Book reviews: ‘Dear Ijeawele’ and ‘We should all be feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I posted on here recently that the reading I seemed to have planned over the summer had a definite feminist theme to it. This was largely accidental although it could be something to do with having read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere recently, and thinking about the subconscious messages that women and girls inherit. Top of my list we’re these two slim volumes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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I was given We should all be feminists by a friend for my birthday last January and have been mulling over its content ever since. It is the modified text of a TEDx talk that the author gave in 2012 and was published in book form a couple of years later. Adichie grew up in Nigeria and now divides her time between there and the USA. It would be true to say that the book is written with an African context, that she has in mind many of the social and cultural norms that women in some African societies experience. It would also be narrow-minded and complacent, however, to dismiss the points she makes as not being relevant elsewhere. Adichie writes that in some parts of society ‘feminism’ is a term of abuse or is used as an insult; it is used to describe women who have not been successful in finding a husband! I have heard the term ‘feminist’ used in derision in the U.K. too and we are sometimes inclined to think that it is no longer necessary; equality has been achieved they say, it’s merely spiteful to keep banging on about it! (Then you see the online vitriol that JK Rowling, and many others, have to put up with on social media and it’s very clear that battle is nowhere near won.)

Adichie writes of the problems of ‘normalising’ discrimination when we allow casual differences in the way we treat boys and girls to go unchallenged. Having different standards and expectations is part of the problem, as is gender-specificity in things like toys, behavioural norms and the interests which are promoted to different groups.

Adichie writes that these attitudes can be problematic for boys too; they can create expectations which may lead to poor self-esteem for many young men (if they are not able to be physically strongest or not inclined towards rough and tumble).  Adichie wants us to raise both sexes with equality in mind.

Dear Ijeawele takes this theme a step further. Published earlier this year it is written in the form of an extended letter to a new mother. Some years previously, a friend of the author wrote to her after she had just given birth to a baby girl, asking for advice on how she might raise her daughter as s feminist. The author explores more deeply the ideas that she first expressed in We should all be feminists and has come up with a list of fifteen suggestions for her friend. There is much here to digest. She encourages her friend to ensure the task of raising their daughter is shared and that gender roles must be eschewed not only in the endeavour itself but also in the language they use and the expectations they express to their daughter.

The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina.

Daughters should never be called “princess” (passive, linked to prettiness and dependency) nor taught to value marriage as an achievement. A girl does not need to be likeable but merely to be her full self.

Instead of teaching her to be likeable, teach her to be honest. And kind. And brave.

This is a powerful little book that I can imagine giving as a gift to a new mother or to a friend who might be experiencing dilemmas about how to handle certain parenting problems. As a mother of two daughters (and one teenage son) it has given me much food for thought.

Reading these books made me reflect deeply on how I raise my girls. Thanks for the comments on the post I published last week about that. 

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