This week was Janmashtami, Lord Krishna’s birthday. My son was asked to dress up in ethnic clothes for school.
Now, I am as much a Nitish Bharadwaj fan as any other warm-blooded woman who grew up in the 90s, but I was grateful that his school did not specify “Dress him up as Krishna” because it saved me from the Annual Colony Moms Peacock-Feather Hunt.
(Ever noticed how it is only mothers pinging each other and running around the neighborhood searching for such odds and ends? How come no fathers ever grace such endeavors with their participation? A matter for another issue of this newsletter? Sent me your stories, moms and dads!)
After the festival was over, I was chatting with a friend whose school did insist on the boys dressing up as Krishna and the girls dressing up as Radha. We discussed the dilemma of standing up to these stereotypes vs picking our battles and conserving our precious Mom energies for the next Themed-Costume Hunt.
Here is something she said that I thought summarized the issue perfectly for me as a parent:
“In a ‘manmade’ world, our gods are also men, the ones epic tales are woven around. Our little girls are taught to aspire to be the consort of a heroic god, the fact that she is a goddess too doesn’t make it better for me. I worry about the kind of ideas this role-playing will engender.”
My friend and I are mothers who are trying to raise our children into balanced individuals despite the gender biases thrown at them by schools, family, and society at every turn. And it is hard. There are things you can foresee, but also things you are completely blindsided by - like this week.
A parenting book I recently read and loved was “Dear Ijeawele” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
The book is essentially a letter that Chimamanda wrote to her friend, Ijeawele, shortly after she had a baby girl, Chizalum (name probably changed). Ijeawele asked Chimamanda to tell her how she can raise her daughter feminist, and the book is the response in 15 suggestions - which pretty much apply, with some minor modifications, to boys as well.
Sidenote: I think this is the first time - in almost two years of writing this newsletter - that the word ‘feminist’ has made an appearance in it. This is not an accident. There is good reason why I have stayed away from words like ‘feminism’ and ‘misogyny’ so far. But that reason has more to do with the perception of these words than any personal aversion I have to them. In this post, however, I am forced to use the f-word multiple times. It is literally in the title of the book - “Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in fifteen suggestions” - so there really is no beating around that bush. If you are a reader who does not like words like ‘feminism’, ‘feminist’, or even ‘manifesto’, please feel free to ignore them. But do read on because no regular Womaning reader will disagree with the message behind any of Chimamanda’s 15 suggestions.
In fact, as I read the book, my mind kept going back to past Womaning posts that have covered some of the issues Chimamanda has tackled in the book.
As I go over her 15 suggestions, I will link to some of these posts for new or nostalgic readers.
Chimamanda begins the book with two premises that make a person a feminist (again, feel free to ignore the word if you are allergic, but stay with me):
Your (first) feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only.’ Not ‘as long as.’ I matter equally. Full stop.
The second tool is a question: can you reverse X and get the same results?
The second means - whenever you are faced with a decision and are wondering if it is a feminist decision, reverse the genders involved and see if it still holds.
Chimamanda gives the example of a wife choosing to stay with her husband even after he cheats - does she think he would do it for her? And would her family, and society treat the decision in the same way if she was the one who cheated? If yes, then it is a feminist decision. If no, then it isn’t.
I loved the simplicity of the second premise.
And it should leave us with no doubt whether my Annual Colony Moms Peacock-Feather Hunt is feminist or not.
Let us get into the 15 suggestions:
1. Be a full person.
Never apologize for working. You love what you do, and loving what you do is a great gift to give your child… Reject the idea of motherhood and work as mutually exclusive.
This is not to draw a comparison between a working mom and a homemaker. As I have written before, the term ‘working mom’ in itself is a misnomer because there is no mom who does not work - whether at home or the workplace.
Chimamanda also writes here about the need for working moms to not only be proud of their choices but also to be kind to themselves.
In these coming weeks of early 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. Please do not think of it as ‘doing it all.’
I could not agree more.
I wrote this piece about how idolizing women’s sacrifices is a subtle form of abuse, starting with the viral image of a mother cooking rotis for her son while attached to an oxygen concentrator - an image that was posted by her son, lauding the greatness of mothers. No. Just no.
2. Do it together.
Chimamanda advises Ijeawele to expect Chudi, her husband, to “do everything that biology allows – which is everything but breastfeeding.”
Sometimes mothers, so conditioned to be all and do all, are complicit in diminishing the role of fathers. You might think that Chudi will not bathe her exactly as you’d like, that he might not wipe her bum as perfectly as you do. But so what? What is the worst that can happen? She won’t die at the hands of her father.
Guilty as charged. I think that one of the many reasons why men are not equal parents in most marriages is that - after years of doing it all themselves - women can get a tad territorial and perfectionist about the way things are done. This is natural, yet a hurdle to having an equal relationship. It is something we discussed in the piece about mental load, and something I struggle with every day.
3. Teach her that ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense.
‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.
Neither is ‘because you are a boy’.
Chimamanda goes on about one of the key issues I feel very strongly about - as a mom to a toddler, and someone therefore surrounded by other toddlers:
It is interesting to me how early the world starts to invent gender roles. Yesterday I went to a children’s shop to buy Chizalum an outfit. I cannot help but wonder about the clever marketing person who invented this pink-blue binary. There was also a ‘gender neutral’ section, with its array of bloodless grays. ‘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 baby clothes organized by age and displayed in all colors?
More on this - along with photographic evidence - in this piece:
4. Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite.
It is the idea of conditional female equality. Reject this entirely… Feminism Lite uses the language of ‘allowing.’ Members of the society of Feminism Lite will often say, “Leave the woman alone to do what she wants as long as her husband allows.”
A husband is not a headmaster. A wife is not a schoolgirl. Permission and being allowed, when used one sided – and it is nearly only used that way – should never be the language of an equal marriage.
I love love love everything about this book - especially the imagery in her writing! I love the image of a headmaster husband chiding his schoolgirl wife. But this is exactly the way society benevolently bestows basic human freedoms on women.
A piece that came to my mind was the one about safety of women in public spaces. In this piece, we shared stories of women’s conditional freedom to access public spaces - women can go wherever we want. But:
At an ‘appropriate’ time. In ‘appropriate’ clothes. For an ‘appropriate’ purpose.
5. Teach her to love books.
I agree, of course. And I recommend that you gift this book to every new parent.
Another favorite of mine is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls which I have gifted to almost every friend who has a daughter.
(Psst. What are your favorite books to recommend to parents? Do share in the comments.)
6. Teach her 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. A friend of mine says she will never call her daughter ‘Princess.’ People mean well when they say this, but ‘princess’ is loaded with assumptions, of her delicacy, of the prince who will come to save her, etc. This friend prefers ‘angel’ and ‘star.’
Don’t even get me started!
Flip through any school textbook and look for the picture of a doctor, a scientist, an engineer, a professor, a judge, an actor - and what gender do you think you will see?
Similarly, look for images of a teacher (who is in the same business as a professor but not as senior), a nurse, or a secretary - and which gender do you think they will be?
More on the language we use around our kids here:
7. 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.
Chimamanda talks about this a lot. How young girls are conditioned to see marriage as a medal, while young boys are not - which seeds future marriages with inequality from way before the relationship has even begun.
Cheers, at this point, to all the single ladies! 🥂
8. Teach her to reject likeability.
Her job is not to make herself likeable, 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 likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this.
I think one of the toughest Womaning pieces to write was the one about domestic violence. A recurrent theme in it was how women are so conditioned to play nice and adjust and accommodate - that they don’t even realize it when a huge line is crossed in their own relationship.
9. Give her a sense of identity. It matters.
In this suggestion, Chimamanda talks about the need to give a child a sense of identity - of their roots. I love that she balances this by saying that a sense of identity should include both - pride in her culture, as well as a recognition of its many failings, for example, towards women.
The book is written in a Nigerian context but it is uncanny how many things that Chimamanda writes about her culture also apply to most Indian cultures.
10. Be deliberate about how you engage with her and her appearance.
Chizalum will notice very early on – because children are perceptive – what kind of beauty the mainstream world values… Let her know that slim white women are beautiful, and that non-slim, non-white women are beautiful… You will know your child best, and so you will know best how to affirm her own kind of beauty, how to protect her from looking at her own reflection with dissatisfaction.
A message that every woman - whether a one-week-old baby or a 36-year-old newsletter writer - needs to remind herself of every day, because:
11. Teach her to question our culture’s selective use of biology as ‘reasons’ for social norms.
‘A child first belongs to the father’ is a common sentiment in Nigeria. But if we truly depended on biology as root of social norms then children would be identified as their mothers rather than their fathers because when a child is born, the parent we are biologically – and incontrovertibly – certain of is the mother.
We also use evolutionary biology to explain male promiscuity, but not to explain female promiscuity, even though it really makes evolutionary sense for women to have many sexual partners – because the larger the genetic pool, the greater will be the chances of bearing offspring who will thrive.
So teach Chizalum that biology is an interesting and fascinating subject, but she should never accept it as justification for any social norm. Because social norms are created by human beings, and there is no social norm that cannot be changed.
Something that these stay-at-home-dads have shown every day - one dirty diaper at a time:
12. Talk to her about sex and start early.
Remember that seminar we went to in class 3 where we were supposed to be taught about ‘sexuality’ but instead we listened to vague semi-threats about how ‘talking to boys’ would end up with us being pregnant and disgraced. I remember that hall and that seminar as a place filled with shame. Ugly shame. That particular brand of shame that has to do with being female. May your daughter never encounter it.
Once again, this para made me marvel at how closely Indian and Nigerian cultures resemble one another, as I reminisced about the first time my own school decided to have The Talk with us:
13. Romance will happen so be on board.
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.
I was recently in a roomful of young woman and was struck by how much of the conversation was about men – what terrible things men had done to them, this man cheated, this man lied, this man promised marriage and disappeared, this husband did this and that.
And I realized, sadly, that the reverse is not true. A roomful of men do not invariably end up talking about women – and if they do, it is more likely to be in objectifying flippant terms rather than as lamentations of life. Why?
Even as we lament women being conditioned to crave marriage ka laddoo - I am happy to report that some of us do outgrow it, albeit after kissing many many frogs. And maybe even marrying one or two:
14. In teaching her about oppression, be careful not to turn the oppressed into saints.
Saintliness is not a pre-requisite for dignity. People who are unkind and dishonest are still human, and still deserve dignity… There is sometimes, in the discourse around gender, the 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.
In 2013, Tarun Tejpal assaulted a Tehelka employee and admitted to it in an official email he later wrote to her after the news became public. And yet, last year, he was acquitted for the crime he publicly admitted he committed - on grounds that ranged from his victim’s explicit texts with other men, the fact that she had some alcohol that night, even the fact that she did not immediately get her mother on a flight to Goa where the assault happened. Also, “It is not possible to believe that a woman who is… physically fit (yoga trainer) could not push or ward off the accused." (a direct quote from the judgment).
Saintliness is not a pre-requisite for dignity.
15. Teach her about difference. Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal.
Tell her that some people are gay, and some are not. A little child has two daddies or two mommies because some people just do. Tell her that some people go to mosque and others go to church and others go to different places of worship and still others don’t worship at all, because that is just the way it is for some people.
Which leaves me with one final piece to re-share with you: one that I am a little too proud of, if I am honest. My friend Chitra shares her journey as a trans-woman - from coming out to herself, to coming out to her family and society, having a child even as she transitioned, and the continued challenges of living in an Indian city, navigating public spaces as a trans woman.
Let me end with a para that made me want to hug Chimamanda because of how close to my reality it felt:
Do you remember how we laughed and laughed at an atrociously-written piece about me some years ago? The writer – a man, small in more ways than one – had accused me of being ‘angry,’ as though ‘being angry’ was something for which to be ashamed. Of course I am angry. I am angry about racism. I am angry about sexism. But I am angrier about sexism than I am about racism. Because I live among many people who easily acknowledge race injustice but not gender injustice.
I am angry too - and on some days this anger can get overwhelming, especially as I try to parent a child in this lopsided, biased, unfair, unjust world.
On days like this, it gives me some sense of calm to talk to my fellow mothers who are navigating the same quagmire. Sometimes, we read books like this one and have a toast to one another - mothers raising the makers of a better tomorrow.
On other days, we Peacock on 🦚
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I love her book - have read it so many times over the years!! And I like how you've curated this post by linking her suggestions with relevant Womaning posts. Keep going ✊🏼
Love Adichie! Love how you’ve authored this post! Keep keeping on, I’m certain your posts will add value to the lives of many women and men too.