sacred shit, I told him, because you wouldn’t be here if periods didn’t happen.
13. Thirteenth Suggestion: Romance will happen so be on board.
I’m writing this assuming she is heterosexual – she might not be, obviously. But I am assuming that because it is what I feel best equipped to talk about.
Make sure you are aware of the romance in her life. And the only way you can do that is to start very early to give her the language with which to talk to you. I don’t mean you should be her ‘friend,’ I mean you should be her mother to whom she can talk about everything.
Teach her that to love is not only to give but also to take. This is important because we give girls subtle cues about their lives – we teach girls that a large component of their ability to love is their ability to self-sacrifice. We do not teach this to boys. Teach her that to love she must give of herself emotionally but she must also expect to be given.
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 giving great value to another human being. But why do we raise only one half of the world to value this? I was recently in a roomful of young woman and was struck by how much of the conversation was about men – what terrible things men had done to them, this man cheated, this man lied, this man promised marriage and disappeared, this husband did this and that.
And I realized, sadly, that the reverse is not true. A roomful of men do not invariably end up talking about women – and if they do, it is more likely to be in objectifying flippant terms rather than as lamentations of life. Why?
It goes back, I think, to that early conditioning. At a recent baby’s baptism ceremony, guests were asked to write their wishes for the baby girl. One guest wrote: I wish for you a good husband.’ Well-intentioned obviously but very troubling. A three-month old baby girl already being told that a husband is something to aspire to. Had the baby been a boy, it would not have occurred to that guest to wish him ‘ a good wife.’
And speaking of women lamenting about men who ‘promise’ marriage and then disappear. Isn’t it odd that in most societies in the world today, women generally cannot propose marriage? Marriage is such a major step in your life and yet you cannot take charge of it, it depends on a man asking you. So many women are in long term relationships and want to get married but have to ‘wait’ for the man to propose – and often this waiting becomes a performance, sometimes unconscious and sometimes not, of marriage-worthiness. If we apply the first Feminism Tool here, then it makes no sense that a woman who matters equally has to ‘wait’ for somebody else to initiate what will be a major life change for her.
A Feminism Lite adherent once told me that the fact that our society expects men to make proposals proved that women had the power, because only if a woman says yes can marriage happen. The truth is this – the real power resides in the person who asks. Before you can say yes or no, you first must be asked. I truly wish for Chizalum a world in which either person can propose, in which a relationship has become so comfortable, so joy-filled, that whether or not to embark on marriage becomes a conversation, itself filled with joy.
I want to say something about money here. Teach her never ever to say such nonsense as ‘my money is my money and his money is our money.’ It is vile. And dangerous – to have that attitude means that you must potentially accept other harmful ideas as well. 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.
14. Fourteenth Suggestion: In teaching her about oppression, be careful not to turn the oppressed into saints. Saintliness is not a pre-requisite for dignity. People who are unkind and dishonest are still human, and still deserve dignity. Property rights for rural Nigerian women, for example, is a major feminist issue, and the women do not need to be good and angelic to be allowed their property rights.
There is sometimes, in the discourse around gender, the assumption that women are supposed to be morally ‘better’ than men. They are not. Women are as human as men are. Female goodness is as normal as female evil.
And there are many women in the world who do not like other women. Female misogyny exists and to evade acknowledging it is to create unnecessary opportunities for anti-feminists to try and discredit feminism. I mean the sort of anti-feminists who will gleefully raise examples of women saying ‘I am not a feminist’ as though a person born with a vagina making this statement somehow automatically discredits feminism. 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.
15. Fifteenth Suggestion: 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.
She must know and understand that people walk different paths in the world and that as long as those paths do no harm to others, they are valid paths that she must respect. Teach her that we do not know – we cannot know – everything about life. Both religion and science have spaces for the things we do not know, and it is enough to make peace with that.
Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of humility: the realization that difference is normal.
Tell her that some people are gay, and some are not. A little child has two daddies or two mommies because some people just do. Tell her that some people go to mosque and others go to church and others go to different places of worship and still others don’t worship at all, because that is just the way it is for some people.
You like palm oil but some people don’t like palm oil – you say to her.
Why – she says to you.
I don’t know. It's just the way the world is – you say to her.
Please note that I am not suggesting that 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.’ 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,"