Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on ‘Femini -ism’: “You say the word feminist and there is automatic hostility and it closes the door to debate…”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: It is a name many can’t hear enough of.  She transcends borders and her award-winning books and stories, delivered with the intellect, wisdom and wit of a matriarch, resonate and are endearing to women (and some men) across the world. But aside from her “unapologetic feminist” persona, the prolific author is also a wife, mother, and a global African, who cannot be fitted into one box – ‘feminist’.  She spoke  by Belinda Otas and here is an abridged interview.

NAW: There are so many voices on women’s issues and sometimes it can be confusing to decide which one to follow. How can the women’s movement strengthen its voice in numbers with one clear goal where there is no right or wrong voice?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:  One thing that I would say is that maybe we shouldn’t expect [that]… We can’t all be one united voice and this is why I talk about thinking about feminism as ‘femini – ‘isms’. Which is to say that as long as we start off with that basic premise of full equality, people can have different opinions. Lately, I have been thinking about how Christianity works and is such a force on the continent of Africa. I actually believe that it’s possible to forge a feminist platform around Christianity. Now, I am not the person to have this conversation. It has to be someone who is very involved with Pentecostal Christianity. My point being people who are feminists and see religion as part of the problem, which I think is also true but I also think that within religion, we can in fact create a platform that is feminist.

I have often said that I wish Africans would read the history of the Bible because they can use the Bible to justify anything. I mean let’s not even get started on the Old Testament. Let’s just look at the life of this man called Jesus Christ; if he lived today, we would say he is a crazy left-wing hippie.

But Jesus Christ was a person of love, and he clearly believed that men and women were equally worthy. So if we can start from there, we don’t have to have one single voice. We just have to have the same basic premise. And that’s partly why I started the book by talking about the two feminists’ tools because people have different experiences and interpretations. In the end, as long as what we are talking about is not diminishing women.

I see younger women being more willing to question things and that is probably what is very important, the ability and the willingness to question.

You share your time between the US and Nigeria. Given the political direction under Donald Trump, how do you feel about raising your daughter in this environment and has it made you extra protective of her?

Yes, in a way, America has become less aspirational to me, but at the same time I would like to think of Donald Trump’s administration as a temporary setback. I don’t know if it’s because I am being naïve but it’s almost impossible for me to accept that this will now be the new America.

And my daughter, I am lucky that I can have both worlds and she is going to have both worlds. I worry obviously; I have a friend who teaches in elementary school and she was telling me that after Trump won, the children in her class, I mean these are children who are six years old, were telling the Hispanic children, go home, go back to where you came from.

I thought that was the most horrible thing and that they are so young. Obviously it’s concerning but again, it’s this thing where it’s a temporary setback as bad as it is. We can only all hope this will come to pass soon. But in the meantime it seems that the election of Donald Trump has spurred more women into action – the Global Women’s marches for instance. However, on the other hand, a lot of white women voted for Donald Trump despite everything he stood for during the campaign.

Trump’s misogyny and sexism is indisputable, but sexualisation of women in images, music videos, lyrics and other media platforms has continued unabated for centuries and is getting worse. What’s your take and what can be done to halt this once and for all?

I don’t know. Honestly I don’t know. I don’t even watch music videos. Is there a new way, maybe not? Changing the status quo is never easy and is never going to be something that happens when you say it a few times. Sometimes, you need to say it a few thousand times.

It’s similar to the representation of women in magazines and media. I am a person who likes fashion and I read fashion magazines, and I often talk about how I wish there was a wider range of women’s’ images because I think those are aspirational.

Magazines for young girls, teach them to think what they see is the ideal beauty. And when editors say to me, how can we change that, it is as though somehow, it is something very difficult thing to do! I say we can change them by just stopping it. I mean people have power. It’s not as if these things fall from the sky.

So during your editorial meetings, decide you are not going to have 20 pages of thin white women. Have two pages of thin white women, two pages of white women who are not thin, two pages of black women and two pages of Asian women, you know it’s actually not that difficult.

People often have commercial concerns and they think if we change it, it’s not going to do well commercially but I don’t think that is true at all. People are hungry for images that reflect the real world and I really believe that.

The people who have made changes have seen it work. In some ways it’s similar to saying that films with black people will not do well but they do. I don’t think any of these things will stop or end overnight or that it will be easy. But I also just don’t think it’s a reason to stop trying or stop talking about it.

The last time we spoke to you was when we published the article “Africa needs feminism”, which was very well received. Does that statement still ring true and do you think the need is more urgent today than it was then, given the antagonism and hostility the word ‘feminism’ elicits?

I think it still rings true. I don’t think it’s any more or less urgent. It has always been urgent and still is. I see a lot of young women from the continent starting to talk about these things and the fact that this conversation is being had, is a good thing. I see younger women being more willing to question things and that is probably what is very important, the ability and the willingness to question.

The hostility and antagonism is something I think one should expect. For me, I try to focus less on the hostile pushback, and it’s not so much, it’s just that it’s almost an automatic response from many people.

You say the word feminist and there is automatic hostility and it closes the door to debate. It’s also important to say that a lot of this hostility is primarily coming from men. There are some women, who are hostile to feminism, but it’s primarily from men and in a certain sense, it’s not that surprising because all attempts to correct injustice are met with hostility and antagonism. It comes with the territory.

I guess my point is that it’s not a reason to stop or lose hope, because for every 100 loud voices of hostility, there are also those who are quieter and more reflective, and for me that’s progress.

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There is a lot of feminist conversation on social media. May I draw your attention specifically to the Nigerian context of the issue, which by and large, reduces the subject to cooking. Is this not a distraction from the core issues of gender and equality that feminism wants to address?

I don’t necessarily think it’s a distraction that cooking is part of the discourse. I think it’s important because it symbolises this idea that a woman’s place is domestic and only domestic and it suggest that a woman’s worth is measured by how good she is in domestic things. It’s also important because it’s actually a central part of the conversation about whether a woman can have it all. When we talk about women having it all, we really are talking about domestic work, and obviously, cooking to me symbolises domestic work in general. So I actually don’t think it is a distraction at all. It’s a conversation that should be had particularly because it seems to matter to a lot of people; which is to say that men who are hostile to the idea of equality should relinquish the notion that cooking should be gender based. I mean they have a really visceral rage about it.

So it’s important to talk about it. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that we live in a culture across the entire continent and in fact, the world, that somehow continues to insist and to teach girls that cooking is part of what makes them worthy. It’s like a central part of their worth. To challenge that, we need to talk about it.

Do you believe that intersectional feminism is necessary for uncomfortable conversations that enable better collaboration?

I have talked endlessly about how race shapes the way women experience gender, class and sexism. To be a black woman who has taken on that feminist label, in some ways, it is automatically intersectional. Western feminism focused on white women in the past and so the idea of intersectionality was a response to that and a means of being more inclusive.

In your  book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, you write about women learning to know that they matter. How can older women coming into the feminist and equality conversation at an older age begin to unlearn ingrained biases on women and gender?

It’s difficult because, I think it might be too late for older women. It’s very difficult if you have lived with something for 30 or 40 years, but at the same time, I think it’s necessary and better if we are to achieve a more just world. And more people in general will be happier, when more women reach their potentials. It’s a difficult thing but at the end of the day, women who have absorbed many of these ideas want things to be different and I say this knowing it’s very difficult. So for me, it’s about trying.

There are some women, who are hostile to feminism, but it’s primarily from men and in a certain sense, it’s not that surprising because all attempts to correct injustice are met with hostility and antagonism. It comes with the territory.

Do you remain hopeful for young African women, who are out there making change happen?

Yes, that’s the most exciting thing for me and I see it more and more. Anytime I meet a young African woman who talks about what she is doing, it gives me hope. That’s what I was talking about being hopeful despite all of the hostility. Even in Nigeria, there are young women interested in information technology and web design. They are not all going the more traditional route of being a lawyer, which is fine, it’s that they are saying I want to code, I want to start a web magazine, I want to start a fashion business and I want to sell affordable clothes.You have young women starting their own businesses and they have a can-do-ness. It is gratifying to see this can-do-ness because they are doing things that are not necessarily expected. I think that’s fantastic.

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