Transcript – We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at TEDxEuston
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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Novelist
My brother Chuks and my best friend Ike are part of the organizing team, and 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!
So, I would like to start by telling you about one of my greatest friends, 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 that 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.”
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. 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 word feminist is 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’d forgotten to make that clear earlier because she assumed it was… obvious. 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!”
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 have 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.