The Power of Feminism in Tradition and Culture


Image: Tedx, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Image: Tedx, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an important Nigerian novelist and gave an inspiring lecture at Tedx in 2013 called “We Should All Be Feminists.” It explores her own personal interactions and observations regarding gender in Nigeria. She shares her thoughts on these moments as they relate to feminism, power, equality and culture, but what was most powerful is how she described how gender roles in marriage often shape women and men’s equality. Here are some amazingly insightful quotes from the talk and some Feminist Bride reflections on them. I also strongly recommend watching the talk in its entirety too.

“The language of marriage is often the language of ownership, rather than of partnership.”

A great example of this is “Mrs.” When women marry they become “Mrs. John Smith,” which implies the most important identity in a relationship is the man’s. It stems from a time when a woman was literally the man’s possession. For example, because a wife belonged to her husband he was legally permitted to hit her, she had no legal identity so she couldn’t vote, divorce him, inherit and as a Mrs. of-someone, all assets became legally his. Not to mention, the Mrs. of-someone rarely chose whom she married – her father decided for her. Western wives may have better civil rights today, but the meaning of “Mrs.” is still linguistically used as in the past, it’s just given a more romantic undercurrent and therefore suddenly becomes acceptable. Unfortunately, this is not the only form of language in marriage that denotes ownership.

“When a women says I did it for peace in my marriage, she’s usually talking of having given up a job, a dream, a career. We teach females that in relationships compromise is what females do.”

Patronymics, which is the adoption of the man’s surname by the woman upon marriage or birth is a great example of this mindset. Most brides I speak to think taking his name and abandoning her own is a selfless gesture towards the formation of their marriage. It’s often done under the pretense of unity, family and love for example. Except husbands seldom do the same. The husband often retains his original identity, which if marriage is about compromise, why is that only the wife makes it in the name of unity, family and love? The fact that surname change is treated so differently between the sexes is a perfect example of how women and men are raised to understand their value and expected contributions within marriage differently. These differences prove that marriage is actually not about partnership as Ngozi Adichie explains.

“I learned a lot about systems of oppression and how they can be blind toward one another” 

Most people are aware of modern day sexism (at least I hope so) such street harassment, campus rape, the wage gap, women missing from leadership positions, etc. Feminism highlights that the system of oppression for these issues is a preference towards the patriarchy (Ngozi Adichie also talks about this too). However, how aware are most people about the limited gender roles that many of our cultural traditions assert? Wedding culture is a perfect example of a blind system of oppression. One reason for this blindness is that it’s seen as a hedonistic event. It’s natural to wonder – how can a joyous event also negatively discriminate against people too? The bouquet toss is suppose to be a fun game because women are given the chance to capture some good luck towards becoming married, not realizing it’s telling women that being single is bad when this is clearly not the case. Or some might not realize this system of oppression because it’s hedonist quality lends itself towards a totalitarian one – it’s the assumption that since most people are happy then it must be good for everyone. However, few realize that not everyone is allowed to marry or access this in-group behavior and as a result, become outcasts. Since wedding traditions have always been heterosexual, it has stalled people embracing same-sex marriage or accepting permanent singles (men get to bachelors but single women are old maids…).

“Culture does not make people, people make culture.” 

What I loved about this quote is that it suggests the power to change culture – for the better. Culture and tradition is constantly changing and evolving. Yes, it can provide a sense of belonging and identity, but this substance is short-lived and always fluctuating. Contrary to popular belief it is never constant. As the purveyors of culture, this awareness of how it can negatively affect people is crucial. If culture is meant to raise the ones we love, unite us, ground us then why not make it something where everyone is equally respected?

Leave a Reply