‘We should all be feminists’ needs a place on the curriculum if we want to free children from the prisons of gender expectations, says Shivani Das.
As a young woman, it still boggles my mind to think how patriarchy is so ingrained in the minds of the people that this deep-rooted prejudice has become normal. Its control over people transcends region, culture, ethnicity, religion, race, caste or class. Patriarchy has become a pervasive phenomenon subtly inducing the idea of gendered power. It has been a long journey through human civilisation and I feel it is time to reconstruct the gender equations by changing our perception. Gender discrimination, from where I come from, is reflected through various systematic practices and traditions. Having witnessed such practices has deeply disturbed me. In most of what I have read so far on gender inequality, men have always been portrayed as an inherently bad species. Chimamanda is different.
My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.'”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This in short describes the entire theme of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, We should all be Feminists, in her own words. Ngozi, who hails from Nigeria, begins the book with her experiences of gender discrimination that she has been facing right from her childhood. There are interesting illustrations of a number of instances where she felt that she was treated differently because of her gender. To me Chimamanda is right when she says that the term feminism carries negative baggage. ‘Feminists’ are often considered to be women who hate men, who hate culture, who think women should always be in charge, who don’t wear make-up, who are always angry and the list goes on and on (and on!). She refuses to conform to such a negative connotation of the word.
Particularly interesting is her opinion on how men are led to develop a skewed opinion of women in the name of masculinity. From childhood they are raised to believe that they are tough, both emotionally and physically, that they are supposed to be breadwinners and not homemakers which is the exclusive domain of girls. So, they are superior to girls.
She says, “Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.” She strongly recommends an urgent change in attitude and mindset of not just men but also women. Because, not just boys but girls are also made to confine themselves to a particular set of behavioural rules and typical roles. For her, the concept of feminism is not about taking up cudgels against men as it is usually portrayed. Unlike some feminist viewpoints, she empathises with men. Individuals, men and women alike lack the freedom to be their own selves and are constantly pulled down by the weight of gender expectations.
Chimamanda acknowledges the fact that men and women are different, biologically and physically. We need to accept this with dignity. But it is the socialisation process that widens and exaggerates these differences and reinforces the practices of discrimination against women. It is here that she fiercely advocates gender sensitisation where she says “What if, in raising children, we focus on ability instead of gender? What if we focus on interest instead of gender?” The use of ‘children’ here is noteworthy as the term implies both the sexes.
The author asserts that the idea of gender has not evolved much although a lot of changes have taken place in the world in general. She feels that the change is mostly reflected by an increasing dependency on gadgets and gizmos, not in mentality.
People may argue that gender discrimination was a thing of the past that today in this fast-paced globalised world there is no such thing as gender discrimination. However, change is a farcical concept. We continue to cling on to archaic ideas of imprisoning men and women in incommodious cages of gender expectation.
Men too, fail to take cognisance of their privileges. This holds true for any dominant group in a society. For both men and women, gender discrimination has blended in so well in their regular lives that they find it hard to notice. Gender discrimination has become ‘natural’ and ‘normal’. It has been institutionalised in our psyche.
If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
According to Ngozi the use of the term feminism may be modern but feminism per se has always existed down the ages. Not all women meekly ‘compromise’ because they are supposed to. There have always been some women who have resented and have stood up. She gives the example of her own great-grandmother to prove her point. “She ran away from the house of the man she did not want to marry and married the man of her choice. She refused, protested, spoke up whenever she felt she was being deprived of land and access because she was female. She did not know that word feminist. But it doesn’t mean she wasn’t one.”
Ngozi says that the problem with gender is that it prescribes “how we should be instead of recognising who we are.” Individuals would have been much happier if they were allowed to be who they want to be. And that is possible only when the mindset and attitude changes. Another remarkable point that she makes is about people defending themselves under the cover of culture. She says,“some people will say women are subordinate to men because it is our culture.” To this her answer is “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”
I strongly feel that this book should be read by everyone, people of all genders, young and old. Written in a lucid manner the book is quite comprehensive encompassing a number of issues related to feminism. The best part of the book is her style of expression spliced with humour that makes it impossible to put down. The entire book is the experience of the author, mainly her life in Nigeria. However, every word in the book is the universal truth as emotions and feelings, hurt and insults are the same for everyone when discriminated against. If there has to be a change in our culture, a change in our attitudes then this book should be made a part of every school’s curriculum. We must catch them young if we want them to break free from the shackles of gender disparity.
Shivani is a recent graduate of Tata Institute of Social Sciences and presently works at Mythos Labs. She takes a deep interest in gender and digital spaces.
You can find her on Twitter: @Shivanidas24.