Feminism as Fairness
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In the introduction, I pointed out that the first and second generations of African women scholars and writers maintained a cautious distance from feminism, especially given its heavily white, Western origins and influence. On the contrary, their third-generation counterparts conceive of their feminism not in opposition to the West, but in relation to it. They understand feminism as a moral issue that transcends cultural differences precisely because it seeks to enhance the dignity of individuals without disrupting community cohesion. In this chapter, I seek to reestablish the thesis that African feminism, which is not conceived as essentialist or exclusive to Africa, is about fairness in the relation between men and women in Africa; it does not seek to establish an ideology, or set up an ideal of how African women should be. It rather urges a reevaluation of the cultural and moral assumptions that undergird the lives of African women, assumptions that, in the words of Iris Marion Young, define and handicap women. In the first part of this chapter, I attempt a restatement of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s thesis that all fair-minded people should be feminists.1 In the later part, I discuss her novel, Purple Hibiscus and her short story, “Tomorrow is too Far,” as parts of her effort to highlight the system that denies women recognition on the one hand and, on the other, maintains technologies that disable women’s bodies in African societies.
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C. Eze, Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, Comparative Feminist Studies,
In regard to feminism, Adichie is the most vocal of contemporary African women writers. In an interview with R. Krithika, she stated: “I am a happy feminist. I think all fair-minded people should be.”2 She expanded this conception of feminism in a 2012 TEDx talk titled, “We Should All Be Feminists,” underlining the moral and social challenges of feminism for all. It is instructive that she equates fairness and feminism, especially considering how deeply suspicious her African audience is of that idea. It is the conflation of feminism and fairness that has attracted my intellectual curiosity. This fusion of two seemingly distinct terms will constitute the central idea of my discussion. Why is feminism all about fairness? Fairness for whom? I locate Adichie’s understanding of feminism in the intellectual tradition that takes the moral equality of men and women as a starting point. Moral equality requires that men and women be held accountable for their actions as adults. If one is to be judged as a responsible adult, one has to act without coercion, an idea prevalent in works by Mary Wollstonecraft, and more recently, bell hooks.
In her letter to M. Talleyrand-Perigord, Bishop of Autun, Mary Wollstonecraft reinforces the Aristotelian idea that virtue can only flourish in the face of freedom:
Let there be then no coercion established in society, and the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into their proper places. And, now that the more equitable laws are forming your citizens, marriage may become more sacred: your young men may choose wives from motives of affection, and your maidens allow love to root out vanity.3
In a society where women are not free to pursue their dreams or to control their bodies as men do theirs, women cannot be expected to be virtuous. They may comply with the law, social and cultural norms, but that compliance cannot be judged as virtuous, for, as Wollstonecraft states, virtue can flourish only in a society in which freedom and equality are taken as a given: “the more equality there is established among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society.”4
The prominent African American feminist author, bell hooks, acknowledges the complex nature of feminism, especially among third- world women and women in minority cultures in the West. She argues that “women from exploited and oppressed ethnic groups dismiss the term because they do not wish to be perceived as supporting a racist movement; feminism is often equated with white women’s rights effort.”5 For her, however, feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit any specific group, race, or class of women, nor does it privilege women over men. It has the power to transform our lives in meaningful ways.6 Ending sexist oppression is for the greater good of all. She further argues that:
Feminist thinking and practice emphasize the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in partnerships and in parenting. This vision of relationships where everyone’s needs are respected, where everyone has rights, where no one need fear subordination or abuse, runs counter to everything patriarchy upholds about the structure of relationships.7
Essentially, hooks argues for a fair-minded society, and one of the ways to achieve it is to reassess the moral grounds for human relationships. She talks about a society in which relationships are not controlled by ideologies, but rather by a simple idea of fairness. Her idea, I think, expresses in a more theoretically grounded way what Adichie has sought to do in her interview and in her TEDx talk. Indeed, the title of Adichie’s talk, “We Should All Be Feminists” echoes bell hook’s book, Feminism Is for Everybody. What these two women have in common is their passion for social justice, fairness, and the enabling of bodies that had been disabled by patriarchal and sexist constructs.