Dear Ijeawele, is a letter from one friend to another; an expert in the field, to a new mother.
In the introduction, we learn that Ijeawele asks for advice on how to raise her daughter as a feminist, and she is asking her friend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie how she can do it. Adichie has written many books, and they've been on my list for quite some time, but this is the first that I have had the chance to read.
From the introduction alone, I knew the coming pages would strike a chord. Having nieces and nephews in such a tight knit family, I feel a responsibility towards them. The way my aunts had a hand in raising me, I expected to be available to my nieces and nephews as well. Though they aren't my children, I found myself paying attention to articles aimed at parents; what could benefit them, what could harm them, and most frequently, products. It was too easy for me, the shopaholic, to forget about everyone else and buy picture books for any and every occasion for the kids.
When my first niece was born, I was in college and learning about feminism through various student groups aimed at diversity and inclusion, including gender diversity. I started to think about these things frequently. For so long, the idea of being oppressed because of my gender was seen through a lens specific to Indian culture. This was reinforced in the American Education curriculum, which tends to shed a light on women's oppression in Asian cultures, while conveniently ignoring its own. I hadn't even given time to how traditional gender roles would affect me in my very American life. But, I was starting to.
At the same time I started to realize how many levels there were to inequality. Slowly, I was trying to build a knowledge of feminism that was intersectional.
I am a feminist, and I do not hesitate to say it. I think the video above, with the author herself, does a great job of explaining some of the fears people have in referring to themselves as a feminist. I like to use those misconceptions as an opportunity to teach people. Being a feminist doesn't mean I hate men. Someone who hates men, simply for being men, is a misandrist.
As I read this book, which is actually really short as it's meant to be a letter, each suggestion for raising a feminist is very clear and concise. Since it's meant to be a letter to her real life friend, who has just given birth to a daughter, Adichie puts each suggestion in terms of the daughter, using her name. However, each suggestion can be used to raise any child, whether boy or girl, as a feminist.
I think one of my favorite things about this book, is how accessible the author is. Even by calling each of the 15 items a suggestion, you get a sense that Adichie is humble, and understands that ultimately every parent has to do what is best for their child. She states in one suggestion, 'You will know your child best.' That the list is exactly that, suggestions for how you could raise a feminist. She states in one suggestion, 'you will know your child best,' but she never pretends that this is the end all be all. When she addresses romance she notes 'I'm writing this assuming she is heterosexual - she might not be, obviously. But I am assuming that because it is what I feel best equipped to talk about.' She knows there are many layers and nuances, and that every child may have different needs. I truly felt that wherever possible, Adichie attempts to recognize that there may be different experiences, but I also appreciate that for each suggestion she has just one example to illustrate her point. After all, what parents with a newborn has time to read a whole novel?
Each suggestion felt like small practical ways that we may not think of. Many of them even revolve around the type of language we use when addressing children. Simply changing the way we talk to children, or the way we reward children, can make an impact. She provides small changes, that can lead to returns on investment. Partly because these suggestions would aim to prevent children from learning misogyny in the first place.
Even the examples she uses with each suggestion, are straight-forward. They're things that would come up for any child. The first example she used, was gender specific colors in children's clothes. This is a pretty common example, but it always makes me furious.
Not for my niece; she's a traditionally feminine girl who loves all things pink and anything to do with fashion. Clothes, jewelry, make-up; she loves it all. It wasn't particularly forced on her. My brother would actually be concerned that she would be too interested in clothes to study properly.
I'm furious every time the color example comes up for my nephew. Such a sweet child. His favorite color is purple, but he gets embarrassed if you say that now. He's been told how purple is a 'girl color' so he tries to make it a point now that he doesn't like it. Even when he wants the purple one, he'll refrain. I've even seen him hesitate. It makes me so angry that at such a young age, when he should be finding joy in the world, he is already policing what he likes because of what society expects him to like as a boy. And for something as harmless as a color. These are habits a child learns, and then carries throughout their whole life.
Throughout the letter, I felt Adichie avoids jargon while making her points. It's not some scholarly book on feminism. It's real advice, with context for real parents. I would highly recommend that this book especially be read by fathers. Granted her friend, a mother, asked for the advice, but I think it really puts into perspective how the patriarchy inhibits children, and can be especially harmful to the confidence, independence, and empowerment of young girls. This is important for someone raising a daughter who may not have experienced it themselves, or had women who shared those experiences with them as they grew up.
I also think fathers would appreciate Adichie's note 'that not all women are feminists and not all men are misogynists.' We don't have to be what society expects of us. Isn't that the whole point of feminism? That our gender does not define what we become. Whatever systems and social norms society may have in place to hold us back, we don't have to continue to allow it. This book empowers parents, mothers and fathers, to recognize that we can collectively tear down these barriers. It takes a village, but with these small shifts in the way we raise our children, that change can start in our own homes.
You can purchase Dear Ijeawele or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions from your local bookstore or here.