The pursuit of gender equality should transcend religious ideology, according to author and feminist activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who spoke as part of the Faith and Culture Lecture Series in Gaston Hall yesterday.
“Not just Catholicism, but the religions I am mostly familiar with, in the mainstream way they are practiced are not the most women-friendly institutions,” Adichie said. “Feminism is just that simple idea that women are fully equal and there’s a sense in which religion has been used to justify oppressions based upon the idea that women are not fully equal human beings.”
The event, moderated by Paul Eli, senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, was Adichie’s first public appearance since her Sunday interview with Channel 4 News, in which she distinguished between the experiences of transgender women and women. The comment was met with opposition from transgender activists.
The Faith and Culture Lecture Series invites authors to discuss their work and its connections to faith.
Driven by her belief that “we should all be feminists,” discussed in Adiche’s 2013 TED talk of the same name, Adichie said she wants those who are religious to feel like they can also be feminists.
“Lately, I’ve been finding myself thinking about how one can craft a feminist platform from Christianity. It feels tenuous, but maybe it’s not impossible,” Adichie said. “Practicing religion is really about making choices about what you want to emphasize. So the question becomes what does one want to focus on.”
Adichie, who grew up in the Catholic tradition in Nigeria, said she has struggled to define her relationship with religion.
“I like to say that I was raised Catholic. I am very uncomfortable saying that I am Catholic,” Adichie said. “It’s almost a political identity to be Catholic, in America. It’s an identity that says you’re pro-life, conservative. In some ways I feel as though they often go together.”
Despite having left the Catholic church as an adult, Adichie said she values her religious upbringing and the ways it shaped her worldview.
“Growing up Catholic, for me, was a joyful experience. As a child, I loved mass. I loved the drama of mass. It was very important for me to grow up the way I did with a sense of the Catholic world,” Adichie said. “It’s a very complicated thing for me because on the one hand, I do have these deep-seated concerns with the laws of the Catholic doctrine. Part of my quarrel with the Catholic Church is how often there is an elevation of the institution over the person.”
In her hometown and childhood communities, Adichie said she has encountered several women who find themselves torn between being good Christians and following their instincts concerning gender equality.
“I remember talking to a woman who I thought was very progressive and I was just horrified at what I thought were very backwards views on homosexuality, and then she said, ‘If it wasn’t in the Bible I would be more willing to listen to you,’” Adichie said.
According to Adichie, many women, especially in countries other than the United States, are hesitant to identify themselves as feminists or act according to feminist values of equality because of a negative cultural stigma associated with the term.
“Feminism is not an abstract concept or academic discourse, it’s a way of life. It’s about changing the world,” Adichie said. “There’s a lot of hostility that’s directed at any woman who publicly takes on that label and I think it happens everywhere in the world. To know that that comes with the territory and to continue to do it has to be because I think it’s worth doing, worth talking about.”
In the question-and-answer portion of the event, Desiree Lucky (LAW ’19) read a statement from transgender artist Venus D’Khaijah Selenite calling out Adichie’s Sunday comments as hypocritical and transphobic, questioning Adichie’s commitment to gender equality.
Adichie clarified her comments by indicating that the sex someone is born with shapes their life experiences and alters the privileges they are granted by society.
“For me, feminism is not rhetoric, it’s about lived experiences. I come from a place where a child is born, they look at what’s between a child’s legs and immediately decide what value to give that child. Based on what’s between that child’s legs, whether vagina or penis, that child runs the risk of being killed,” Adichie said. “Gender matters because gender is about how the world treats you. It’s about how the world treats you based on your biology.”
Adichie said while she believes transgender women have different life experiences than those born female, both parties should be considered equal and treated as such.
“There is a difference in the gender experiences of trans women and women who are born female. I don’t see why acknowledging the differences somehow translates to my being transphobic,” Adichie said. “Trans women should have the right to be because they are fully human beings. At the end, we are on the same side. I am a person who will continue to stand up for the rights of trans women.”
Adichie said she is hopeful that the feminist movement will continue to gain traction outside of the United States.
“We have to start somewhere. If my friend’s friend is raising her son differently, then at some point we are going to have a critical mass,” Adichie said. “I am hopeful because I really believe in the ability of humans to change.”
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