We should all be feminists | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | TEDxEuston

Translator: Ivana Korom
Reviewer: Helena Bedalli My brother Chuks and my best friend
Ike are part of the organizing team, so when they ask me to come,
I couldn’t say no. But I’m so happy to be here. What a fantastic team of people
who care about Africa I feel so humble and so happy to be here. And I’m also told that the most beautiful, most amazing little girl in the world
is in the audience her name is Kamzia Adichie and I want her to stand up…
she’s my niece! (Applause) So, I would like to start by telling you
one of my greatest friend, Okuloma. Okuloma lived on my street and looked after me like a big brother. If I liked a boy, I would ask
Okuloma’s opinion. Okuloma died in the notorious
Sosoliso Plane Crash in Nigeria in December of 2005. Almost exactly seven years ago. Okuloma was a person I could argue with,
laugh with, and truly talk to. He was also the first person
to call me a feminist. I was about fourteen,
we were at his house, arguing. Both of us bristling with
half bit knowledge from books we had read. I don’t remember what this
particular argument was about, but I remember that
as I argued and argued, Okuloma looked at me and said,
“You know, you’re a feminist.” It was not a compliment. I could tell from his tone, the same tone
that you would use to say something like “You’re a supporter of terrorism.” (Laughter) I did not know exactly what this word
“feminist” meant, and I did not want Okuloma
to know that I did not know, so I brushed it aside
and I continued to argue. And the first thing I planned to do
when I got home was to look up the word
“feminist” in the dictionary. Now fast forward to some years later,
I wrote a novel about a man who among other things
beats his wife and whose story doesn’t end very well. While I was promoting the novel
in Nigeria, a journalist, a nice well-meaning man,
told me he wanted to advise me. And for the Nigerians here,
I’m sure we’re all familiar with how quick our people are to give
unsolicited advice. He told me that people were saying
that my novel was feminist and his advice to me — and he was shaking his head sadly
as he spoke — was that I should never
call myself a feminist because feminists are women who are unhappy
because they cannot find husbands. (Laughter) So I decided to call myself
“a happy feminist.” Then an academic, a Nigerian woman
told me that feminism was not our culture
and that feminism wasn’t African, and that I was calling myself a feminist because I had been corrupted
by “Western books.” Which amused me,
because a lot of my early readings were decidedly unfeminist. I think I must have read every single
Mills & Boon romance published before I was sixteen. And each time I tried to read those books called “the feminist classics”
I’d get bored and I really struggled to finish them. But anyway, since feminism was un-African, I decided that I would now call myself
“a happy African feminist.” At some point I was a happy
African feminist who does not hate men and who likes lip gloss and who wears high-heels
for herself but not for men. Of course a lot of these
was tongue-in-cheek, but that were feminists so heavy
with baggage, negative baggage. You hate men, you hate bras, you hate African culture,
that sort of thing. Now here’s a story from my childhood. When I was in primary school, my teacher said at the beginning of term
that she would give the class a test and whoever got the highest score
would be the class monitor. Now, class monitor was a big deal. If you were a class monitor, you got to write down the names
of noise makers, which was having enough power of its own. But my teacher would also give you
a cane to hold in your hand while you walk around and
patrol the class for noise makers. Now of course you’re not
actually allowed to use the cane. But it was an exciting prospect
for the nine-year-old me. I very much wanted to be
the class monitor. And I got the highest score on the test. Then, to my surprise, my teacher said that
the monitor had to be a boy. She’ve forgotten to make that clear earlier
because she assumed it was… obvious. (Laughter) A boy had the second highest
score on the test and he would be monitor. Now what was even more
interesting about this is that the boy was a sweet, gentle soul who had no interest in patrolling
the class with the cane, while I was full of ambition to do so. But I was female, and he was male and so he became the class monitor. And I’ve never forgotten that incident. I often make the mistake of thinking that something that is obvious to me
is just as obvious to everyone else. Now, take my dear friend Louis
for example. Louis is a brilliant, progressive man, and we would have conversations
and he would tell me, “I don’t know what you mean by things
being different or harder for women. Maybe in the past, but not now.” And I didn’t understand how Louis
could not see what seems so self-evident. Then one evening, in Lagos,
Louis and I went out with friends. And for people here who
are not familiar with Lagos, there’s that wonderful Lagos’ fixture, the sprinkling of energetic man
who hung around outside establishments and very dramatically “help” you
park your car. I was impressed with
the particular theatrics of the man who found us
a parking spot that evening, and so as we were leaving,
I decided to leave him a tip. I opened my bag, put my hand inside my bag, brought out my money that
I had earned from doing my work, and I gave it to the man. And he, this man who was very grateful,
and very happy, took the money from me, looked across at Louis, and said “Thank you, sir!” (Laughter) Louis looked at me, surprised, and asked “Why is he thanking me?
I didn’t give him the money.” Then I saw realization
dawned on Louis’ face. The man believed that
whatever money I had had ultimately come from Louis. Because Louis is a man. The men and women are different. We have different hormones,
we have different sexual organs, we have different biological abilities, women can have babies, men can’t. At least not yet. Men have testosterone and are
in general physically stronger than women. There’s slightly more women
than men in the world, about 52% of the world’s population
is female. But most of the positions of power
and prestige are occupied by men. The late Kenyan Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai, put it simply
and well when she said: “The higher you go,
the fewer women there are.” In the recent US elections we kept hearing
of the Lilly Ledbetter law, and if we go beyond the nicely
alliterative name of that law, it was really about a man and a woman doing the same job being equally qualified and the man being paid more
because he’s a man. So in the literal way, men rule the world, and this made sense a thousand years ago because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was
the most important attribute for survival. The physically stronger person
was more likely to lead, and men, in general,
are physically stronger. Of course there are many exceptions. But today we live
in a vastly different world. The person more likely to lead
is not the physically stronger person, it is the more creative person,
the more intelligent person, the more innovative person, and there are no hormones
for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman
to be intelligent, to be creative, to be innovative. We have evolved; but it seems to me
that our ideas of gender had not evolved. Some weeks ago I walked into a lobby
of one of the best Nigerian hotels. I thought about naming the hotel,
but I thought I probably shouldn’t, and a guard at the entrance stopped me
and ask me annoying questions, because their automatic assumption is
that a Nigerian female walking into a hotel alone is a sex worker. And by the way, why do these hotels focus on the ostensible supply rather than
the demand for sex workers? In Lagos I cannot go alone into
many “reputable” bars and clubs. They just don’t let you in
if you’re a woman alone, you have to be accompanied by a man. Each time I walk into a
Nigerian restaurant with a man, the waiter greets the man and ignores me. The waiters are products… at this some women felt like
“Yes! I thought that!” The waiters are products of a society that has taught them that men are
more important than women. And I know that waiters
don’t intend any harm. But it’s one thing to know intellectually
and quite another to feel it emotionally. Each time they ignore me,
I feel invisible. I feel upset. I want to tell them I’m just as human
as the man, that I’m just as worthy
of acknowledgement. These are little things, but sometimes it’s the little things
that sting the most. And not long ago I wrote an article about what it means to be
young and female in Lagos, and the printers told me
“It was so angry.” Of course it was angry! (Laughter) I am angry. Gender as it functions today
is a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of
bringing about positive change; but, in addition to being angry,
I’m also hopeful. Because I believe deeply
in the ability of human beings to make and remake themselves
for the better. 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
on 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 Nigerian 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 then
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 that
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”
the 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 the 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 breadwinner
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’s an English word
I dislike more than “emasculation.” A Nigerian acquaintance once asked me
if I was worried that men would be intimidated by me. I was not worried at all. In fact it had not occurred to me
to be worried because a man who would be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of man
I would have no interest in. (Laughter)
(Applause) But still I was really struck by this. Because I’m female,
I’m expected to aspire to marriage; I’m expected to make my life choices
always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. A marriage can be a good thing; it can be a source of joy
and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls
to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? I know a woman who decided
to sell her house because she didn’t want to
intimidate a man who might marry her. I know an unmarried woman in Nigeria who,
when she goes to conferences, wears a wedding ring because according to her, she wants
the other participants in the conference to “give her respect.” I know young women who are
under so much pressure from family, from friends,
even from work to get married and they’re pushed
to make terrible choices. A woman at a certain age
who is unmarried, our society teaches her to see it
as a deep, personal failure. And a man at a certain age
who is unmarried we just think he hasn’t come around
to making his pick. (Laughter) 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’re 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 often not something
a man shows a woman. Both men and women in Nigeria will say – this is an expression I’m very amused by – “I did it for peace in my marriage.” Now when men say it, it is usually about something that
they should not be doing anyway. (Laughter) Sometimes they say it to their friends, it’s something to say to their friends
in a kind of fondly exasperated way, you know, something that ultimately proves
how masculine they are, how needed, how loved — “Oh my wife said I can’t go to club
every night, so for peace in my marriage,
I do it only on weekends.” (Laughter) Now when a woman says,
“I did it for peace in my marriage,” she’s usually talking about having
giving up a job, a dream, a career. We teach females that in relationships, compromise is what women do. We raise girls to see each other
as competitors not for job or for accomplishments,
which I think could be a good thing, but for attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be
sexual beings in the way that boys are. If we have sons, we don’t mind
knowing about our sons’ girlfriends. But our daughters’ boyfriends?
God forbid. (Laughter) But of course when the time is right, we expect those girls to bring back
the perfect man to be their husbands. We police girls, we praise girls for virginity, but we don’t praise boys for virginity, and it’s always made me wonder
how exactly this is supposed to work out because…
(Laughter) (Applause) I mean, the loss of virginity
is usually a process that involves… Recently a young woman was gang raped in a University in Nigeria, I think some of us know about that. And the response of many young Nigerians, both male and female, was something along the lines of this: “Yes, rape is wrong. But what is a girl doing in a room
with four boys?” Now if we can forget
the horrible inhumanity of that response, these Nigerians have been raised
to think of women as inherently guilty, and have been raised to expect
so little of men that the idea of men as savage beings
without any control is somehow acceptable. We teach girls shame. “Close your legs”,
“Cover yourself”. We make them feel as though
by being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot see they have desire. They grow up to be women
who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who
cannot see what they truly think, and they grow up – and this is the worst thing
we did to girls – they grow up to be women
who have turned pretense into an art form. (Applause) I know a woman who hates domestic work, she just hates it, but she pretends that she likes it, because she’s been taught that
to be “good wife material” she has to be — to use that Nigerian word
— very “homely.” And then she got married, and after a while her husband’s family began to complain
that she had changed. Actually she had not changed, she just got tired of pretending. The problem with gender, is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Now imagine how much happier
we would be, how much freer to be
our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight
of gender expectations. Boys and girls are undeniably
different biologically, but socialization exaggerates
the differences and then it becomes
a self-fulfilling process. Now take cooking for example. Today women in general are more likely
to do the house work than men, the cooking and cleaning. But why is that? Is it because women are born
with a cooking gene? (Laughter) Or because over years they have been
socialized to see cooking as their rule? Actually I was going to say that maybe
women are born with a cooking gene, until I remember that the majority
of the famous cooks in the world, whom we give the fancy title of “chefs,” are men. I used to look up to my grandmother who was a brilliant, brilliant woman, and wonder how she would have been if she had the same opportunity
as men when she was growing up. Now today, there are
many more opportunities for women than there were during
my grandmother’s time because of changes in policy,
changes in law, all of which are very important. But what matters even more
is our attitude, our mindset, what we believe and what we value
about gender. 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 Indomie noodles
for your brother.” Now the daughter doesn’t particularly like
to cook Indomie 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 Indomie? Cooking, by the way,
is a very useful skill for boys to have. I’ve never thought it made sense
to leave such a crucial thing, the ability to nourish oneself, in the hands of others. (Applause) I know a woman who has the same degree
and the same job as her husband, when they get back from work
she does most of the house work, which I think is true for many marriages, But what struck me about them was that whenever her husband changed
the baby’s diaper, she said “thank you” to him. Now what if she saw this
as perfectly normal and natural that he should, in fact,
care for his child? 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 enjoy teaching. Instead, I was worried about what to wear. I wanted to be taken seriously. I knew that because I was female I will automatically
have to prove my worth. And I was worried 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 man 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. If a woman has to get ready
for 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 fully and more truly myself. I have chosen to no longer be apologetic
for my femaleness and for my femininity. (Applause) And I want to be respected
in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be. Gender is not an easy conversation
to have. For both men and women, to bring up gender, sometimes
encounters almost immediate resistance. I can imagine some people here
are actually thinking “Women, true to selves? ” Some of the men here might be thinking “Okay, all of this is interesting, but I don’t think like that.” And that is part of the problem. That many men do not actively think
about gender or notice gender, is part of the problem of gender. That many men, say, like my friend Louis, that everything is fine now. And that many men do nothing to change it. If you are a man and you walk
into a restaurant with a woman and the waiter greets only you, does it occur to you to ask the waiter “Why haven’t you greeted her?” Because gender can be… (Laughter) Actually we may repose part of
a longer version of this talk. So, 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, you know, female apes
bow down to male apes and that sort of thing. But the point is we’re not apes. (Laughter)
(Applause) Apes also live on trees and
have earth worms for breakfast but we don’t. Some people will say, “Well, poor men also have a hard time.” And this is true. But that is not what this…
(Laughter) 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 ‘your experience as a human being’?” Now this was 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 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 what happens when that somebody else is in a bad mood, or sick, or impotent. (Laughter) Some people will say that a woman
being subordinate to a man is our culture. But culture is constantly changing. I have beautiful twin nieces
who are fifteen and live in Lagos, if they had been born a hundred years ago they would have been taken away
and killed. Because it was our culture,
it was our culture to kill twins. So what is the point of culture? I mean there’s the decorative, the dancing… but also, culture really is about
preservation and continuity of a people. In my family, I am the child who is most interested
in the story of who we are, in our tradition, in the knowledge about ancestral lands. My brothers are not as interested as I am. But I cannot participate, I cannot go to their meetings, I cannot have a say. Because I’m female. Culture does not make people, people make culture. (Applause) So if it’s in fact true
that the full humanity of women is not our culture,
then we must make it our culture. I think very often
of my dear friend Okuloma, may he and all the others that passed
away in that Sosoliso Crash continue to rest in peace. He will always be remembered
by those of us who loved him. And he was right that day many years ago when he called me a feminist. I am a feminist. And when I looked up the word
in the dictionary that day, this is what it said: Feminist, a person who believes
in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. My great grandmother, from the stories I’ve heard, was a feminist. She ran away from the house of the man
she did not want to marry, and ended up marrying the man
of her choice. She refused,
she protested, she spoke up whenever she felt she’s being deprived
of access, or land, that sort of thing. My great grandmother did not know
that word “feminist,” but it doesn’t mean that she wasn’t one. More of us should reclaim that word. My own definition of feminist is: a feminist is a man or a woman who says – (Laughter)
(Applause) a feminist is a man or a woman who says “Yes, there’s a problem
with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.” The best feminist I know is my brother Kenny. He’s also a kind, good-looking,
lovely man, and he’s very masculine. Thank you. (Applause)


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