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Raising a girl child, Adichie’s powerful essay

Published May 30, 2021
Updated Jun 09, 2021

Jatin Gandhi, a senior journalist in India, gifted this book – “Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” to us. Thank you.

A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a childhood friend, a new mother who wanted to know how to raise her baby girl to be a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s letter of response: fifteen invaluable suggestions for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. Filled with compassionate guidance and advice, it gets right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century and starts a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.

Where does power lie? Is it in language, in rationality, or in appearance? Is a complicated question. The societies and cultures around the world have made their own hierarchies of power. But if one may observe them carefully, it may be evident that masculinity keeps the giant share of power in most cultures. Societies and communities around the world have shunned the Women away from their power structures. The reasons given are myriad, and theories are many. So the question of Feminism is the most relevant one in all societies of the world.

The book has been laid with fifteen simple suggestions to raise a child as a feminist. But before the suggestions, she lays down two feminist tools.

  • The first tool is a premise: I matter equally, not ‘if only’, not ‘as long as’ but equally. Full stop.
  • The second tool is a question: Can you reverse X and get the same result? Does this mean if I flip the scenario around and use it for a man then will the result be similar?

These two tools are the basis of Chimamanda’s idea of Feminism.


Be a full person

Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood. Never apologize for working. You love what you do, and loving what you do is a great gift to give your child. You don’t even have to love your job, you can merely love what your job does for you — the confidence and self-fulfillment that comes with doing and earning.

People will selectively use ‘tradition’ to justify anything. Tell them that a double-income family is actually a true tradition because historically mothers did farm and trade. Reject the idea that motherhood and work are mutually exclusive.

In the early weeks of motherhood, be kind to yourself. Ask for help. Expect to be helped. There is no such thing as a superwoman. Parenting is about practice and love. Give yourself room to fail. A new mother doesn’t necessarily know everything. Don’t assume that you should know everything — read books, look up things on the internet, ask older parents, or just use trial and error. Over and above, take time for yourself and nurture your own needs. Our culture celebrates the idea of women who are able to “do it all” but does not question the premise of that praise. Domestic work and caregiving should be gender-neutral and we should be asking how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and at home.

Do it together

Well, a father should do everything that biology allows — which is everything but breastfeeding. Sometimes mothers so conditioned to be all and do all, diminish the role of the father. You might think he will not bathe your child exactly as you’d like. So what? Arrest your perfectionism. Share child care equally. It doesn’t mean a literal day-by-day score-keeping but you’ll know when the child care work is equally shared when there is no resentment.

Please reject the language of help. Your husband is not ‘helping’ you by caring for his child. When we say fathers are ‘helping’, we are suggesting that child care is the mother’s territory into which fathers sometimes venture. It is not. Do not even use words like ‘babysitting’ – people who babysit are people for whom the baby is not a primary responsibility.

Fathers do not deserve any special; gratitude or praise, nor do mothers. Both of them have decided to bring the child into this world and it’s a shared responsibility.

Teach your child that ‘Gender roles’ is absolute nonsense

We still think of cooking as some kind of marriageability test for women. Women are not born with knowledge of cooking. It is learnable. Cooking — domestic work in general — is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have.

Inrestingly, the world starts inviting the idea of gender roles very early on. Take children’s shop for an example where you will find dull shades of pink in girl’s section and vibrant shades of blue in boy’s section and a gender-neutral section with shades of bloodless greys. ‘Gender-neutral’ is silly because it is premised on the idea of male being blue and female being pink and gender-neutral being its own category. Why not just have them organized by age and displayed in all colors? The bodies of male and female infants are similar, after all. Toys for boys are mostly active and involve some sort of doing – trains and cars and toys for girls are passive and are overwhelmingly dolls. Why can’t they be just arrange by type rather than gender?

“Do not ever tell her that she should or should not do something because she is a girl. ‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.”

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE

Gender roles are so deeply conditioned in us that we will often follow them even when they go against our true desires, our need, our happiness. It can be very difficult to unlearn. Instead of letting your girl child internalize the idea of gender roles, teach her self-reliance and fend for herself. Teach her to try to fix physical things when they break. We are quick to assume girls can’t do many things. Let her try. Buy all sorts of toys – blocks and trains and dolls too.

Beware the danger of Feminism Lite

It is the idea of conditional female equality. You are either a feminist or not. You either believe in the full equality of men and women or you do not.

Teach your child how to read

Teach her to love books. Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become – a chef, a scientist, a singer, all benefit from the skills that reading brings. Make her read about autobiographies, novels, and histories. If all else fails, pay her to read. Reward her.

Teach your child to question language

Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions. But to teach her that, you will have to question your own language. Some mothers prefer not to call their daughter ‘princess’. because the word is loaded with assumptions of the girl’s delicacy of the prince who will come to save her etc, So decide for yourself the things you will not say to your child. Because what you say to your child matters, it teachers her what she should value.

Never speak of marriage as an achievement

Find ways to make clear to her that marriage is not an achievement nor is it what she should aspire to. A marriage can be happy or unhappy but it is not an achievement. We condition girls to aspire to marriage and we do not condition boys to aspire to marriage so there is already a terrible imbalance in the start. The girls grow up to be preoccupied with marriage but boys do not. The relationship is automatically uneven because the institution matters more to one than the other.

Teach your child to reject likeability

Her job is not to make herself likable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people. We teach girls to be likable, to be nice, to be false. And were do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls think of the ‘feelings of those who are hurting them. This is a catastrophic consequence of likability. Instead, teach her to be honest, kind, and brave. Encourage her to speak her mind, to say what she really thinks, to speak truthfully. Praise her especially when she takes a stand that is difficult or unpopular because it happens to be her honest position. Teach her kindness matters but also teach her kindness must never be taken for granted. Tell her she too deserves kindness from others.

Show her that she does not need to be liked by everyone. Tell her that if someone does not like her, there will be someone else who will. Teach her that she is not merely an object to be liked or disliked, she is also a subject who can like or dislike.

Give her a sense of identity

It matters. Let her grow up to think of herself among other things: a proud woman. And you must be selective – teach her to embrace the part of your culture that is beautiful and teach her to reject the parts that are not. Teach her about privilege and inequality and the importance of giving dignity to everyone who doesn’t mean her harm. Teach her that the household help is human just like her, teach her to always greet the driver.

Be deliberate about how you engage with her and her appearance

Encourage her participation in sports. Teach her to be physically active. Take walks with her. Swim. Run. Play tennis, footfall. All kinds of sports. This can help not because of obvious health benefits but because it can help with all the body-image insecurities that the world thrusts on girls. Let her know there is great value in being active. Studies show that girls generally stop playing sports after puberty arrives. Breasts and self-consciousness can get in the way of sports.

If she likes make-up, let her wear it. If she likes fashion, let her dress up. But if she doesn’t like either then let her be. Don’t think that feminism means to reject femininity. They are not mutually exclusive.

Never link appearance with morality. Never tell that a short skirt is “immoral”. Make dressing a question of taste and attractiveness. She will notice very early on what kind of beauty the mainstream world values. She will see it in magazines and films. She will encounter these values. So make sure that you create alternatives for her to see.

Teach your child to question our culture’s selective use of biology as ‘reasons’ for social norms

We often use biology to explain the privileges that men have, the most common reason being men’s physical superiority. It is true that men are in general physically stronger but if we truly are dependent on biology then children would be identified as their mother’s rather than their father’s because when a child is born, the parent we are biologically certain of is mother. So teach her biology is a fascinating subject but should never be used as justification for any social norm.

Talk to your child about sex and start early

It will probably bit awkward but it is necessary. Tell her that sex can be a beautiful thing and that apart from the obvious physical consequences, it can also have emotional consequences. Tell her that her body belongs to her and her alone, that she should never feel the need to say yes to something she doesn’t want or feels pressured to do. Tell her it’s best to wait until she is an adult before she has sex.

It’s not enough to say that you want to raise a daughter who can tell you anything, you have to give her the language to talk to you.

Romance will happen so be on board

Make sure you are aware of the romance in her life. You don’t need to be a friend but a mother to whom she can share everything. Teach her that to love is not only to give but also take. We teach girls that a large component of their ability to love is their ability to sacrifice. We don’t teach this to boys.

Teach her it is not men’s role to provide. In a heathy relationship, it is a role of whoever can provide to provide.

In teaching them about oppression, be careful not to turn the oppressed into saints

Saintliness is not a prerequisite for dignity. People who are unkind and dishonest are still human and still deserve dignity. There is an assumption that women are supposed to be morally ‘better’ than men. They are not. Women are as human as men are. Female goodness is as normal as female evil.

Teach your child about the difference

Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal. Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or nice but to be human and practical. Because the difference is the reality of our world. By teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world. Tell her some people are gay and some are not. Some go to the temple and some go to church. This doesn’t mean to be non-judgemental. She will have opinions but they should come from an informed, humane, and broad-minded place.

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