The first thing I noticed was the audience. There was something special about this particular crowd. A majority of women of all ages, colours and shapes – interspersed with some men. Apart from looks the audience was rapturous, you could feel the energy and the excitement reverberating in every single heart that night in London’s Southbank. It was all for her. She, who is a reluctant feminist. She, who says she is still unsure of what it means to be an icon. Nonetheless, she embraces it with all her smart vigour. She, that is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Shero of a generation of women who are looking for a voice and for the right words to articulate what we all feel and are rarely able to say. Not the way she does anyways.
It’s a Saturday night and Chimamanda is greeted like a rockstar when she enters the main auditorium to speak about what it means to be a woman today as part of the Women’s of the World Series.
She started off her talk with a profound statement from her new book, Dear Ijeawele. Dear Ijeawele, is a small booklet with 15 suggestions on how to raise a strong independent woman. The statement is quite simple, really, it says: I matter equally. Not ‘if only’, not ‘as long as’. I matter equally. Full stop.
This sets the scene and Chimamanda then explains how she became a feminist. She talks about how she was at carnival and had to go inside when the beautiful masks came out whereas her brothers were allowed to stay outside. She questioned the distribution of domestic chores, where she had to do the dishes – hating it – whilst her brother who actually enjoyed doing the dishes didn’t have to do it. She was told too that she must learn how to cook, whereas this was optional for her brothers. She said she asked a lot of questions and was never satisfied with the answers. Why aren’t roles assigned based on interest but based on gender? She talked about how girls and women from the early ages are taught to talk themselves down, make themselves less intelligent and how those constant sacrifices we make are in a perverse way rewarded by society. Like us being small is somehow beneficial for humankind.
We must be liked. Likability is high on a girls list and that goes as far as not saying NO when we should. Being nice to the person that sexually assaults you, because deep down you don’t want to ‘make a fuss’ and ‘be liked’. Chimamanda said: “I like to be liked. I don’t need to be liked’. Boom. Another one of her sentences that I want to have as a poster in my room.
Then the conversation moved to race and gender. It wasn’t about which one is more important (that is a ridiculous notion in itself) but she said that she feels that racism is almost more ‘accepted’. In her in-group, the people around her, the people who’s opinion matter, everyone ‘gets’ racism, whereas with sexism the burden of proof is so often on her, on us, the women. ‘He surely didn’t mean it’. ‘You are just a bit sensitive about this’. ‘Can we stop talking about feminism now’. the only reason why gender is important and why we need to talk about it, is because of sexism and because gender is part of that system of oppression and control. How often do we get shamed for our bodies. We are told to be sexy, but never sexual.
She points out how much we are lowering our standards for men. As if they were subhuman. As if we woman need to protect them from something they cannot control. (Here she points to her lap).
But still we have to ‘proof’ sexism. Here she said one of the things that really stuck with me: “I can be angry about racism, but with sexism I feel lonely in my anger.”
I feel that. I feel so lonely in my anger and I am so often unable to share this with my male friends. And therefore I find myself more and more gravitating towards my fellow woman, where there is a safe space to be understood and I am able to express these daily frustrations without having to listen to the annoying caveats that men often bring up. Sexism is not just an ‘irritation’. Sexism translates into my bank account, for all the years I have been paid less than my male peers, for all the promotions that I didn’t get, for all the times that I have been called ‘aggressive’ when I am expressing an opinion in the boardroom, for all the times I didn’t say no. But I digress.
There was ample talking about men this evening, but not in a sense of ‘the other’. It was full of compassion and born out of the realisation that men also suffer under this status quo. The concept of masculinity we constructed is toxic and we need to dismantle it and smash it. The conversation about feminism needs to move away from just women. We need to be clear that if we were to live in a feminist world, women and men would be better off! Feminism is about human rights.
In the end someone asked for the ‘magic formula’ to equality. In her usual clarity Chimamanda said: ” That won’t happen overnight. We must keep trying. It’s not about perfection. It’s about not giving up. Just keep trying every day.”
My male companion for the evening was mesmerised by her. He called her his new hero and the first public female role model he has. Watching something opening inside of him made my night. Almost more than all the conversations on stage. One thing that stuck me is this particular insight of him. He said: “I like strong women, so whenever I met a girl that isn’t ‘strong’ and a bit insecure I am immediately turned off, but now I understand that this might not even be her fault. It’s society that makes you girls this way and tries to subdue you and this could just be a reaction.” This exemplifies her point perfectly for me. We need to have those conversations every day and try our hardest to dismantle this cage of expectations for the sake of our sons and daughters – one revelation at a time.