I have a confession to make before this review begins. I had never given much thought about Feminism: all the things about women’s rights. I knew that it mattered; I knew that it should matter; but I just did not grasp how much it should matter.
About four years ago, the 2012 Delhi gang rape case thrust me into this world I had been ignorant of. The stark contrast between Jyoti Singh’s world and mine was appalling. It left me with this deep revulsion of how she became a victim of a heinous crime, simply because she was a woman. Following this was the public outcry of how women in India have always been victims of rape, and the government of India has never done enough to ensure the safety of women. I began to see that in today’s twenty-first century, although the problem of gender might seem to have been alleviated, women in certain parts of the world are still very much choked and bullied by oppression. Deciding to cast the parochial me aside (shamefaced and sorry), I started to diversify my reading, by looking at books concerning women’s issues; books that will make me a better woman, or for that matter, a better human.
We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is one of such books that I have picked up. In this tiny book of 52 pages long, Adichie talks about her experiences in both Africa and America. Some of them that she had had in Africa bewildered me, such as the one when she tipped a man for helping her to park her car, and the man, in turn, thanked her male friend instead. His assumption was that the money should have come from the man and not her.
Similarly bewildering is Adichie’s revelation concerning the concept of marriage in African society. A successful woman, such as Adichie, is believed to intimidate man, leaving her with the difficulty of getting married.
Adichie gives an eye-opening view of what marriage is in her society: “Because I am female, I’m expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.”
And she goes on to tell why a Nigerian woman, whom she knows, decided to sell her house, so that she would not intimidate any potential suitors. Another unmarried woman in Nigeria poses as a married woman by putting on a wedding ring before she goes to conferences, because the ring is deemed to “give her respect”. The demarcation could not be clearer; a married woman is successful, she is to be respected, while an unmarried woman is a failure.
While I am bewildered and astounded by such episodes, because they are things that I do not see happening in my society, Adichie raised an issue that is subtle yet resonating. How do we judge if a woman is likeable?
She relates an experience of an American woman: having being unfairly treated by her boss at a meeting because of her gender, she eventually convinced herself that she should not speak up because aggression in woman is not a “likeable” quality. “What struck me with her and with many other female American friends I have is how invested they are in being ‘liked’ ”, says Adichie. Adichie then continues to illustrate this idea of a “likeable” woman – she is someone who is not “…showing anger or being aggressive or disagreeing too loudly”.
Now, that strikes a chord. This perception of a “likeable” woman is universal, indeed.
My late grandmother used a Hokkien word, to describe a woman who is not just aggressive, but a rather unlikeable woman, in her opinion. In fact, “aggressive” is too mild a word for her. Hence, whenever my grandmother called a woman “chia zhar bo”, we automatically took it to mean that her presence was unwelcome, and any interactions with her should be avoided.
People’s definition of the term, “chia zhar bo”, is actually quite divided in my society. To some, such a woman has a strong character, and who has no qualms about doing or saying things that obliging women will not. I also realised that to others, especially to men, a “chia zhar bo” also connotes a woman who is difficult to handle and, above all, one who will be a difficult wife.
This view of a “likeable” woman transcends all countries, languages and cultures. In order for a woman to be liked, she has to be demure, pleasant and agreeable. A woman who speaks her mind in meetings, just like the American friend of Adichie, is not “likeable”, so is a woman who is intractable or even rebellious, in my grandmother’s context. Therefore, if woman openly expresses her disagreement or anger, she could be seen as not likeable. In point of fact, such a woman is one who only wants to open up and voice her view; this, perhaps, is deemed too strong a character for a woman.
Would I have realised this perception of a “likeable” woman, without having read Adichie’s essay? I doubt it. Neither would I have realised the sexual politics masked in today’s society.