On December 19, 2011, the United Nations declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child by adopting Resolution 66/170. The International Day of the Girl Child or Day of the girl as it is often called is a day set aside to raise awareness and address the challenges faced by the girl child all over the world and to empower them. What better way to empower girls than with the feminist manifesto written by acclaimed author and novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Initially written as a letter to a friend who wanted to know how to raise her daughter a feminist, Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele is a timely pamphlet of wisdom for every parent raising a girl child and for every girl child.
Here are a few of Adichie’s suggestions:
Teach her that ‘gender roles’ is absolute nonsense. Do not ever tell her that she should do or not do something “because you are a girl.” ‘Because you are a girl’ is never a reason for anything. Ever. I remember being told as a child to ‘bend down properly while sweeping, like a girl.’ Which meant that sweeping was about being female. I wish I had been told simply ‘bend down and sweep properly because you’ll clean the floor better.’ And I wish my brothers had been told the same thing.
If we don’t place the straitjacket of gender roles on young children we give them space to reach their full potential. Please see Chizalum as an individual. Not as a girl who should be a certain way. See her weaknesses and her strengths in an individual way. Do not measure her on a scale of what a girl should be. Measure her on a scale of being the best version of herself.
Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books. The best way is by casual example. If she sees you reading, she will understand that reading is valuable. If she were not to go to school, and merely just read books, she would arguably become more knowledgeable than a conventionally educated child. Books will help her understand and question the world, help her express herself, and help her in whatever she wants to become – a chef, a scientist, a singer all benefit from the skills that reading brings. I do not mean school books. I mean books that have nothing to do with school, autobiographies and novels and histories. If all else fails, pay her to read. Reward her.
Teach her to question language. Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions. But to teach her that, you will have to question your own language. A friend of mine says she will never call her daughter ‘Princess.’ People mean well when they say this, but ‘princess’ is loaded with assumptions, of her delicacy, of the prince who will come to save her, etc. This friend prefers ‘angel’ and ‘star.’
So decide for yourself the things you will not say to your child. Because what you say to your child matters. It teaches her what she should value. You know that Igbo joke, used to tease girls who are being childish – “What are you doing? Don’t you know you are old enough to find a husband?” I used to say that often. But now I choose not to. I say ‘you are old enough to find a job.’ Because I do not believe that marriage is something we should teach young girls to aspire to.
Never speak of marriage as an achievement. Find ways to make clear to her that marriage is not an achievement nor is it what she should aspire to. A marriage can be happy or unhappy but it is not an achievement. We condition girls to aspire to marriage and we do not condition boys to aspire to marriage, and so there is already a terrible imbalance at the start. The girls will grow up to be women obsessed with marriage. The boys will grow up to be men who are not obsessed with marriage. The women marry those men. The relationship is automatically uneven because the institution matters more to one than the other. Is it any wonder that, in so many marriages, women sacrifice more, at a loss to themselves, because they have to constantly maintain an uneven exchange.
Teach her to reject likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable; her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people. Remember I told you how infuriating it was to me that Chioma would often tell me that ‘people’ would not ‘like’ something I wanted to say or do. It upset me because I felt, from her, the unspoken pressure to change myself to fit some mold that would please an amorphous entity called ‘people.’ It was upsetting because we want those close to us to encourage us to be our most authentic selves.
Please do not ever put this pressure on your daughter. We teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be ‘nice’ to people who do them harm. Many girls think of the ‘feelings’ of those who are hurting them. This is the catastrophic consequence of likeability.
Talk to her about sex and start early. It will probably be a bit awkward but it is necessary. Remember that seminar we went to in class 3 where we were supposed to be taught about ‘sexuality’ but instead, we listened to vague semi-threats about how ‘talking to boys’ would end up with us being pregnant and disgraced. I remember that hall and that seminar as a place filled with shame. Ugly shame. That particular brand of shame that has to do with being female. May your daughter never encounter it.
With her, don’t pretend that sex is merely a controlled act of reproduction. Or an ‘only in marriage’ act, because that is disingenuous. (You and Chudi were having sex long before marriage and she will probably know this by the time she is twelve) Tell her that sex can be a beautiful thing and that it can have emotional consequences and tell her to wait until she is an adult and tell her that once she is an adult, she gets to decide what she wants sex to mean to her. But be prepared because she might not wait until she’s 18. And if she doesn’t wait, you have to make sure she is able to tell you that.
Teach her about difference. Make difference ordinary. Make difference normal. Teach her not to attach value to difference. And the reason for this is not to be fair or to be nice but merely to be human and practical. Because difference is the reality of our world. And by teaching her about difference, you are equipping her to survive in a diverse world.
She must know and understand that people walk different paths in the world and that as long as those paths do no harm to others, they are valid paths that she must respect. Teach her that we do not know – we cannot know – everything about life. Both religion and science have spaces for the things we do not know, and it is enough to make peace with that.