Thinking about How to Raise a Feminist Child?


Titled “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions” (initially written as a letter, but later framed into a book) is Adichie’s advice to a friend on how to raise her baby daughter as a feminist. The work provides a manifesto for feminism, and the suggestions though written with a girl in mind are in fact gender neutral. Any parent who wants to raise a feminist child, one who will grow up to be believe in equity and equality, be kind, confident and pursue their dreams, can learn from them.

The backdrop of this work is her Nigerian experience and its culture, grounded in patriarchial tradition. The similarities to ours (in Pakistan) hits home. She recalls being told as a child “bend down properly while sweeping, like a girl”. Which meant that sweeping was about “being female”. I couldn’t help but flashback to the rage against the ‘Khana khud garam karo’ (warm your own food) and “Lo baith gayee mein theek say” (loosely translates to: here, I am sitting properly) placards at the Aurat March. How even a tongue in cheek joke about gender norms was unacceptable in societies such as ours. Adichie advises, “Teach her that the idea of ‘gender roles’ is nonsense”. She continues, “Do not measure her on a scale of what a girl should be. Measure her on the scale of being the best version of herself”. The advice here reflects what psychologists have long said, to reach their full potential a child must be allowed to pursue their interests, even if they do not meet traditional norms.2 Raising a child who will one day grow up to be a content adult begins with parents allowing children to be themselves.

One of the most inspiring aspects of the book is Adichie’s advice on cultural identity, privilege, inequality, and justice. She speaks of the importance of being proud of one’s culture, its community values, language and historical figures, both men and women. But, this does not mean accepting culture unconditionally. In fact, it must be questioned. In instances where it is no longer “beautiful”, such as the undue importance Igbo culture places on material wealth, it must be rejected. She says, “Teach her about privilege and inequality and the importance of giving dignity to everyone who does not mean to harm her – teach her that the household help is human just like her, teach her always to greet the driver”. It is urgently needed to instil these values of dignity and justice for all in our children. Especially in times such as these when horrific incidents of physical abuse and torture of domestic workers are rampant and brutal killings such as that of Nazim Jokhio, simply because he dared to report the misdeeds of those considered to be his cultural and societal superiors, go unpunished.

In most societies and especially so in ours, the burden of care work, be it for GENDER & DESIGN the young or old, largely falls to the women, even when both parents work full-time. Adichie advises her friend to share care work equally. This does not mean a literal fifty – fifty score keeping. The equality becomes clear when there is lack of resentment between a couple, from each being attentive to the other’s needs. If we hope to raise boys that will one day be supportive partners, friends or relatives, the message here is clear- teach a boy to share the work and teach him to take care of others. Like Adichie’s ours too is a culture which normalises raising infantile men. Daughters are taught to do chores and are given responsibility of care work from an early age. The same does not stand true for our sons. Adichie comments “Can you imagine how many more people today would be happier, more stable, better contributors to this world, if only their fathers had been present in their childhood”.

Adichie’s advice then turns to that oft-repeated social norm that she wisely counsels girls should be taught to reject – likeability. Instead we should encourage them to strive for the better alternative - bravery. “We teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach our boys the same. This is dangerous…. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice”. She urges that girls should be taught to speak up when anything makes them uncomfortable. The deeper message here is about teaching the importance of consent and bodily integrity to our children. Teaching them that there is no shame in speaking out about abuse and harassment. Teaching boys that no means no.

Adichie ends by hoping for the baby girl that when she grows up “she will be full of opinions, and that her opinions will come from an informed, humane, broad-minded place”. There is universality in this message that all care givers could aspire to irrespective of their own or their child’s gender. Perhaps this is what is needed most in this time when the dangers of climate change, prejudice, injustices and war have left no corner of our world untouched.

Zehra Zaidi is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Shaikh Ahmad Hassan School of Law (LUMS). She takes a keen interest in and has taught courses on law and gender and feminist jurisprudence for several years.

S. Zehra Zaidi