The Mirror in Our Bathroom, Chimamanda

A quick disclaimer; I’m yet to read any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books. I have read a few of her articles (like the one she wrote about Michelle Obama’s speech), and I have also watched a number of her speeches online. I have observed from a comfortable distance, and I have been excited, intrigued, miffed, amused, taken aback and more by her opinions and by the reactions they have elicited amongst our populace.

Uzoma Chukwuocha Photo
Uzoma Chukwuocha

Having said that, you are free to fit me in at any point on that spectrum of fandom depending on how you read my opinions on your radar. A few stoic willed women have crossed our path as a country. Funmilayo Kuti, Queen Amina of Zaria and their likes readily come to mind. None, however, in more recent history has been as visible and steadily vocal as Ms. Adichie. Her visibility and resonance is not entirely of her own making. It’s more of a conspiracy of civilization and genealogy. She has a lot to say, don’t get me wrong, but she would have been talking to a far fewer audience had she not happened along in this age of social media and information technology on steroids. Hence when she coughs in her living room, we all catch a cold on the streets and wherever we are, as long as we have a smartphone or tablet with internet access.

The gods must have molded her with a plan in mind. In her own way, and to her credit, she is impactful without being threatening. She corrects and blames without belittling. She does all these without trying, so why does she still end up rubbing some of our folks the very wrong way more than a few times? Makes you wonder, is it the dancer, the dance or in this case the audience. Strong messengers bearing strong messages always evoke strong feelings. Some figuring out needs to be done. Some uncomfortable truths might need to be confronted if we are to make any kind of sense out of this interesting dynamics.

We have successfully made feminism a lightning rod in Nigeria and have gone on to make Chimamanda the Chief Priest of this new abhorrent religion. She wears it well from where I stand, and I do not think it bothers her in the least. There’s a dearth of introspective reflective thinking amongst our youth of today, a palpable lack of depth. This is not a shade (as it is called these days), but a statement of observed and observable facts. The fragility and frailty of ego amongst the men; The tangential obsequious antagonism of the women towards a voice that cries out for your own freedom; Then that side glance to the menfolk as if to ask ‘did I do it well?’. It’s all so funny and pathetic.

What I hear this woman calling out for is simple: RESPECT for women. Not pity, not indulgence, not a hand-me-down patronizing attitude. Not even reverence, you know the thing men have been enjoying for centuries to the point of taking it for granted and even being unaware of its presence and benefits in everyday life. Just respect.

Some historical context might help put a few things into a proper perspective as we go along in this discuss. The youth of today were mostly born in the 70s, 80, and 90s. Those decades were wrought with military rule in Nigeria. I mention that for a reason. Their parents and grandparents grew up under British colonial rule. A common denominator in the above mentioned two systems is the lack of freedom in the recipe of governance. Parents that did not know freedom bred and raised children that never knew it either. By freedom, I mean freedom of thought and expression. It becomes slightly strange (to put it mildly) to interact with one so free in opinion and expression. More so when her expressions a breaking idol we have worshipped for long.

These men of today have never had to be called out or questioned on things they take for granted. Our men are not used to being held accountable for mistreating or disrespecting women. Our women lost their voices somewhere quite long ago, and have come to accept the treatment from the men, much so almost to the point of even expecting it. You hear mothers telling their daughters to ‘bear it like a woman’ when they complain about marital abuse. Now here comes a voice at the hilltop speaking gently to our collective guilt and complicity. Reminding us of things we never forgot, calling us to a height we have never known. It is bound to be uncomfortable.

When she questioned Hillary’s self-description first as a wife, people hued and cried that she is a man hater who is about to destroy the family unit with her ‘women liberation message’. All she was asking was for women to be bold enough to take due credit for the things they have achieved. She wanted Hillary to own her profound achievements proudly. Don’t try to appease with coy humility when you can confidently state your worth. We expect women to ‘dull their shine’ so the men don’t feel threatened. I don’t think Ms. Adichie would have had any qualms if Hillary had started with her role as a mother or as a former Secretary of States (instead of as a wife first). As rightly pointed out, it’s not common to hear men introduce themselves as a husband first. Just my opinion, I might be wrong. I’ve been wrong before.

She prefers her natural hair. In doing so, she invites women to embrace their own Afro-centric identity. To shade one of the longest lingering vestiges of colonial rule and a subtly enshrined sense of Caucasian dictation of beauty standards. Some women get defensive here. Asking who is she to dictate for them on how to wear their hair. She is not. She’s only pointing out something that has forever been in our blind spot. Do wear your hair how you please, just be grateful someone is aware enough to point out how these choices came about and is bold enough to make a contrary choice based on that knowledge. The economic angle to the hair issue is a discussion for another day.

She is said to sniff at male chivalry acts like opening or holding the door for women. This one is a deep dig. There’s an almost complete gender consensus in the condemnation of this stand of hers. The men feel unappreciated in their chivalry, while the women feel she’s robbing them of one of their few special moments. They all have legitimate points, but so does she. Everyone enjoys being fawned over and women are no exception. Men, like me, like the attention we get with our little acts of chivalry and miniature heroism, hence the age-old tale of the knight in shining armor. The question I hear when this act is critiqued is; what is the primordial instinct behind this act. Could it possibly be for the momentary emotional high of the man opening the car door for his lady? Is it borne out of genuine respect or is it just a bit patronizing? If the former were to be the case, how come it’s so rare a sight to see a man opening the car door for a fellow man he respects? I don’t think she wants men to be rude to women as is often alluded to by her critics, it’s not that black-or-white. She is just using a simple act to illustrate a bigger picture of how we see the woman in our society. She is so sub to the man that she should be grateful when the man reaches down to give her a helping hand of patronage (like opening the car door for her). I see the logic there. It just might be a bit too nuanced for some of my brothers. Does it bruise my male ego a little? Yes, it does. Am I grateful there’s someone smart enough to piece out these seemingly innocuous but relevant points, and bold enough to highlight them, yes I definitely am.

These are just a few of the well-publicized flash-points that have come by as a result of Ms. Adichie’s bold and vocal stance on gender-related issues. There have been more, and there will be more to come. We would either be better or worse for it depending on how we choose to utilize her presence. We could choose to malign her, while the world celebrates her. We could type-cast her and take whatever she says as anti-men. Run in the opposite direction even when she may be directing us away from a raging storm.

Or we could choose to quietly hear her out, take the issues home and digest them objectively and dispassionately. Make amends where needed, improve where we’re already doing fine. We just might come out of it all a bit wiser and stronger.

By instinct we often glance at the mirror, fully naked, just before stepping in the shower. Sometimes we linger and examine a bit more. An extra flab of fat here, a skin mole there, a hint of a six pack either coming or receding. What we do with what we see is solely up to us. Add a few more miles to your morning run, adjust our diet, see a Dermatologist, or just hiss and keep it business as usual. We never fight or blame the mirror. She’s our last honest friend – that mirror in our bathroom.

Chukwu is a Nigerian trained Medical Doctor, rights advocate who lives and practices in California, USA.

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