Patriarchy is a real problem that continues to wreck families and makes life a living hell particularly for women and children. It is a problem simply because of its inherent principle of inequality which insists on male dominance and superiority. The bigger problem is that it is hardly recognized as a problem. Patriarchal culture and thinking have been deeply rooted in the social psyche to a point that it is perceived by many as the norm and hence ‘it is just how it is’.
As such, challenging patriarchy is a challenge in itself. Talking to someone who embraces patriarchal culture, and most often than not an anti-feminist as well, about the problems that patriarchy entails can really get under one’s skin. This however should not be a deterrent for us to push or move the discourse further.
The hope for a more just and equitable society, for a better world in which our children will grow up loving and respecting each other, lies in the children themselves. Problem is, we live in a world that is steep in patriarchal culture and thinking, where everything seen, heard and experienced is driven by patriarchy and authoritarianism. Developing the critical faculty of children in order for them to make sense of such a world can be tough not just for them but the parents and caregivers as well.
Here is where Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions (published 2017) serves as a guide for us in our task to mold a generation that will reject patriarchal culture and thinking. Written as a letter of response to a childhood friend who had asked for her advice on how to raise her baby girl to be a feminist, Dear Ijeawele is perfect for those who prefer light reading. It is a little book with barely 70 pages but is packed with radical ideas by way of 15 suggestions on how to empower daughters to become strong independent women. Though it is meant as an advice for the nurturing of a girl into a feminist, the manifesto is undeniably one that addresses itself to both girls and boys and a clarion call to develop them all into feminists.
It starts from the very point where the problem itself started – at home. Patriarchal thinking asserts that domestic work and care-giving are singularly female domains. We celebrate the idea of super-women in our society who are able to ‘do it all’ but does not question the premise of that praise. Domestic work and care-giving should not be the domain of any specific gender but to be done together, and we should be asking not whether a woman can ‘do it all’ but how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and at home.
In doing it together, the language of ‘help’ must be rejected. A husband is not ‘helping’ his wife by caring for his child. He is doing what he should. When we say fathers are ‘helping’, we are suggesting that childcare is a mother’s territory, into which fathers valiantly venture. It is not. A husband does not deserve any special gratitude or praise, nor do the wife – they both made the choice to bring a child into the world, hence the responsibility for that child belongs equally to them both.
In our struggle towards gender equality, we need to caution ourselves against the idea of conditional female equality which expects men to ‘treat women well’ at the same time maintains that men are naturally superior. It uses the language of ‘allowing’, which is all about power. In some marriages, for instance, the husband would treat his wife with utmost tender and loving care, but the wife is not allowed to leave the house without first asking permission from the husband. Permission and being allowed should never be the language of an equal marriage.
Our children need to be taught from as early as possible that the idea of ‘gender role’ is an absolute nonsense. They should never be told that their ability or inability to do something is tied to the fact that they are either a boy or a girl. For instance, it is rather unfortunate that some families still regard cooking as some kind of a marriageability test for women. It is an acquired skill. Just like any domestic work in general, cooking is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. As Adichie has wittily put it across in this book, “The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina.”
There is also the problem of how early the world starts to invent gender roles e.g. blue for boy and pink for girl; helicopters and trucks for boys and dolls for girls. We need to provide our children with the space they require for them to reach their full potential, by seeing them as individuals, not as a girl or a boy who should be a certain way. The idea of ‘gender roles’ has been so deeply conditioned in us that it is very difficult to unlearn. It is thus important for us to make sure that our children reject them from the beginning. Instead of letting them internalize the idea of gender roles, teach them self-reliance. Teach them to question our culture’s selective use of biology as reasons for social norms. Biology by itself is an interesting and fascinating subject to learn, but it should never be accepted as a justification for any social norm, because social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed.
Probably the most important advice this world needs right now is in the last suggestion. We must teach our children about difference. We need to make difference ordinary and normal. Our children must know, understand and appreciate the fact that people walk different paths in the world, and that as long as those paths do no harm to others, they are valid paths that must be respected. They must be taught never to universalize their own standards or experiences, which are for them alone and never to be imposed on others.
A delightful read. Complement it with bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, and you would be well on your way to becoming a feminist.