Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Hardcover: 80 pages
Publisher: Knopf (March 7, 2017)
If you read or watched Adichie’s TED talk on Feminism, We Should All Be Femnists then you’ll be at least a little familiar with what she’s suggesting in Dear Ijeawele. It’s short, punchy and speaks clearly about the ideals that covered in her widely publicized talk that was eventually sampled by Beyonce. I have little girls and it’s become increasingly pressing to self-identify as a feminist. Accepting the term feminist has never really been a problem for me and I have to give a side-eye to anyone who doesn’t want to accept that label, mainly because I have to ask why. Why aren’t you a feminist? You don’t like certain kinds of women? You don’t want to stand alongside a certain kind of woman while she asks for what? Equal pay? Time off to nurse her baby? Do you not want to stand alongside a lesbian? A woman who doesn’t want to change her name once she’s married? A woman who works outside the home?
When someone tells me that they don’t want to identify as a feminist it tells me something about them. Whether this is true or not will differ from person to person, but it is my own bias that springs up, maybe its my spidey sense. It tells me that one or all of these things are true:
- You believe that women should be paid less because they take time time off more often than men
- You believe that the mother is more responsible for the care and raising of children than men
- You believe that women are naturally inclined to caretaking rather than socialized to be
- You believe that boys will be boys
- You believe that rape is wrong, but accusing someone of rape is more wrong
- You believe that dressing provocatively will inevitably lead to danger
- You believe that men should always do the proposing
- You believe that birth control is always the woman’s responsibility
- You believe that the man is the head and not the tail
Raising a girl around people with these beliefs and tearing out those beliefs in myself is hard work. If I am to raise a girl I must be as Adichie instructs ” a full person”. It means that I have to follow my own dreams. I can’t afford to be “Rose” in the play Fences, planting seeds of myself and my hopes in my husband just for him to plant his seed in someone else, lest my daughter grow up to be Rose too. I need her to be a full person. I need her to dream big, cure cancer, dance wildly, love deeply, learn everything. She can’t do that if she’s taught to shrink herself, to look for her validation in men, to find solace in their smiles or the touch of their rough fingers.
Adichie has 15 suggestions that are all lovely but some stick out to me because of my own experience. She urges her friend to whom she’s writing this book to allow her daughter to wear her hair loose, to risk it being less than neat. Particularly as a black woman I have to pick apart what that means. She wants her friend to not steal hours of play from her daughter so that she can beat her hair into submission. Boys don’t have to suffer this way in order to be presentable. My hair is natural. I wear locs and have for a few years now and I remember the day that I decided I’d never chemically relax it again. A shock jock called the Rutger’s Women’s Basketball team a bunch of nappy headed ho’s. This after they had won the championship that year. It didn’t matter that they’d accomplished a great athletic feat. What mattered to him was whether they were pretty, and not objectively pretty, pretty by Eurocentric standards that are harsh even for white women for which they were designed to measure. I thought, why am I doing this to myself. I would spend at least 4-6 hours on a weekend allowing someone to chemically burn my scalp so that my hair could be limp and straight instead of thick, course and curly. I’d have chemical burns that would weep for days after. Who was I doing this for? I was not born with straight hair and I still think I’m pretty damn fine without it. That day I said no more and I will never let anything I can’t eat onto my daughter’s hair. Still, I rake and pull their hair into pretty, conventional, braids, a tiny afro puff for the youngest one (to the dismay of her great-grandmother. Her natural curls aren’t neat enough). She loves the braids when they’re done, but I have to wonder if I’ve taught her to love them, if the limited commercials she sees have taught her.
Adichie also mentions the shame around female bodies. I work with young girls and I’m dismayed at how little information is given to girls about their bodies. Many of my girls are low-income and they are desperate for menstrual products each month. I wrote a grant to get them menstrual cups. They’d never heard of them. Many of the teachers had never heard of them. In America there is shame attached to periods even though we all have them. To avoid touching blood we shell out millions each year to tampon and pad companies when we could spend $30 for a set of menstrual cups (my favorite brand is Blossom). There is so much mystery attached to vaginas. One of the girls lamented that her mother had forbid her to use tampons. What? Are you afraid she’ll get aroused. Is her vagina only in service to her husband and her children. We need to do better with our girls. We need to give them information and not shame as their birthright. Maybe if we do a bit better about that they could objectively measure Hilary Clinton against Donald Trump and see more than an unlikable woman in a pantsuit who refused to take her husband’s name with decades of experience vs. a rich businessman with a strong handshake and new/old ideas.