I lay hands on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s much-lauded essay titled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ at age eighteen. As I voraciously read through her works, I was moved by her evocative words, left wide-eyed by her provocations and thrilled by her call for action. “I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change,” she said—and I furrowed my eyebrows in effervescence and agreement. Slowly and steadily I grew immense respect for the strong-headed, feminist Nigerian author and activist. Admiration that would soon be put to test. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Talks Beauty, Femininity and Feminism - The New  York Times
In the past year, Adichie’s positive appraisal of J.K Rowling’s openly transphobic lengthy essay put her and me on opposing sides. Image Source: NYTimes.com

In the past year, Adichie’s positive appraisal of J.K. Rowling’s openly transphobic lengthy essay put her and me on opposing sides. Rowling’s essay was a wishy-washy and conniving attempt at explaining her dubious “gender-critical” perspective, conflating trans identities with mental illnesses and claiming that trans men transition because of the “allure of escaping womanhood.” Natalie of the YouTube channel Contrapoints—who identifies as a trans woman herself—posted a lengthy critique of Rowling’s performative allyship and unfounded claims that is a must-watch, in my opinion. 

Also read: No, J.K. Rowling, Cis Women Should Not Play Gatekeepers To Trans Women

On the other hand, Adichie insisted that the Harry Potter author was nothing but a progressive woman who believed in diversity but this was not the first instance of Adichie’s open display of transphobia. 

Adichie insisted that the Harry Potter author was nothing but a progressive woman who believed in diversity but this was not the first instance of Adichie’s open display of transphobia.

In her tripartite letter titled, ‘IT IS OBSCENE,’ she says that “fame taints our view of the humanity of famous people”—however, here, it is Adichie’s duplicitous ideological inclusivity, abject lack of introspection and accountability, self-aggrandizing analysis of what it is like to be famous—which is truly upsetting, the reason I am writing this strongly-worded article and quite frankly, is the reason Adichie’s essay is obscene. 

The essay is directed toward her former protege—Akwaeke Emezi—writer of acclaimed young-adult fiction and a trans, gender-fluid person. Following Adichie’s infamous comment: “trans women are trans women”—implying that trans women do not experience the world as real (code for cisgender) women do—Emezi had rightfully criticized Adichie for her ignorant presumptions about the lived experiences of trans women. 

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akwaeke emezi on Twitter: "Popping back in to kick a hornet's nest 🙃 My  novels will not be submitted for the Women's Prize. Their origin story is  that men were excluding them
Adichie’s essay is directed toward her former protege—Akwaeke Emezi—writer of acclaimed young-adult fiction and a trans, gender-fluid person. Image Source: Twitter

However, it appears in her three-part letter that Adichie has taken this criticism personally, as she veils her inability to acknowledge her transphobia in an attempt to call out the “ugly opportunism” Emezi has supposedly shown by prominently advertising their relationship with Adichie on the cover of their biography.  

This article, of course, is no dissection of the mentor-protege skirmish that has broken out and does not intend to be so. It is simply a deeply personal piece from a feminist to a feminist, on matters of feminism.   

Adichie is not the first cisgender feminist to approach ‘the trans question’ dogmatically. By adding a series of ‘isms’ and peppering in ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in their seemingly harmless opinions, several cisgender feminists, including Adichie, have transformed trans, non-binary and non-conforming identities into an abstraction that can be questioned and debated. For a movement that is deeply indebted to trans persons, the likes of Adichie mortgage themselves to shallow, subsidised and exclusionary versions of feminisms—one that in praxis only benefits a few that fit into boxes. 

Such cisgender allies are performative at best, but disguise their sentiments as honest concerns, inquisitive feminism—which is enough to keep them from being tagged as a TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.)

This is not to deny Adichie’s contributions to feminism as we know it. However, the credibility of her reputation as a feminist has certainly and rightly been questioned ever since her transphobic remarks. Her transphobia has pushed her to being tagged as a TERF and it is honestly difficult to see her three-part letter as anything but an obfuscation of her transphobic sentiments. 

That being said, there are several ways cisgender allies can make way for a gender-inclusive revolution without trampling on gender-non confirming voices—and there will always be space for feminists to grow and learn in their journey. If someone recognises themselves as a feminist, it is important that they also acknowledge their location in society and work to use their privilege towards bringing institutional change in the lives of marginalized groups in society such as queer and trans* folks. 

Also read: Netflix’s ‘Next In Fashion’ Pushes The Boundaries, Not The Binary

Moreover, feminism that is not inclusive and intersectional, is not feminist in practice at all. I imagine a feminist space to not only be a revolutionary space but to also be an accepting, non-judgmental and kind space within which one is free to grieve, to grow, to ask, to celebrate and to be themselves—which is revolutionary on its own. If feminist spaces were to gatekeep the meaning of gender and womanhood and hold it to Western, cisgender-heteronormative standards, then it would erase the lived experiences of several millions of people across the world who do not fit into these cleanly cut-out boxes society has developed and maintained. 

Adichie is no stranger to these vexations. She has spoken about how the feminist movement leaves out black women in the past which means she clearly recognises the power dynamics at play within feminism. Therefore, it is confusing, above all, how she has chosen to do the same with trans* folks.

Adichie is no stranger to these vexations. She has spoken about how the feminist movement leaves out black women in the past which means she clearly recognises the power dynamics at play within feminism. Therefore, it is confusing, above all, how she has chosen to do the same with trans* folks. Adichie’s case is particularly alarming, simply because as a famous, powerful person, one who identifies as a feminist — her words can have a detrimental impact on the lives of trans* folks who have already been marginalized in every sense. 

Ultimately, ‘IT IS OBSCENE’ goes to show that not every celebrity remark is authoritative, and not every feminist is inclusive, and there is room to grow even when situations seem bleak—if you want to.


Featured Image Source: Brittle Paper

About the author(s)

Sara Bardhan is an undergraduate student; lover of Manto, cheese and intersectional feminism.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Trans women are trans women. They are not women. Assigning subjectivity to what it’s to be a woman means anybody can be a woman. So if anybody can be a woman, what exactly is a woman? And what exactly is a woman’s right?

  2. “…be a revolutionary space but to also be an accepting, non-judgmental and kind space within which one is free to grieve, to grow, to ask, to celebrate and to be themselves…”

    Regardless of what your ideological position is, I would like to plead that you take a moment to reflect on these words that you wrote and ask if your article extends that kindness, that lack of judgment, that space to grow towards JK Rowling or Chimndama Ngozie Adichi? And the many older feminists of a different generation to yours whose views do not align to yours, and in whose footsteps you tread today. If not, why not? Are those qualities reserved for only the feminists whose views align to yours? This is what I find troubling. It is similar to the tweet where Akwaeke Emezie hopes that people will take up machetes to defend them when people like Adichi come against them. Does that not bother you? Or perhaps anyone who holds and promotes views different from yours are fair game….? Think about it. I genuinely would love to read your response

  3. Anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman 🙂 We can’t define womanhood according to the norms, rules and societal structures that have been taught to us for generations. Precisely why womanhood is a contested term. Also, precisely why we need to move past our binary understanding of gender to a more inclusive one.

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