The questions I’m asking myself after an inspiring weekend of Chimanda Ngozi Adichie.
I’m very grateful. This weekend I saw/met the famous author and more importantly feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In 2012, around the time I wrote my thesis on why people are pro-gender-equality but don’t call themselves feminists, she had a really humorous and wonderful TED-talk ‘We should all be feminists’ for Africans and friends of Africa, that went viral and spoke to the whole world about the sexism we still share. Two years later I read her book ‘Americanah’ which I particularly like because it’s a combination of literature and blogs about race in America. And the main character Ifemelu is just amazingly inspiring (in my imagination it’s just Chimamanda herself).
Yesterday I went with four feminist friends and my boyfriend (who I call my feminist friend ;)) to listen to Adichie at the Brainwash Festival in a church in Amsterdam, with 449 others. Today I went to a meet up with her at Institute on gender equality and women’s history Atria, with 29 other movers and shakers in the feminist field, which you can still watch as a livestream here. I’m grateful because of so many reasons, most of which I will describe below, but two of which are that this was the first opportunity I could bring my Italian boyfriend to a feminist event, because a lot of times they are in Dutch, and because he is now also interested in Michelle Obama’s speech and reading Adichies essay. And the other: because I am having these amazing talks about Chimamanda and feminism with my roommate Cassandra, who is studying Gender Studies, which I never did. And I’m grateful that I was invited to this special meet up. BUT I’m not too grateful because I learned today from Chimamanda you should never be too grateful because you belong there. Which is true, I belonged there because I founded thé organisation for no-nonsense happy activism (Doetank PEER) in Holland and I do, think, talk and write together with so many lovely others on changing the world everyday.
So, on to the questions I’m asking myself after my Chimamanda-weekend:
How can I be unapologetic about my existence?
The parts that moved me most of what Adichie talked about this weekend was: being unapologetic about your existence. During the church-event a black girl and big Adichie-fan with really cool pink short hair stood up for a hug with Adichie and then asked her: ‘You are my role model, but I’m searching for more, what are yours?’ Adichie named Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, and her own family-members. She described that the thing that makes them her role models is that they are unapologetic about themselves. They don’t make themselves shrink. They really are there, because they are there. She mentioned Michelle Obama, who in an interview with Oprah Winfrey said, “I love me.” Being apologetic about being there is something you have to unlearn. Also Adichie had to and still has to unlearn that again and again. Girls who are newly born into this world don’t shrink themselves, stand firmly on two legs, aren’t “humble”, but after a while they learn to.
It struck me: this is something that I’m not good at yet. I’m smart, I use humour in my feminism, I am inclusive, but I’m still shrinking myself. Yes I now dare to post on Facebook almost everything I want. Yes, I never say ‘no’ to someone asking me to speak, be on television, be interviewed about something. I wrote some vulnerable pieces about myself. But I still shrink myself. I do it mainly in the little things. I speak fast. So I don’t take up too much time (but still can make my point). I make space when men walk straight up to me on a sidewalk. I don’t sit up straight. I cross my legs.
I make myself feel physically small. And this saddens me. I’m genuinely sad for myself. It’s an interesting feeling, because I’m not sad for myself a lot. Now I am. And I make the commitment at this very moment to change that. I want to write more vulnerable stuff, like I’m doing now. I want to make my voice heard even more. And most of all, I want to BE in the room that my body needs and talk slowly.
Meeting Chimamanda helped. Because, of course I already heard and read some stuff about ‘claiming your space’ as a woman, figuratively and literally. But the most useful thing is to just see someone doing it. Yesterday evening and especially today, Chimamanda sitting just three meters from me, I saw a woman being in the room she needs and speaking in a way that takes up room, air and that shines with confidence and brilliance. Seeing greatness makes you experience greatness yourself. It makes me think of what my Healing Tao teacher taught me. Healing Tao is a beautiful integrative technique based on Taoism, in which you do movements and meditations by which you learn about your body and heal it. One thing I should tell you is that this teacher is well aware of the fact that we live in a patriarchal society and that we now live in a Yan-era (yan is the masculine side of Yin & Yan). You can understand this is a condition for me know for almost anyone teaching me, especially spiritual stuff. One day my teacher was talking about the fact that in this day and age, especially in the Western World, we are ‘in our head’. This is something you shouldn’t feel bad about, and also don’t get mad about at yourself. It’s just that it would be healthy and feel nice if, next to being in your head, you would also be in your heart and stomach. All three at once. A pupil in our class asked: ‘Ok, but how do you do that?’ And the teacher said: ‘Look at me, I’m doing it now.’ Nothing happened for a while. Just silence. And it’s true, being in his class, helps me now intuitively know how to be ‘from’ my head, stomach and heart at the same time. Monkey see monkey do. The same happened today with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I saw her and I felt: I can be a woman and take up space at the same time. Afterwards walking in Amsterdam this resulted in me, quite funnily, not going aside everytime (and it happened three times!) a group of men / one man came walking towards me on the sidewalk. Two times shoulders bumped.
This will not be easy though. Having more Adichies around me would help, but I am still living in this patriarchal world, and also I want to be liked. As a woman taking up space it’s not always easy to also be liked. Should I give up wanting to be liked? Adichie also touched upon this topic briefly: ‘I’m not insensitive to what people think. I like to be liked, but I’m willing to be not liked.’ I think this is a condition for being unapologetic. You have to be willing to be criticized and maybe even being hated. It’s something I’m not acquainted with at all at this point, but I choose to be open to become more like that. A new me.
Still I don’t have the answers. I now only know that I want to be more in the company of women who are unapologetic about themselves and that I should be open to being disliked once in a while. But I need more tools. So if you are reading this and you have answers I invite you to comment: What are your ways to be unapologetic?
What are typically Dutch pitfalls we (as Dutch people) can fall into while trying to get to gender-equality?
Shit becomes interesting when you are together with 30 Dutch feminists and a Nigerian-American feminist joins the crowd. It puts stuff in perspective. You come to see the cultural layers and the way we are actually not only bound in being feminist, but we are also all Dutch (of course sometimes Surinam-Dutch or …-Dutch, but still: Dutch). The first thing Chimamanda said was that Dutch people are ‘cold’. Later discussing this with some feminists and with my roommate, we agreed upon that what she probably mainly meant was that we are ‘nuchter’, a Dutch word which is a combination of ‘down to earth, sober, literal, pragmatic and boring’. I could be that we are cold-hearted, but I don’t personally feel so. And at least it’s not the case for the Dutch feminists in that room. We are passionate about a lot of stuff. But we CAN be, and this is a serious pitfall, boring, sober, pragmatic and nuanced. We can be so nuanced; we don’t team up. We can be so literal and precise; it takes too much time to become clear. We can be so boring; nobody wants to read our books. It’s something to think about for sure. It made Anousha Nzume, with her Polish upbringing, come to the epiphany that when we would just all be a bit more Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie-like / Polishly unapologetic and serious about our causes we would solve a lot of the sexist shit in Holland over the course of a few months. I’m serious when I say I agree with her on that. It’s not over-positive, we just don’t shine as much as we could.
Another pitfall we came to talk about after the meet up, was the fact that in Dutch language we have a lot of diminutive but still not really harsh words. We can say a lot of bad stuff about women in a way that’s still not considered sexist or rude. For example, we have ‘Kenau’ or ‘manwijf’ (not perfect translation: manly woman) There are a lot of sexist columns that are written that way: using semi-interesting semi-hippie sounding words, but when you read the whole column: it’s just sexist. The same with most Dutch cabaretiers like Youp van ‘t Hek who are just ranting sexist shit for 1,5 hours on a stage, and then that’s humour. That’s their job. We have to stop thinking that’s normal. And even stop using the semi-diminutive words.
What are more Dutch pitfalls for bringing gender-equality to the Netherlands?
How can I be an ally for people that are not like me cis-gender, white, hetero, female, 26 years old, healthy, able-bodied AND at the same time don’t speak for others?
This is not something new of course. This is on the biggest struggle for feminists today. You want to speak out for gay people, even though you are hetero. You want to speak out for women, even though you are a man. But on the other side you don’t want to speak for others. Adichie described an American feminist (I personally think she meant Lena Dunham) who is criticised for that her feminism wasn’t black enough. Adichie said about this: ‘But I don’t want her to speak for me! (…) I do worry that sometimes the idea of being inclusive can mean that you have to speak for everyone. And I have a problem with that. I cannot speak for everyone. I don’t know what it’s like to be a white feminist or a transgender. It’s not that one person has to speak for everyone, it’s just that we need more individual voices in to the room.” It’s a super valid point. But it’s also not as simple as that. Because of course you can have different people in a room, but are they all heard? She is having the microphone, and certain others are asking the questions. To be critically on Chimamanda herself: she learned the term cis-gender (identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth) here in Holland. Yesterday in the church. And of course we love her work, we love her talks and stuff, but this struck me and some of my fellow feminists. In a dialogue at the drinks we came to the conclusion: You don’t have to know all the terms, maybe this is even an Western idea, all this knowledge-creation. But at least you have to be talking about the topics that don’t personally affect you. They are a part of feminism!
I personally, am still learning to be inclusive, or better said: unlearning to be exclusive. Two weeks ago I co-organized an event called ‘How to be a feminist’ and one day before the event I realized: the whole panel is white. I was focused on having diversity in jobs, transgender/cisgender, presenting as male/female, ability/disability, but the whole panel was still white. This would have never happened if almost all my friends, the people I work with and my family-members weren’t mostly white. So in that sense, I believe that the only way I can overcome this is make genuine bonds with people across ethnicity and skin colour. And moreover: I can try to become more attentive on it just for an event or only for my work, but isn’t my life boring and one-sided with only white people in it? It is. So that’s another goal for me. Make more friends (it’s really not that I have only white friends! Just way more) across cultures, skin colour and ethnicities. Not because of those factors, but because their stories are different than mine. My friendships are already way broader than four years ago when this all started for me, but there is still some road to go.
Please share your ideas with me on how to be an ally for people that don’t experience the same privileges as you AND at the same time don’t speak for others.
Am I as feminine as I want to be?
Chimamanda may not be the advocate for gender-diversity, she is a really strong advocate of something that I feel like is oftentimes missing in the feminist debate in Holland: the fact that femininity is looked down upon. That it is not being celebrated like masculinity is. And hearing her talk made me wonder: Am I as feminine as I want to be? Am I as connected to my feminine side as I can be? Because, when you are (indirectly) taught that masculinity is more cool, you come to like things that are male. It’s the reason why women are wearing pants but men are wearing skirts. Of course a piece of cloth that is wrapped around every individual leg is not more masculine than cloth that is wrapped around two. But I believe there is something like a feminine energy, the Yin to the Yan, that has been downsized in me and other women (and men). Chimamanda herself describes in her essay ‘We should all be feminists’ that she chose to wear a suit at her first time teaching a writing class, because she wanted to be taken seriously. Later on she wished she would have worn what she liked and not ‘that ugly suit’. She writes: “Had I then the confidence I have now to be myself, my students would have benefited even more from my teaching. (…) I have chosen not to be apologetic for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all my femaleness. Because I deserve to be. (…) I am girly. I am happily girly. (…) The male gaze, as a shaper of my life’s choices, is largely incidental.’ I don’t know if I can say that yet. Another point to think about: how feminine do I really want to be? And is that who I am already?
Let me know how you feel about these things below.
I hope this served you. ❤
Photo by Bianca Sistermans