sex education washington state
my brother chuks and my best friendike are part of the organizing team, so when they ask me to come,i couldn't say no. but i'm so happy to be here. what a fantastic team of peoplewho care about africa i feel so humble and so happy to be here.
sex education washington state, and i'm also told that the most beautiful, most amazing little girl in the worldis in the audience her name is kamzia adichie and i want her to stand up...she's my niece!
(applause) so, i would like to start by telling youone of my greatest friend, okuloma. okuloma lived on my street and looked after me like a big brother. if i liked a boy, i would askokuloma's opinion. okuloma died in the notorioussosoliso plane crash in nigeria in december of 2005. almost exactly seven years ago. okuloma was a person i could argue with,laugh with, and truly talk to.
he was also the first personto call me a feminist. i was about fourteen,we were at his house, arguing. both of us bristling withhalf bit knowledge from books we had read. i don't remember what thisparticular argument was about, but i remember thatas i argued and argued, okuloma looked at me and said,"you know, you're a feminist." it was not a compliment. i could tell from his tone, the same tonethat you would use to say something like "you're a supporter of terrorism."
(laughter) i did not know exactly what this word"feminist" meant, and i did not want okulomato know that i did not know, so i brushed it asideand i continued to argue. and the first thing i planned to dowhen i got home was to look up the word"feminist" in the dictionary. now fast forward to some years later,i wrote a novel about a man who among other thingsbeats his wife and whose story doesn't end very well.
while i was promoting the novelin nigeria, a journalist, a nice well-meaning man,told me he wanted to advise me. and for the nigerians here,i'm sure we're all familiar with how quick our people are to giveunsolicited advice. he told me that people were sayingthat my novel was feminist and his advice to me -- and he was shaking his head sadlyas he spoke -- was that i should nevercall myself a feminist because feminists are women who are unhappybecause they cannot find husbands.
so i decided to call myself"a happy feminist." then an academic, a nigerian womantold me that feminism was not our cultureand that feminism wasn't african, and that i was calling myself a feminist because i had been corruptedby "western books." which amused me,because a lot of my early readings were decidedly unfeminist. i think i must have read every singlemills & boon romance published before i was sixteen.
and each time i tried to read those books called "the feminist classics"i'd get bored and i really struggled to finish them. but anyway, since feminism was un-african, i decided that i would now call myself"a happy african feminist." at some point i was a happyafrican feminist who does not hate men and who likes lip gloss and who wears high-heelsfor herself but not for men. of course a lot of thesewas tongue-in-cheek,
but that were feminists so heavywith baggage, negative baggage. you hate men, you hate bras, you hate african culture,that sort of thing. now here's a story from my childhood. when i was in primary school, my teacher said at the beginning of termthat she would give the class a test and whoever got the highest scorewould be the class monitor. now, class monitor was a big deal. if you were a class monitor,
you got to write down the namesof noise makers, which was having enough power of its own. but my teacher would also give youa cane to hold in your hand while you walk around andpatrol the class for noise makers. now of course you're notactually allowed to use the cane. but it was an exciting prospectfor the nine-year-old me. i very much wanted to bethe class monitor. and i got the highest score on the test. then, to my surprise, my teacher said thatthe monitor had to be a boy.
she've forgotten to make that clear earlierbecause she assumed it was... obvious. a boy had the second highestscore on the test and he would be monitor. now what was even moreinteresting about this is that the boy was a sweet, gentle soul who had no interest in patrollingthe class with the cane, while i was full of ambition to do so. but i was female, and he was male and so he became the class monitor.
and i've never forgotten that incident. i often make the mistake of thinking that something that is obvious to meis just as obvious to everyone else. now, take my dear friend louisfor example. louis is a brilliant, progressive man, and we would have conversationsand he would tell me, "i don't know what you mean by thingsbeing different or harder for women. maybe in the past, but not now." and i didn't understand how louiscould not see what seems so self-evident.
then one evening, in lagos,louis and i went out with friends. and for people here whoare not familiar with lagos, there's that wonderful lagos' fixture, the sprinkling of energetic manwho hung around outside establishments and very dramatically "help" youpark your car. i was impressed withthe particular theatrics of the man who found usa parking spot that evening, and so as we were leaving,i decided to leave him a tip. i opened my bag,
put my hand inside my bag, brought out my money thati had earned from doing my work, and i gave it to the man. and he, this man who was very grateful,and very happy, took the money from me, looked across at louis, and said "thank you, sir!" louis looked at me, surprised, and asked
"why is he thanking me?i didn't give him the money." then i saw realizationdawned on louis' face. the man believed thatwhatever money i had had ultimately come from louis. because louis is a man. the men and women are different. we have different hormones,we have different sexual organs, we have different biological abilities, women can have babies, men can't.
at least not yet. men have testosterone and arein general physically stronger than women. there's slightly more womenthan men in the world, about 52% of the world's populationis female. but most of the positions of powerand prestige are occupied by men. the late kenyan nobel peace laureate, wangari maathai, put it simplyand well when she said: "the higher you go,the fewer women there are." in the recent us elections we kept hearingof the lilly ledbetter law,
and if we go beyond the nicelyalliterative name of that law, it was really about a man and a woman doing the same job being equally qualified and the man being paid morebecause he's a man. so in the literal way, men rule the world, and this made sense a thousand years ago because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength wasthe most important attribute for survival. the physically stronger personwas more likely to lead,
and men, in general,are physically stronger. of course there are many exceptions. but today we livein a vastly different world. the person more likely to leadis not the physically stronger person, it is the more creative person,the more intelligent person, the more innovative person, and there are no hormonesfor those attributes. a man is as likely as a womanto be intelligent, to be creative, to be innovative.
we have evolved; but it seems to methat our ideas of gender had not evolved. some weeks ago i walked into a lobbyof one of the best nigerian hotels. i thought about naming the hotel,but i thought i probably shouldn't, and a guard at the entrance stopped meand ask me annoying questions, because their automatic assumption isthat a nigerian female walking into a hotel alone is a sex worker. and by the way, why do these hotels focus on the ostensible supply rather thanthe demand for sex workers?
in lagos i cannot go alone intomany "reputable" bars and clubs. they just don't let you inif you're a woman alone, you have to be accompanied by a man. each time i walk into anigerian restaurant with a man, the waiter greets the man and ignores me. the waiters are products... at this some women felt like"yes! i thought that!" the waiters are products of a society that has taught them that men aremore important than women.
and i know that waitersdon't intend any harm. but it's one thing to know intellectuallyand quite another to feel it emotionally. each time they ignore me,i feel invisible. i feel upset. i want to tell them i'm just as humanas the man, that i'm just as worthyof acknowledgement. these are little things, but sometimes it's the little thingsthat sting the most. and not long ago i wrote an article
about what it means to beyoung and female in lagos, and the printers told me"it was so angry." of course it was angry! i am angry. gender as it functions todayis a grave injustice. we should all be angry. anger has a long history ofbringing about positive change; but, in addition to being angry,i'm also hopeful. because i believe deeplyin the ability of human beings
to make and remake themselvesfor the better. gender matters everywhere in the world, but i want to focus onnigeria and on africa in general, because it is where i know, and because it is where my heart is. and i would like today to ask that we begin to dream aboutand plan for a different world, a fairer world; a world of happier men and happier women
who are truer to themselves. and this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. we must also raise our sons differently. we do a great disservice to boyson how we raise them; we stifle the humanity of boys. we define masculinity in a very narrow way, masculinity becomes this hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage.
we teach boys to be afraid of fear. we teach boys to be afraidof weakness, of vulnerability. we teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be,in nigerian speak, "hard man!" in secondary school, a boy and a girl,both of them teenagers, both of them with the same amountof pocket money, would go out and thenthe boy would be expected always to pay, to prove his masculinity. and yet we wonder why boysare more likely to steal money
from their parents. what if both boys and girls were raised not to link masculinity with money? what if the attitude was not"the boy has to pay" but rather "whoever has more should pay"? now of course because of thathistorical advantage, it is mostly men who will have more today, but if we start raising childrendifferently, then in fifty years, in a hundred years,
boys will no longer have the pressureof having to prove this masculinity. but by far the worst thing we do to males, by making them feelthat they have to be hard, is that we leave themwith very fragile egos. the more "hard-man"the man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is. and then we do a much greaterdisservice to girls because we raise them to caterto the fragile egos of men. we teach girls to shrink themselves,to make themselves smaller,
we say to girls, "you can have ambition,but not too much." "you should aim to be successful,but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man." if you are the breadwinnerin your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you're not, especially in public, otherwiseyou will emasculate him. but what if we questionthe premise itself, why should a woman's successbe a threat to a man?
what if we decide to simply disposeof that word, and i don't think there's an english wordi dislike more than "emasculation." a nigerian acquaintance once asked meif i was worried that men would be intimidated by me. i was not worried at all. in fact it had not occurred to meto be worried because a man who would be intimidated by me is exactly the kind of mani would have no interest in. (laughter)(applause)
but still i was really struck by this. because i'm female,i'm expected to aspire to marriage; i'm expected to make my life choicesalways keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. a marriage can be a good thing; it can be a source of joyand love and mutual support. but why do we teach girlsto aspire to marriage and we don't teach boys the same? i know a woman who decidedto sell her house
because she didn't want tointimidate a man who might marry her. i know an unmarried woman in nigeria who,when she goes to conferences, wears a wedding ring because according to her, she wantsthe other participants in the conference to "give her respect." i know young women who areunder so much pressure from family, from friends,even from work to get married and they're pushedto make terrible choices. a woman at a certain agewho is unmarried,
our society teaches her to see itas a deep, personal failure. and a man at a certain agewho is unmarried we just think he hasn't come aroundto making his pick. it's easy for us to say, "oh but women can just say noto all of this", but the reality is more difficultand more complex. we're all social beings. we internalize ideasfrom our socialization. even the language we use
in talking about marriageand relationships illustrates this. the language of marriageis often the language of ownership rather than the language of partnership. we use the word "respect" to mean something a woman shows a man but often not somethinga man shows a woman. both men and women in nigeria will say - this is an expression i'm very amused by - "i did it for peace in my marriage."
now when men say it, it is usually about something thatthey should not be doing anyway. sometimes they say it to their friends, it's something to say to their friendsin a kind of fondly exasperated way, you know, something that ultimately proveshow masculine they are, how needed, how loved -- "oh my wife said i can't go to clubevery night, so for peace in my marriage,i do it only on weekends." now when a woman says,"i did it for peace in my marriage,"
she's usually talking about havinggiving up a job, a dream, a career. we teach females that in relationships, compromise is what women do. we raise girls to see each otheras competitors not for job or for accomplishments,which i think could be a good thing, but for attention of men. we teach girls that they cannot besexual beings
in the way that boys are. if we have sons, we don't mindknowing about our sons' girlfriends. but our daughters' boyfriends?god forbid. but of course when the time is right, we expect those girls to bring backthe perfect man to be their husbands. we police girls, we praise girls for virginity, but we don't praise boys for virginity, and it's always made me wonderhow exactly this is supposed to work out
because...(laughter) i mean, the loss of virginityis usually a process that involves... recently a young woman was gang raped in a university in nigeria, i think some of us know about that. and the response of many young nigerians, both male and female, was something along the lines of this: "yes, rape is wrong.
but what is a girl doing in a roomwith four boys?" now if we can forgetthe horrible inhumanity of that response, these nigerians have been raisedto think of women as inherently guilty, and have been raised to expectso little of men that the idea of men as savage beingswithout any control is somehow acceptable. we teach girls shame. "close your legs","cover yourself". we make them feel as thoughby being born female
they're already guilty of something. and so, girls grow up to be women who cannot see they have desire. they grow up to be womenwho silence themselves. they grow up to be women whocannot see what they truly think, and they grow up - and this is the worst thingwe did to girls - they grow up to be womenwho have turned pretense into an art form. i know a woman who hates domestic work,
she just hates it, but she pretends that she likes it, because she's been taught thatto be "good wife material" she has to be -- to use that nigerian word-- very "homely." and then she got married, and after a while her husband's family began to complainthat she had changed. actually she had not changed, she just got tired of pretending.
the problem with gender, is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. now imagine how much happierwe would be, how much freer to beour true individual selves, if we didn't have the weightof gender expectations. boys and girls are undeniablydifferent biologically, but socialization exaggeratesthe differences and then it becomesa self-fulfilling process.
now take cooking for example. today women in general are more likelyto do the house work than men, the cooking and cleaning. but why is that? is it because women are bornwith a cooking gene? or because over years they have beensocialized to see cooking as their rule? actually i was going to say that maybewomen are born with a cooking gene, until i remember that the majorityof the famous cooks in the world, whom we give the fancy title of "chefs,"
are men. i used to look up to my grandmother who was a brilliant, brilliant woman, and wonder how she would have been if she had the same opportunityas men when she was growing up. now today, there aremany more opportunities for women than there were duringmy grandmother's time because of changes in policy,changes in law, all of which are very important.
but what matters even moreis our attitude, our mindset, what we believe and what we valueabout gender. what if in raising children we focus on ability instead of gender? we focus on interest instead of gender? i know a family who havea son and a daughter, both of whom are brilliant at school, who are wonderful, lovely children. when the boy is hungry,the parents say to the girl
"go and cook indomie noodlesfor your brother." now the daughter doesn't particularly liketo cook indomie noodles, but she's a girl,and so she has to. now, what if the parents, from the beginning, taught both the boy and the girlto cook indomie? cooking, by the way,is a very useful skill for boys to have. i've never thought it made senseto leave such a crucial thing, the ability to nourish oneself,
in the hands of others. i know a woman who has the same degreeand the same job as her husband, when they get back from workshe does most of the house work, which i think is true for many marriages, but what struck me about them was that whenever her husband changedthe baby's diaper, she said "thank you" to him. now what if she saw thisas perfectly normal and natural that he should, in fact,care for his child?
i'm trying to unlearnmany of the lessons of gender that i internalized when i was growing up. but i sometimes still feel very vulnerable in the face of gender expectations. the first time i taught awriting class in graduate school i was worried. i wasn't worried about the materiali would teach because i was well-prepared and i was going to teachwhat i enjoy teaching. instead, i was worried about what to wear.
i wanted to be taken seriously. i knew that because i was female i will automaticallyhave to prove my worth. and i was worried if i looked too feminine i would not be taken seriously. i really wanted to wear my shiny lip glossand my girly skirt, but i decided not to. instead, i wore a very serious, very manly, and very ugly suit.
because the sad truth isthat when it comes to appearance we start off with man as the standard, as the norm. if a man is getting readyfor a business meeting he doesn't worry aboutlooking too masculine and therefore not being taken for granted. if a woman has to get readyfor business meeting, she has to worry about lookingtoo feminine, and what it says and whether or notshe will be taken seriously.
i wish i had not wornthat ugly suit that day. i've actually banished it from my closet,by the way. had i then the confidencethat i have now to be myself my students would have benefitedeven more from my teaching, because i would have beenmore comfortable, and more fully and more truly myself. i have chosen to no longer be apologeticfor my femaleness and for my femininity. and i want to be respectedin all of my femaleness
because i deserve to be. gender is not an easy conversationto have. for both men and women, to bring up gender, sometimesencounters almost immediate resistance. i can imagine some people hereare actually thinking "women, true to selves? " some of the men here might be thinking "okay, all of this is interesting, but i don't think like that."
and that is part of the problem. that many men do not actively thinkabout gender or notice gender, is part of the problem of gender. that many men, say, like my friend louis, that everything is fine now. and that many men do nothing to change it. if you are a man and you walkinto a restaurant with a woman and the waiter greets only you,
does it occur to you to ask the waiter "why haven't you greeted her?" because gender can be... actually we may repose part ofa longer version of this talk. so, because gender can bea very uncomfortable conversation to have, there are very easy ways to close it,to close the conversation. so some people will bring upevolutionary biology and apes, how, you know, female apesbow down to male apes
and that sort of thing. but the point is we're not apes. apes also live on trees andhave earth worms for breakfast but we don't. some people will say, "well, poor men also have a hard time." and this is true. but that is not what this...(laughter) but this is not what this conversationis about.
gender and class are different formsof oppression. i actually learned quite a bitabout systems of oppression and how they can be blind to one another by talking to black men. i was once talking to a black manabout gender and he said to me, "why do you have to say 'my experience as a woman'? why can't it be
'your experience as a human being'?" now this was the same manwho would often talk about his experience as a black man. gender matters. men and womenexperience the world differently. gender colors the waywe experience the world. but we can change that. "oh but women have the real power, bottom power." and for non-nigerians, bottom poweris an expression which --
i suppose means something like a woman who uses her sexualityto get favors from men. but bottom power is not power at all. bottom power means that a woman simply has a good root to tap into,from time to time, somebody else's power. and then of course we have to wonder what happens when that somebody else is in a bad mood,
or sick, or impotent. some people will say that a womanbeing subordinate to a man is our culture. but culture is constantly changing. i have beautiful twin nieceswho are fifteen and live in lagos, if they had been born a hundred years ago they would have been taken awayand killed. because it was our culture,it was our culture to kill twins.
so what is the point of culture? i mean there's the decorative, the dancing... but also, culture really is aboutpreservation and continuity of a people. in my family, i am the child who is most interestedin the story of who we are, in our tradition, in the knowledge about ancestral lands. my brothers are not as interested as i am.
but i cannot participate, i cannot go to their meetings, i cannot have a say. because i'm female. culture does not make people, people make culture. so if it's in fact truethat the full humanity of women is not our culture,then we must make it our culture. i think very oftenof my dear friend okuloma,
may he and all the others that passedaway in that sosoliso crash continue to rest in peace. he will always be rememberedby those of us who loved him. and he was right that day many years ago when he called me a feminist. i am a feminist. and when i looked up the wordin the dictionary that day, this is what it said: feminist,
a person who believesin the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. my great grandmother, from the stories i've heard, was a feminist. she ran away from the house of the manshe did not want to marry, and ended up marrying the manof her choice. she refused,she protested, she spoke up whenever she felt she's being deprivedof access, or land, that sort of thing.
my great grandmother did not knowthat word "feminist," but it doesn't mean that she wasn't one. more of us should reclaim that word. my own definition of feminist is: a feminist is a man or a woman who says - a feminist is a man or a woman who says "yes, there's a problemwith gender as it is today, and we must fix it.
we must do better." the best feminist i know is my brother kenny. he's also a kind, good-looking,lovely man, and he's very masculine. thank you.