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I need feminism because I still hold gender biases - And I don't want to

By: Soka Mthembu 2014-08-10 08:00

In recent weeks I have been privileged to listen to moving stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; a phenomenal young Nigerian writer and storyteller. I found her work on YouTube when I was searching for fascinating stories about Africa, stories that I could relate to, stories that could help me understand the continent and her people better.

The first story I came across was her story “The Danger of a Single Story.” Here she illustrates the perceptions she had about Americans whilst growing up in Nigeria as a young girl, and the perceptions she discovered existed in America about Africa. These she discovered upon arriving in America to pursue her tertiary education. Needless to say, many of these perceptions proved to be wrong. This story changed the way I think about fellow Africans from outside our boarders; South Africans and about fellow human beings in general – through her work, I am now getting better at relying on multiple stories about an individual before judging their character. This, I think proves that we are never too old to learn, but more importantly never too old to unlearn.

But, the story that has been of a particular interest to me is her story, “We Should All Be Feminists”. This is a story that challenges us to raise our children differently; it is the story that says to me; “it’s okay to tell a girl to protect her brother because boys can too be vulnerable.” It’s a story that suggests we raise boys in such way that they don’t feel threatened by a woman’s success but embrace it. It is a story that illustrates how patronizing us (men) can be, and how we can change this … maybe not for this generation, but for the next one.

BELOW ARE EXTRACTS FROM CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE’S TALK ON FEMINISM;
“Gender matters everywhere in the world, but I want to focus on Nigeria and on Africa in general, because it is where I know and because it is where my heart is. And I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start. We must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently. We do a great disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity becomes this hard small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves because they have to be, in Nigeria speak, “hard man.”

“In secondary school, a boy and a girl, both of them teenagers, both of them with the same amount of pocket money would go out and the boy would be expected always to pay, to prove his masculinity. And yet we wonder why boys are more likely to steal money from their parents. What if both boys and girls were raised not to link masculinity with money? What if the attitude was not, “The boy has to pay,” but rather, “Whoever has more, should pay.” Now, of course because of the historical advantage, it is mostly men who will have more today. But if we start raising children differently, then in fifty years, in a hundred years, boys will no longer have the pressure of having to prove this masculinity.”
“But by far the worst thing we do to males, by making them feel that they have to be hard, is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The more “hard man” a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is. And then we do a much greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, “You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful; otherwise you would threaten the man.” If you are the bread winner in your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you’re not. Especially in public. Otherwise you will emasculate him.” But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man. What if we decide to simply dispose of that word, and I don’t think there is an English word I dislike more than, emasculation.”

“It’s easy for us to say, “Oh, but women can just say ‘no’ to all of this.” But the reality is more difficult and more complex. We are all social beings. We internalize ideas from our socialization. Even the language we use in talking about marriage and relationships illustrates this. The language of marriage is often the language of ownership, rather than the language of partnership. We use the word “respect” to mean something a woman shows a man, but not often something a man shows a woman”

Now,

“What if, in raising children, we focus on ability, instead of gender? What if, in raising children, we focus on interest, instead of gender? I know a family who have a son and a daughter, both of whom are brilliant at school, who are wonderful, lovely children. When the boy is hungry, the parents say to the girl, “Go and cook noodles for your brother.” Now, the girl doesn’t particularly like to cook noodles, but she’s a girl, and so she has to. Now, what if the parents, from the beginning, taught both the boy and the girl to cook noodles? (Cooking, by the way is a very useful skill for a boy to have). I’ve never thought it made sense to leave such a crucial thing, the ability to nourish one’s self, in the hands of others.”

“I’m trying to unlearn many of the lessons of gender that I internalized when I was growing up. But I sometimes still feel very vulnerable in the face of gender expectations. The first time I taught a writing class in graduate school, I was worried. I wasn’t worried about the material I would teach, because I was well prepared and I was going to teach what I enjoyed teaching. Instead, I was worried about what I was going to wear. I wanted to be taken seriously. I knew that because I was female, I would automatically have to prove my worth, and I was worried that if I looked too feminine, I would not be taken seriously. I really wanted to wear my shiny lip gloss and my girly skirt, but I decided not to. Instead, I wore a very serious, very manly, and very ugly suit. Because the sad truth is that when it comes to appearance, we start off with men as the standard, as the norm. If a man is getting ready for a business meeting, he doesn’t worry about looking too masculine and therefore not being taken [for granted] [seriously?]. If a woman is getting ready for a business meeting, she has to worry about looking too feminine, and what it says, and whether or not she will be taken seriously. I wish I had not worn that ugly suit that day. I’ve actually banished it from my closet, by the way. Had I then, the confidence that I have now, to be myself, my students would have benefited even more from my teaching because I would have been more comfortable, and more truly myself.”
“I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be”

“Because gender can be a very uncomfortable conversation to have, there are very easy ways to close it, to close the conversation. So, some people will bring up evolutionary biology and apes, how female apes bow down to male apes and that sort of thing. But the point is, we’re not apes. Apes also live on trees, and have earthworms for breakfast, and we don’t. Some people will say, “Well, poor men also have a hard time.” And this is true. But this is not what this conversation is about. Gender and class are different forms of oppression. I actually learned quite a bit about systems of oppression and how they can be blind to one another by talking to black men. I was once talking to a black man about gender and he said to me, “Why do you have to say ‘my experience as a woman’? Why can’t it be ‘my experience as a human being’?” Now, this is the same man who would often talk about his experience as a black man.”

“Gender matters. Men and women experience the world differently. Gender colors the way we experience the world. But we can change that. Some people will say, “Oh, but women have the real power, bottom power.” And for non-Nigerians, “bottom power” is an expression in which I suppose means something like a woman who uses her sexuality to get favors from men. But “bottom power” is not power at all. Bottom power means that a woman simply has a good root to tap into, from time to time, somebody else’s power. And then of course we have to wonder when that somebody else is in a bad mood, or sick or impotent” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Happy Women’s Day to all women out there!

By Soka Mthembu: www.sokamthembu.com


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