By: Caroline Sarda
I was fourteen years old when, seeking respite from the unrelenting hot summer sun and from the unremitting activities of my younger brother and sister, I locked myself in my aunt’s bedroom with my laptop, sat with my face in front of the only fan in the house, and began watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDtalk entitled, “We Should All Be Feminists.” It was at that point in my life that I began identifying as a feminist. It had admittedly come from many years of hearing the term used and learning about it from my friends and teachers; however, nothing so distinctly emboldened me to find power and community—not exclusion or intimidation—than did Adichie’s words.
Fast forward four years and I am sitting in Gaston Hall, listening as Adichie addresses students, teachers, and administrators, speaking about feminism, her novels, Nigeria, and Christianity. As a Catholic, I found this conversation to be incredibly interesting, as reconciling my feminism with my religion has always been a point of difficulty. In her discussion, she stated, “Practicing religion is about making choices about what you want to emphasize.” She later connected this idea of choice within belief and practice to the feminist movement, claiming that we have the opportunity to decide what we focus on in our feminism. We can choose to see our feminism in a light that is completely at odds with religion (and Christianity in particular). Or we can focus on feminism’s message and find the ways in which it can intersect with our other identities. In that way, we can choose to see our feminism as moldable, as fitting within many different worldviews, cultures, and religions.
Despite this productive conversation, the audience did not sit in ignorant bliss upon hearing Adichie speak. Her comments from the previous weeks regarding the womanhood of trans women was palpable. The final question that Adichie received at the end of her Q&A session addressed this very topic in a very thorough and, to some, shocking way. A very necessary discomfort grew in the room as a student read a letter written to Adichie by a black trans woman, asking her at the outset, “When did you know you were a woman?” and further explaining why and how her comments impacted her, emphasizing the importance of trans voices in telling their own stories.
At the end of the letter, Adichie responded, explaining the ways in which discrimination based solely on biology and genitalia still pervades society, speaking particularly to Nigerian society. She then went on to criticize the nature of the conversation, claiming that, “This…opaque…kind of conversation doesn’t lead anywhere,” and that we should not limit who can speak out about what. Finally, she ended her response with a call to increased compassion within the movement.
As I write about the event, I know that I am, once again, a cisgender woman adding to a conversation to which I do not belong. However, I do believe that there is reflection to be done within the community of women with whose experience I may be able to speak to—those women who have found empowerment and beauty in Adichie’s words and are now questioning what it means to hold in such high esteem someone whose words have harmed so many.
The answer, or at least the one that I have found, lies within Adichie’s own words. Just as Adichie states that we can choose to allow our feminism to be incompatible with religion, and our religion incompatible with feminism, so too can we choose to allow our feminism to be incompatible with the experiences of others unlike the white, cisgender, straight “poster feminist.” We can choose to believe our feminism to be binary and exclusory and to view the stories of trans women as threatening or at odds with our own. However, we must then accept the hatred, bigotry, and violence that we are complicit in. Or, instead, we can choose to believe our feminism to be moldable. We can choose to recognize that the cisgender woman has never been and will never be the center of the movement—that there is nothing but danger to be found in the myth of the single narrative.
At the same time, we must allow our perception of Adichie, and of all women, to also resist the allure of the single narrative. There is always a tendency in the media to paint female figures as simply one thing—good or bad, informed or ignorant, valuable or invaluable. However, reality resists this simplicity. As Adichie said in her discussion, we must allow people to be both. This does not mean that criticisms of Adichie’s words or actions are invalid or that we should neglect her greater impact on a global stage. However, what it does mean is that we cannot allow ourselves to so quickly strip Adichie of her value. Perhaps, if nothing else, her comments do raise the question of if and how our conversations surrounding what is or is not acceptable and who is or is not “allowed” to speak on certain issues must adapt or change.
The fact remains that we should all still be feminists. However, what that looks like is no one’s choice but our own. There is no single narrative about what it means to be a woman and there is no single narrative about what it means to be a feminist. The world is built on contradiction and complexity and we must therefore remember that in our treatment of feminism and in our treatment of each other, there is no other option but to make room for both.