“Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been named one of three winners of the 2017 Le Grand Prix de l’héroïne Madame Figaro award.
The Le Grand Prix de l’héroïne Madame Figaro prize was established in 2006 by the French magazine Madame Figaro to celebrate heroines of French and foreign literature. Each year the shortlisted works are selected by the magazine’s editor.
A team of judges, chaired by influential journalist Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, selected one French novel, one foreign novel in translation, and one non-fiction work. “Chère Ijeawele, ou un manifeste pour une éducation féministe,” the French translation of ‘Dear Ijeawele,’ was selected as the winner in the latter category.
Along with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alex Stresi was awarded the prize in the French novel category for ‘Lopping’ and Lauren Groff received the foreign novel prize for ‘Les Furies.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s French publisher, Marie-Pierre Gracedieu of Gallimard, commented:
“When I read Dear Ijeawele, I felt an urge to share it with many friends, women and men, who had become parents of a girl in the recent years. Then I started to feel it had to be read by parents of boys too. And thereafter by everyone of us to investigate our own education, and try to overcome a few inherited clichés.
Therefore to publish it at Gallimard has meant a lot to me, and it is a very rewarding experience to see it awarded the Grand Prix de l’Héroïne by Madame Figaro, a prize that celebrates the power of literature and of characters as role models.
The fact that such an established and popular weekly has understood the importance of spreading the content of this letter-manifesto, even in the Western world, and especially in the political context we are now, brings me joy and hope.”
This was the 12th edition of the Le Grand Prix de l’héroïne Madame Figaro prize.
“Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is Chimamanda’s letter of response to her childhood friend who asked her how to raise her baby girl – Chizalum Adaora as a feminist.
Excerpts of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s suggestions are as follows:
1. First Suggestion: Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by motherhood. Be a full person. Your child will benefit from that.
2. Second Suggestion: Do it together. Remember in primary school we learnt that a verb was a ‘doing’ word? Well, a father is as much a verb as a mother.
3. Third Suggestion: Teach her that ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense. Do not ever tell her that she should do or not do something “because you are a girl.”
‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever.
The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina. Cooking is learned. Cooking – domestic work in general – is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.
4. Fourth Suggestion: Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite. It is the idea of conditional female equality. Reject this entirely. It is a hollow, appeasing, and bankrupt idea. Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe in the full equality of women, or you do not.
5. Fifth Suggestion: Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable. If she were not to go to school, and merely just read books, she would arguably become more knowledgeable than a conventionally educated child. 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. I do not mean school books. I mean books that have nothing to do with school, autobiographies and novels and histories. If all else fails, pay her to read. Reward her.
6. Sixth Suggestion: 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.’
Tell Chizalum that women actually don’t need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings. There is a patronizing undertone to the idea of women needing to be ‘championed and revered’ because they are women.
7. Seventh Suggestion: 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.
8. Eighth Suggestion: 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. Remember I told you how infuriating it was to me that Chioma would often tell me that ‘people’ would not ‘like’ something I wanted to say or do. It upset me because I felt, from her, the unspoken pressure to change myself to fit some mold that would please an amorphous entity called ‘people.’ It was upsetting because we want those close to us to encourage us to be our most authentic selves.
9. Ninth Suggestion: Give Chizalum a sense of identity. It matters. Be deliberate about it. Let her grow up to think of herself as, among other things, a proud Igbo Woman. And you must be selective – teach her to embrace the parts of Igbo culture that are beautiful and teach her to reject the parts that are not. You can say to her, in different contexts and different ways – “Igbo culture is lovely because it values community and consensus and hard work, and the language and proverbs are beautiful and full of great wisdom. But Igbo culture also teaches that a woman cannot do certain things just because she’s a woman and that is wrong. Igbo culture also focuses a little too much on materialism and while money is important – because money means self-reliance – you must not give value to people based on who has money and who does not.”
Be deliberate also about showing her the enduring beauty and resilience of Africans and of black people. Why? Because of the power dynamics in the world, she will grow up seeing images of white beauty, white ability, and white achievement, no matter where she is in the world. It will be in the TV shows she watches, in the popular culture she consumes, in the books she reads. She will also probably grow up seeing many negative images of blackness and of Africans.
Teach her to take pride in the history of Africans, and in the Black diaspora. Find black heroes, men and women, in history. They exist. You will have to counter some of the things she will learn in school – the Nigerian curriculum isn’t quite infused with the idea of teaching children to have a sense of pride. Western nations do it well, because they do it subtly, and they might even disagree about having it called ‘teaching pride’ but that is what it is. So her teachers will be fantastic at teaching her mathematics and science and art and music, but you will have to do the pride-teaching yourself.
Teach her about privilege and inequality and the importance of giving dignity to everyone who does not mean her harm – teach her that the househelp is human just like her, teach her always to greet the driver and all domestic staff who are older than she is. Link these expectations to her identity – for example, say to her “In our family, when you are a child, you greet those older than you no matter what job they do.”
Teach her to speak Igbo. Not as a project. If Chizalum is Igbo-speaking, it will help her better navigate our globalized world. And studies have shown over and over that there are many benefits to being bilingual.
10. Tenth Suggestion: 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. Football. Table tennis. All kinds of sports. Any kind of sports. I think this is important not only because of the obvious health benefits but because it can help with all the body-image insecurities that the world thrusts on girls. Let Chizalum know that there is great value in being active. Studies show that girls generally stop playing sports as puberty arrives. Not surprising. Breasts and self-consciousness can get in the way of sports. Try not to let that get in her way.
11. Eleventh Suggestion: Teach her to question our culture’s selective use of biology as ‘reasons’ for social norms.
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.
12. Twelfth Suggestion: Talk to her about sex and start early. It will probably be a bit awkward but it is necessary.
13. Thirteenth Suggestion: Romance will happen so be on board.
Teach her that to love is not only to give but also to take. This is important because we give girls subtle cues about their lives – we teach girls that a large component of their ability to love is their ability to self-sacrifice. We do not teach this to boys. Teach her that to love she must give of herself emotionally but she must also expect to be given.
I think love is the most important thing in life.
I want to say something about money here. Teach her never ever to say such nonsense as ‘my money is my money and his money is our money.’ It is vile. And dangerous – to have that attitude means that you must potentially accept other harmful ideas as well. Teach her that it is NOT a man’s role to provide. In a healthy relationship, it is the role of whoever can provide to provide.
14. Fourteenth Suggestion: 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.
15. Fifteenth Suggestion: Teach her about 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 to be nice but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world. And by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world.
She must know and understand 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 she must respect. Teach her that we do not know – we cannot know – everything about life. Both religion and science have spaces for the things we do not know, and it is enough to make peace with that.
Teach her never to universalize her own standards or experiences. Teach her that her standards are for her alone, and not for other people. This is the only necessary form of humility: the realization that difference is normal.