Feminist Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Speaks at Georgetown, Responds to Controversy

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sits down with Berkley Center Senior Fellow Paul Elie. // Photo Credit: Chris Stein.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sits down with Berkley Center Senior Fellow Paul Elie. // Photo Credit: Chris Stein.

Nigerian author and noted feminist voice Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie visited Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall on March 16, 2017 to participate in a conversation with Berkley Center Senior Fellow Paul Elie as part of the Faith and Culture Lecture Series. Adichie is the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, including Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah and is known for TED Talks, such as “The Danger of the Single Story” and “We Should All be Feminists.”

Adichie is well known for her strong, feminist views. Beyoncé’s single “Flawless” sampled parts of “We Should All be Feminists,” catapulting Adichie to further fame. At Georgetown, she spoke of the compatibility of religion and feminism despite the common scriptural arguments used to undermine gender equality.

A lapsed Nigerian Catholic, the author has a unique perspective on religion. She explained that, in general, Nigerian Catholics meticulously follow the strict orthodoxies of the Catholic Church, unlike in the American Catholic community where loose adherence is common. This strict interpretation, Adichie argued, is co-opted by Nigerian Christian institutions to justify a culture of misogyny. In particular, she pointed to the oft cited passage from I Peter 3:1 that says, “Wives, respect and obey your husbands.” Adichie, today an agnostic, argued that to use this passage to support misogyny represents biblical cherry-picking and that the Bible is parable, not non-fiction.

Setting aside literal acts of chauvinism in the Bible, Adichie referenced the story of the adulteress in John 8. In the passage, Jesus is asked to judge the case of a woman accused of adultery so that she may be stoned. Instead, he decides not to judge her and leans down beside her to write in the sand with a stick. Adichie and Elie joked that Jesus clearly wrote “Women Are Equal” and that subsequent male compilers of the Bible edited the message out. By using a more holistic, inclusive, and metaphorical reading of the Bible, Adichie said that feminism was an obvious conclusion of the teachings of Jesus.

The conversation proceeded along similar lines until the question and answer session. Adichie, though largely considered an icon of the feminist movement and the political left, has recently been embroiled in a controversy over remarks she made about transgender women’s life experiences. Adichie, speaking to British newscasters, said, “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.” She subsequently came under fire from left-wing activists and the trans community as the comments were perceived as transphobic and diminishing the womanhood of transgender women.

The last question asked at Adichie’s Georgetown University event was from black, trans woman poet Venus Selenite. Selenite’s statement, read in absence of the author by a Georgetown student, argued that Adichie’s comments were transphobic and represent an exclusive view of a feminism that leaves out trans women.

Adichie responded to the almost five-minute statement by clarifying and doubling down on her argument that the lived experiences of biological women and trans women are different, saying, “Gender matters because it’s about how the world treats you, but it’s about how the world treats you based on your biology.”

Adichie argued that biological women and trans women have different experiences with womanhood because much of the world treats biological women differently from birth; whereas, trans women only experience anti-female sexism after their transitions. She conceded that trans women have experiences of types of discrimination that biological women do not, arguing that the experiences are different but one is not more properly female than the other.

Adichie took to task elements of the political left in the United States saying, “There is an opaque language in which you are supposed to participate, and, if you don’t, the demonizing happens very easily.”

Although marred by a tense conflict over the gender experience of trans women, the event showcased the eloquence, wit, and passion that has made Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a symbol of feminism across the world.

Christopher Stein

SFS 2020