At the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality, held 15-17 April, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about “a powerful man in the media” who sexually harassed her in 1994.
Below is the full transcript :
When I was 17 years old, I wrote a book of poetry, really bad poetry, that I now hope that nobody will every read, but true to the delusional ambition of youth I thought that this was a wonderful book. In Nigeria, when a book is published, it is customary to have a book launch to introduce the book to the public and so I set about planning a book launch for this terrible book of poems. There was a powerful man in the media who I knew would help with this book launch and so I found my way into his office in Lagos, and I told him about my book. “Would he please support the book?”I asked.
He was very impressed, he told me. While other teenagers were hardly reading at all, I was serious enough and focused enough to have written a book. He was pleasant, avuncular, warm. And then he got up from his desk, and walked around to where I was seated and stood behind me and in a move that was as swift as it was shocking, he slipped his hand under my buttoned-down shirt, under my bra, and squeezed my breast. I was so taken aback that I did nothing for seconds. Then I pushed his hands away but gently, nicely, because I didn’t want to offend him. Later that day, I broke into a rash on my chest, my neck, my face as though my body were recoiling, as though my body were saying what my lips had not said. I felt a deep loathing for that man and for what he did. I felt as if I didn’t matter, as if my body existed merely as a thing to be done with as he wanted. Yet I told no one about it, and I kept talking to him, being polite, hoping he would help with my book.
I was a feminist long before I knew what the word meant. I didn’t read feminist texts. I just simply watched the world. I knew that the world did not give to women the same dignities that it gave to men. I was aware of how much the socialization of women was focused on men. Don’t wear a mini skirt or a man would rape you. Learn to cook and clean so you can keep a man. Don’t be too ambitious so you don’t intimidate a man. Don’t always say what you really think so that you can protect a man’s ego.
I’ve felt heartened by the #MeToo movement because it means that finally women’s stories are being believed, because there are now real consequences for the men who harass women, because for too long women did not tell their stories because they felt that they would not be believed or that they would somehow be blamed. But much as I am happy about the consequences men now face I increasingly find myself thinking about the women. How do we think about restitution? Is restitution even possible?
I know a woman whose professor at university asked her for sex in order to give her a passing grade. She was very intelligent and very hard working. She turned him down. She was sure he couldn’t possibly give her a failing grade because she would do too well on the exam. But he did give her a failing grade. It was her final year in university in Nigeria. She needed a certain GPA to apply for the job of her dreams, but she didn’t have that GPA because of the failing grade. And today she is an unhappy person, working at a job she dislikes but has to keep because she has to earn a living. Now if that man had not done what he did, what would she have been today, I sometimes wonder. Might she have become a successful and fulfilled person? Because of that man’s action, because of the injustice that this woman faced resentment will always be a part of her life story. How do we measure resentment? How do we measure the complexity of women’s experiences?
We are after all human beings. We are not a collection of logical bones and flesh. We are emotional beings. Our motivations are not easily measurable or easily quantifiable. For me, it is the story, the narrative, that can begin to reach these subtler and necessary parts of women’s experiences. We should change laws that diminish women but changing mindsets is as important. We should enact policy that supports women but changing cultural attitudes is even more important.
Why didn’t I speak up right away about that man in Lagos? Why haven’t I spoken about it until today? It is infuriating to me to hear men and some women who respond to a woman’s story of her harassment with the question why is she coming out now? Or the question why didn’t she report it right away? Why didn’t she do something earlier? And maybe it makes logical sense, the kind of logical, bloodless sense that is completely lacking in context, to immediately report an episode of harassment, but of course the reality of lived experience is very different.
While I’ve been very happy, if happy is a word that one can use about the #MeToo movement, about #MeToo, I’ve also felt concerned about the way it’s been covered in the media and by the abstract language often used in the media. In the US, I would read the news and think “what does sexual misconduct mean exactly?” I wanted the story. I wanted the detail. Because it is storytelling that creates context. It is the story that provides a kind of detail that can educate people. And it seems to me we all need some education in the subject of sexual harassment. It is the story that makes it difficult to silence women. It is storytelling, all of its nuance and all of its complexity, that can make clear the difference between sexual harassment and what isn’t sexual harassment, that can make clear that when sexual harassment happens, it is much about power than it is about sex, and I think it is storytelling that can make clear that women know the difference between what is consensual and what is not.
I was also troubled by how much of the media coverage of women was done in ways that aligned with the tradition of what a woman should be: women crying, women helpless. Yes of course there were women who were crying and helpless, but there were also women who were filled with cold rage. But the media coverage didn’t show that. I feared that it risked infantilizing women and that it aligned with that idea that for a woman to be deserving of sympathy in a subject like sexual harassment, she has to be as non-threatening as possible. I hope that the #MeToo movement would become the beginning of a real revolution, one that would end with women finally, finally being full autonomous human beings in the world.
But there is still so much work to do. It’s wonderful to have laws that expect a father to take time off to care for a new child, which I hear happens in the Scandinavian region. But how does society really think of that man who takes a lot of paternity leave, that man who stays home while the woman works. Do we really see it as completely neutral? Is domestic work really gender neutral? Or do women still do a majority of it? The politics of domestic arrangement matters very much because the discourse around women and work is really about domestic work. If the traditional expectations were not that caregiving and domestic work were primarily for women then there would be no need for us to have conversations about “can a woman have it all?” Because we never speak about whether a man can have it all.
I have a friend who is in an ostensibly equal marriage. Both of them work. Both of them are progressive, but she does most of the childcare, the cooking, and she handles the children’s school arrangements and that sort of thing. And she said she was fine with this until one evening when she realized that her husband did not know where the children’s socks were kept. And that was the moment she felt enraged. But she also said that when he did try to do the housework she sometimes felt uncomfortable or overly grateful or certain that he wouldn’t get it right. And then she’d be full of resentment. How do we measure this insidious and lingering effect of social conditioning that women go through? How do we account for the ways in which societal conditioning holds women back?
Literature is my religion, and I’ve learned from literature that all of us human beings are flawed, and I’ve also learned that all of us have the possibility of redemption. We can remake the world. I believe that. We can remake masculinity. We can change it from this narrow cage that traps men into an inhumane idea. We can expect men to be vulnerable. We can give men the language of emotion. We can teach men to respect the autonomy of women. We can encourage little boys to cry. We can create a world where women can be full sexual beings, where slut shaming never happens, where women face no backlash for being bold, for being angry, or for being aggressive, for being ambitious. We can create a world where there are many women in real positions of power because representation matters. I think Sweden might have started off fairly okay, but there is still a long way to go. There is such a thing as a female Prime Minister, Sweden.
We can make a world where there is no such thing as a pregnancy penalty for a woman who works. We can make a world where we all collectively support those human beings whose bodies do the difficult and physical work of ensuring that the human species does not become extinct. I have a two and a half year old daughter. And I really hope that she lives in a world that is better than the world that I live in. Thank you.