We Should All Be Feminists: A Critique

Rereading We Should All Be Feminists in 2020 is like revisiting a family album. However, just like there are some photographs in our photo album that we wish were better; so are my thoughts on this book, which is considered by many as a definitive one for taking extremely sensitive issues head-on with grace and humor.

First delivered as a TED talk in December 2012 at TEDxEuston, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech was converted into a book in 2014. I first read this book in 2018, back then I wasn’t that crazy a reader that I’m today, it took me a day to read this 52-page book. And I immediately liked it. Yesterday, I finished reading this in an hour, and basis my current political understanding of the feminist and queer discourse, I thought to again indulge in a conversation with this book and assess the magnitude of its contents.

How Unconscious Bias Messes Things Up

Ngozi Adichie recalls that her deceased friend Okolama first called her a “feminist.” And she confesses that she didn’t know what that word meant; however, she does remember that the way it’s said to her by her best friend was like saying “You’re a supporter of terrorism.”

She also remembers of an incident post the success of her first book (Purple Hibiscus) when a Nigerian journalist gave her an unsolicited advice, which she says is a Nigerian trait — Indian men are like that, too! He advised her not to call herself a feminist, “because they cannot find husbands.” As if finding husbands is the sole aim in one’s life. I don’t condescend this thought entirely, but I’m a firm believer of marriage being an institution of violence. If you reconsider what that journalist said you’d know how one party in a marriage is burdened with all sorts of commitments, to behave according to the set ways in order to respect this “institution.” I reject all sorts of machineries that are designed to subjugate one gender, or people who don’t even believe in this construct, by the collective obligation of the other or the society. It’s the language of marriage that’s corrupt, too. She writes, “The language of marriage is often a language of ownership, not a language of partnership.”

It’s where the critique of what this book stands for becomes important. What’s the kind of “socialization” that Ngozi Adichie is warning us of? She writes, and rightly so, that we’re used to seeing men at the leadership positions, hence we don’t imagine women being there because it’s a norm now. But isn’t she missing one more thing by exemplifying the marriage situation? It’s also become a norm to associate, almost synonymously, that a relationship — or a marriage —is a thing for heterosexuals only. First off, why do we need to rely on an ancient form of a commitment in a relationship like marriage. Why can’t we invent different associations? No matter how better a writer, or a speaker, they never seem to keep their unconscious bias in place. In doing a great service, assuming that she’s writing for all women out there, she forgot that not all women desire women. And not all men desire women, similarly. It’s nuanced. It’s something that Ngozi Adichie still needs to learn. (I purposefully chose this fight; however, there are other greater concerns with gender — or people who don’t believe in gender — and relationships. But I don’t see that we’re in a position to continue negotiating. I don’t see a point in selecting or prioritizing what we need first. Choosing this as well is an exercise that’s restricted to privileged section of the society, too.) We need to learn that we need all of us at the leadership positions and not just women. And those who’re not even ready to take the leadership position — because they’re discriminated — needs to be upskilled in order to have diversity and inclusion at top leadership decision-making positions.

Becoming a Self-Styled Feminist

As she gets different advices from different people, she finally thinks that her definition of feminism is this: Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not for Men.

She rightly says, in this book, that feminists — women or men have been since for ever thought to be unsexy, quarrelsome and bad people who’re angry always all the time. (Author Manu Joseph seems to have several problems with men being feminists without being in a woman’s body. However, he must first realize that there are serious problems with misappropriations, too. Which something to a humorous person like Manu Joseph escapes for he’s too busy writing something critiquing just about anything.) Some of the above traits might be true for some of us. But I fail to recognize any of them as unsexy.

Anecdotes from Life: The World Designed for Men

This book is very anecdotal as it handpicks certain incidents that the author experienced, and those shaped her attitude toward dealing with gender issues. She began to study the “naturalization” and “normalization” of gender roles. In one of the examples, she describes how there’s a test designed in her school to elect the monitor of the class. She’s the highest scorer, but didn’t get this position. Because the teacher thought a boy should be class monitor. The boy who scored second-highest marks became the class monitor even though he wasn’t interested in becoming one. In another she says how someone at the valet parking impressed Ngozi Adichie, and she decided to tip him. And the valet looked at her male friend Louis and said “Thank you, sah!” assuming whatever she’s giving him is obviously from her male friend’s pocket. She, then, goes on to describe how this world was designed for men. And how it’s surprising that we’ve evolved but “our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.”

I was reading the Human Development Report (HDR) released last year in November where it’s found out that given the inequality that persists it’ll take us 200 years to close the gender gap. Upbringing is where all the difference can be and is made. I’m not an optimist. And, I know that I’m a man enjoying privileges of being a man, but being queer puts me in a similar sort of situation where my gender expression is controlled, monitored. And when I don’t conform to those “norms” I’m punished in one way or the other. She correctly writes, “We do a great disservice to boys in ow we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.” We certainly needs a new way of nurturing our younger generation, as Ngozi Adichie writes: “What if we focus on interest instead of gender?”

Toward a New Imagination of Society

It’s something that’s rooted in our “Indian” culture. Our “Sanskar.” And our “reeti riwaz” — customs, too. I remember how Lipstick Under My Burka irritated and offended the patriarchal lords in many families, who found the movie abhorrent and not in “sync” with the “Hindu” or “Islamic” culture. Ngozi Adichie’s book has semblances with our rigidity in thoughts as well. She writes, “There are fewer guides for men about pleasing women.” And “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are.” In the same way that if your brother brings a girlfriend home that’d be cool, but if he brings a boyfriend or if your sister brings her boyfriend or girlfriend it won’t at all be cool then.

These expectations from different genders and people who don’t believe in the construct of gender — or those who are agender, gender nonconforming, gender fluid or polygender — make us limiting. There’s so much that each one of us can do if and only if society places its fuck in appropriate place.

“All of us, women and men, must do better.” — in the words of Ngozi Adichie. However, I’d tweak it a bit and write: “All of us must do better.” My all doesn’t restrict all to only two genders.

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Saurabh is working as a writer in a research and advisory IT consultancy firm. He frequently writes about gender and sexuality, and book reviews on an array of platforms.
Saurabh Sharma

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