The most difficult challenges to deal with are never the brick and mortar type, such that when the road from Accra to Kumasi is bad as it is, you just gather the resources and fix it. If there are any problems that should draw fear in us, they must be those that are shaped by our constant interactions as people; those of social, religious, cultural etc outlook. To that end, there seems to be an unspoken rule often demonstrated by the popular saying that; ‘’institutions that have taken centuries to evolve must be cast aside with great caution’’.
This seems to be the only reasonable explanation for why at all times we seem to have a large constituency that goes to every extent to defend the order. As we may be familiar with now, the feminist movement is on some badass campaign and the tables they are shaking have lost almost all their legs. In Ghana today there is a radical social media campaign under the tag name PepperDem Ministries. You could disagree with the strategies all you want but if you approached any social problem as gender inequality any differently, you’d have very limited options that are as effective as those employed by radical feminists. And not so long ago, there was #MenAreTrash. The backlash to that was expected but such inflammatory strategies have never been about facts. Radical narratives have always thrived on the shock value and so far these campaigns are working perfectly well as they have successfully steered the discourse long enough.
Today it is Chimamanda, again. Known for her unyielding character, the Nigerian writer has a fair balance of admirers and critics. Shot to the limelight probably through her exceptional TedTalk on Why we must all be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has never looked back on fuelling one controversy or the other. From the claim that trans-women are not women and many before that, we are now on why Hillary Clinton’s lead bio on Twitter as ‘wife’ is upsetting. I think within the feminist circles it is a valid question for one to ask of another. Part of the problems with having an unequal order is that anything could be attributed to it or not. And so if someone is always sceptical about the genuineness of motives as regards the subject they’d be right to do so. It seems appropriate therefore that if Hillary Clinton considers herself feminist and a role model for the new girl, she be made to explain certain things that could have patriarchal undertones on the face of it. It is an important opportunity for her to clarify.
What is however equally important is the need for icons of movements to be accountable and self-introspective. In fighting a system as perverse as patriarchy, the danger to knit pick or be un-listening of critique cannot be overemphasized. It is important to both the icons and more importantly the movement itself. After the huge backlash against Chimamanda on her question to Hillary Clinton, the former has had reason to clarify issues in a Facebook post. In that post, she’s revealed a couple more things that warrant an interrogation. We may even have to demand a little more of her now, in our collective contribution to this fight against gender inequality.
I found in that post that despite the response by Hilary Clinton, which seemed quite satisfactory to Chimamanda, she went ahead to demonstrate a striking disregard for Hillary’s marital status and to adamantly stick to her views on the inappropriateness of using ‘’wife’’ as her lead Twitter bio. Chimamanda consistently refers to HC as Ms, an honorific regarded by the Queen’s English Society as ‘’a linguistic misfit that only came about because certain women suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status’’. It is an indication that while the alternative of a more accurate and appropriate prefix of Mrs exists, she prefers to not use it. Situating that within the larger context of her objection to the elevation of marital status beyond a mere relationship to one of strong social value, it could be argued that Chimamanda did that on purpose. What is worse; it would appear to me as a flagrant disrespect for the choice of another woman with full agency of her own. Recognize that this is remarkably different from the earlier concerns about why she would use ‘’wife’’ as I have acknowledged earlier. This time, it would appear that despite the explanations and the obvious interest in choosing to remain married, Chimamanda in her omniscience still regard that choice of Hillary Clinton as trivial.
The conduct portrays a deeply condescending act; one that suggests that if it is not the way of the icon herein referred to as Chimamanda, it is probably wrong, never right. It is instructive to note that an obvious alternative existed which would be to refrain altogether from the use of any honorific for Hillary Clinton but she didn’t. She chose to apply a prefix which meaning invites us to a needless debate. And given that there is no record of an objection to the more appropriate honorific of Mrs by Hillary Clinton, one would expect that other than an obvious decision to disrespect the choices of others, Chimamanda would have used the appropriate prefix. And these semantic exercises are not even remotely trifling to the broader conversation because it is these that shape the larger discourse and provide a reasonable context. It is therefore extremely offensive that an icon so widely acclaimed would show such disrespect to another.
This is no different from refusing to refer to Bradley Manning now Chelsea Manning with the appropriate pronoun of SHE after her transition from being male. If the insistence to disregard her new gender is offensive, then Chimamanda is guilty as such.
Away from that, I have sought an explanation from my numerous Nigerian friends on whether Chimamanda still keeps her dad’s name as surname and whether or not she does same for her mom. I am mindful of my inadequacies in the knowledge of Nigerian or Igbo culture and the operational guidelines in naming children. I have learned however that the system as practised there is hardly any different from what we know in Ghana and other parts of the world. It follows therefore that Chimamanda takes the name Adichie from her dad or her dad’s lineage. Such a practice unfortunately would be the legacy of an age-long system where husbands had the exclusive rights of giving their family names to their children. Sadly this is a right that women/wives hardly enjoy.
If there’s anything I have learned from her, it is that we all have a responsibility. As an icon of feminism she has shown that anybody who holds the feminist torch must do everything necessary to remove patriarchy or anything that fuels it. In that regard, one would expect that now that Chimamanda is of age, she would seize the opportunity to rectify or completely dissociate herself form this patriarchal system that her continuous carriage of only her dad’s name portrays. To continually keep her dad’s name, the result of an unequal system which probably meant that her mother could not have as much power/control in naming her or her siblings, she is inadvertently protecting a patriarchal heritage. It is a reasonable expectation therefore that she rejects the practice or take any other appropriate step to rectify it. And to argue the opposite is to say that women must continue to take their husbands’ names because it is an old practice. Or that bride price should go on because it predates us.
It has been argued by some quarters that; ‘’it is possible to use something that is a legacy of patriarchy for a non-patriarchal incentive. And that her incentives for preserving the name ‘Adichie’ doesn’t stand in opposition to her strong feminism’’. I reject this view!
A question that arises readily in opposition to that view is whether or not the carriage of only her dad’s name is a perpetual reminder of the gender inequality in marriage and a vestige of patriarchy? Adults change their names all the time and often for very frivolous reasons. One would argue therefore that here, there is an opportunity for her to drop her dad’s name for a worthier cause; as a sign of rebellion against male hegemony and respect for women. It must be added also that by the very strong standards she’s set and her knowledge of how deep seated the problem of patriarchy is, she has a responsibility to take any action necessary to remove any patriarchal vestiges especially ones attached to her and within her powers. Lest she becomes a strong propaganda tool for a system we are all fighting so hard to remove.
There’s huge capital attached to fronting campaigns and talking tough on oppression. It is not always tiring and strenuous. Today, it pays to be a Chimamanda because the ratings go up and the book sales become increasingly profitable. You meet the right people and the world celebrates you immensely. Leaders of popular movements do us no favours anymore. It is our duty to be critical, even cynical of their motives and of their views. And so while it may be deeply inconveniencing to take a radical step such as removing your father’s name, it is a necessary act of commitment and sacrifice. She must show leadership. Because who says it is any more convenient for the Zongo girl who has been indoctrinated to believe that the kitchen is hers to say; not anymore! In this never ending process of destabilizing patriarchy, it is only fair that one’s privilege should be commensurate with the sacrifices.
Sacrifices, even the kind that endorse regimes we abhor must be assessed on their own merits. For it is a virtuous act that we must be careful to disregard. Even the noblest advocates for fairness, justice, equality etc must note that while their cause is worthy, there are numerous people faced with daunting challenges and when those people make concessions, however much we disagree with, our reaction ought not to be of a condescending effect. Icons of movements, and others of privilege and knowledge in the vast majority of instances are those who give off the least. And when subjected to their own high standards, the results have almost always been unsatisfactory. This is true of all moralizers, it is true of your pastors and imams, and it is true of our parents, of ourselves. And as has become evident, even more worryingly, it is true of the mighty Chimamandas. A little modesty would therefore be in order.
Abdul Karim Ibrahim is an award winning debater, a journalist and a social commentator.
He's moderated and participated in major national and international debates, public discussions and youth development programs notably; BBC Ebola Debate in Ghana in 2015, African Youth Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Pan African Universities debate Championship in South Africa etc. He's also a recipient of the Global Centre for Transformational Leadership award in 2011 for his leadership and ideas.
He hopes to promote discourse and shape official responses through social commentary.