Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is definitely one of my favourite authors of all time. Her seminal book, We Should All Be Feminists, is my go-to when it comes to feminism. Only 52 pages long, this book simply but powerfully demonstrates why feminism is an ideology that must be adopted by everyone in a civilised society.
Let us start with a definition of feminism. The definition that Adichie adopts is a belief “in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”. Undoubtedly, there are different variations of feminism that seem to be at odds with this definition. Some ‘radical’ feminists see women as superior to men and seek not just to dismantle the patriarchy, but to establish matriarchy. Others argue that feminist ideology requires the adoption of lesbianism as a political stance (see Ti-Grace Atkinson).
But such extreme positions do not mean that the concept as a whole must be tainted. Many concepts are broad and it is inevitable that different variations within that concept will arise. Take the concept of socialism for instance. The core of the concept, at least in its economic sense, is that the means of production in a society should be owned collectively. An extreme interpretation of this will require an overthrow of the state; a more moderate interpretation will allow the state to operate. But both interpretations relate to the same concept of socialism.
The same thing happens with religion. There are extreme groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, who use Christianity to justify racism. There are also extreme groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who use Islam to justify terrorism. But such extreme positions do not, or at least should not, affect the core of the religion.
So when I say we should all be feminists, I am not advocating for an extreme interpretation of the concept. I am simply advocating for us to embrace the core of the concept. And what is the core of feminism? For Adichie (and for me), it is simply equality of the sexes. The existence of extreme forms of feminism do not affect this definition.
At the same time, the desire to dissociate feminism from extreme positions does not mean that the essence of the concept should be watered down to the point that it becomes ineffective. Feminism today goes beyond just advocating for equal rights to vote, equal rights to education, and so on. Of course, these are foundational aspects of feminism that are highly significant. But just as significant are the aspects of feminism that deal with gender relations in day-to-day life and within the home. This goes from telling girls that they must learn to cook and clean, while boys must learn to make money and provide for their families; to encouraging boys to be dominant and assertive, while encouraging girls to be meek and submissive.
Because these aspects play a more implicit role in shaping behaviours and attitudes, they tend to be trivialised. However, we must remember that they too are important aspects of feminism. True gender equality involves being able to reach your full potential regardless of your gender. Therefore, true feminism must address gender roles in day-to-day life, just as much as it addresses gender bias in the political and public spheres.
Woman or human?
If feminism generally means equality of the sexes, then why do we need a separate category for it? Why can’t we just call ourselves human rights activists – people who advocate for the equal rights of all humans, whether men or women? Why single women out? To answer these questions, we need to understand the importance of context. Women have historically been – and are still being – marginalised. And if you don’t believe me, you can check out these facts and figures.
Given this context, it is futile to seek to achieve gender equality by adopting a neutral stance. As Adichie notes, “to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender”. We must first start from improving the position of the gender that has been marginalised. It is for this reason that we have feminism, which advocates for the rights of women specifically. This is not privileging women over men; it is simply recognising that women’s rights have largely been ignored. If we start from this position, then we can promote women’s rights until we reach the point where we can truly say that we have achieved gender equality. It is still human rights activism, but it focuses on a small subset of humans that have been marginalised (in much the same way that we have human rights groups that advocate for specific vulnerable groups like ethnic minorities or people living with disabilities).
Strength and culture?
Having gained a better understanding of the concept of feminism as gender equality, we can now address some of the arguments that have been used to justify gender inequality. The first of these arguments relates to strength. On this argument, because women generally possess less physical strength than men, they are inferior to men. Adichie does a great job at emphasising how ridiculous such arguments are:
a thousand years ago […] physical strength was the most important attribute for survival; the physically stronger person was more likely to lead […] Today, we live in a vastly different world. The person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes.
Intellect has nothing to do with physical strength. Thus, the fact that women are generally (though not always) physically weaker than men does not make them inferior to men. In any civilised society, such considerations of physical strength should be irrelevant.
Another argument used to justify gender inequality is culture. This is particularly common in the developing world, where culture has been used to justify practices that are oppressive to women, such as FGM and child marriage. All that is needed to rebut this argument is this quote from Adichie:
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.
An angry feminist?
We have established that gender inequality cannot be justifed based on arguments related to strength and culture. But the use of stereotypes can nevertheless cause people to dissociate themselves from the concept of feminism. An example is the stereotype of an ‘angry feminist’ – a woman who is miserable and bitter, perhaps because she had a bad experience with one man. This is a powerful way to silence people and stop them from challenging the status quo, because no one wants to be given that label. Well, I am an angry feminist – and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not miserable and bitter, as the stereotype suggests. But I do get angry at injustice because frankly, this is a situation that warrants anger. In Adichie’s words, “[a]nger has a long history of bringing about positive change”. It is anger that stirs the passion within us to drive change. So please, do not just be a feminist; be an ANGRY FEMINIST!
In this blog post, I have argued that the core of the concept of feminism is gender equality, and this ranges from equality in the political and public spheres, to equality within the home. The long-standing marginalisation of women calls for a separate category of feminism, rather than general human rights activism. Adichie has shown that arguments used to justify gender inequality based on strength and culture do not hold water. So the choice is yours to make. But if you do decide to be a feminist, then please get angry, because only then will we be passionate enough to drive positive change.
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- Confessions of a Feminist Thinker
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