Imagining Human Rights
Like the other women writers of her generation, Adichie is more interested in telling stories, especially those of the bodies in pain than in accusing men of having oppressed women. She would most likely declare with Ovid that she tells of bodies that have been transformed into different shapes and forms.65 The bodies in Adichie’s narratives are those of women who have been transformed into unwholesome shapes by the patriarchal order of their societies. Adichie does not seek to overthrow fathers. Nor does she seek to relieve them of their responsibilities as fathers; she seeks to make them even more like fathers, real fathers.
Interrogating patriarchal ideology is not the same as rejecting men. Nor is it about women striving to be men. It is about people being fair-minded in their relation to others. Feminism is also about daughters having fulfilling relations with their fathers, relationships in which they feel happy and affirmed as human beings worthy of respect and esteem. Feminism is about fathers being protective, caring fathers. In an incident that recalls Nwoye’s acceptance of the new religion in Things Fall Apart, Eugene’s daughter falls in love with a man who possesses the exact opposite of her father’s qualities, a Catholic priest: Father Amadi. Kambili tells: “I wished I were alone with him. I wished I could tell him how warm I felt that he was here, how my favorite color was now the same fire-clay shade of his skin.”66 Father Amadi successfully foils the ugly image of “the Father” created by Eugene. In falling in love with him, Kambili expresses everything her mother’s generation would have wished for from the men in their lives. Father Amadi is an ideal; he is the crystallization of Kambili’s wishes for a more fulfilling, enabling relationship with her father. Her falling in love with Father Amadi is the same as the protagonist of “Tomorrow Is Too Far” falling in love with her cousin. These two young women hunger for affirmation from the men of their world. They know no other way to express this wish to be seen as human beings than in sexual language. Joseph R. Slaughter writes that the:
Bildungsroman posits as the culmination of modern subjectivation the cultivation of a democratic, humanitarian sensibility—a profound fellowfeeling that enables the Bildungsheld to recognize the equal humanity and fundamental dignity of the human personality in both self and others.67
Purple Hibiscus exemplifies Slaughter’s assessment of the Bildungsroman as cultivating humanitarian sensibility. Kambili, the Bildungsheld projects the wishes for equal humanity and dignity for all. Adichie uses purple hibiscus (the flower) as a metaphor of Kambili’s wishes for dignity. The flower, the narrator tells us, does not need too much care. “The stalks might take root and grow if they were watered regularly... hibiscuses didn’t like too much water, but they didn’t like to be too dry, either.”68 Aunt Ifeoma, Kambili’s father’s younger sister, helps her niece in that regard. Aunt Ifeoma is educated and teaches at the university; she sees herself as equal to men and acts accordingly. She is liberal and forward-looking. Kambili admires her because she sees in her the possibility of what she could be. “It was the fearlessness about her, about the way she gestured as she spoke, the way she smiled to show that wide gap.”69 Kambili sees in Aunt Ifeoma a body that is not disabled; or rather, one that has successfully defied the disability that society had foreseen for her. In her aunt, there is no inhibited intentionality. Aunt Ifeoma even once prods Kambili to put on trousers, a symbol of emancipation. In her father’s thinking, however, it is sinful for women to wear trousers because it makes them look like men.70 In another moment of inspiration, Kambili hears about the importance of defiance from Aunt Ifeoma. “Defiance is like marijuana—it is not a bad thing when it is used right.”71 To underline the positive traits in Aunt Ifeoma and underscore her own dreams, another feminist thrust of the narrative, she begins to imitate Aunt Ifeoma in her dreams. “That night, I dreamed that I was laughing, but it did not sound like my laughter, although I was not sure what my laughter sounded like. It was cackling and throaty and enthusiastic, like Aunt Ifeoma’s.”72 Her dream is not a complicated one; it is merely her wish to feel comfortable in her own body, her wish to flourish. Aunt Ifeoma can laugh freely because she has already defied the boundaries set for her body by patriarchy; she has discovered the beauty of being oneself. Kambili is on the road to doing so. That is why it features in her dream. We note that she does not dream of doing away with the men in her life; she just dreams of being happy the way she is. Aunt Ifeoma is presented as a possibility for Kambili. Now that she firmly occupies a space in Kambili’s psyche as a female member of her society, one who has reached the admirable goal of self-determination, Kambili knows that such a goal is not far-fetched for her.
When Adichie declared in an interview that every fair-minded person should be a feminist, she was imagining a society in which people’s thoughts and actions are conducted as if from behind a veil of ignorance. In a society of fair-minded people, no gender would be granted an a priori ontological status. People would be judged by the content of their character, not by their gender. Adichie’s more humane society might be no more than one in which a young woman can issue “cackling and throaty and enthusiastic” laughter without fear of a patriarchal censure of these happy expressions of her body. It is one in which men and women can regard one another as equals, as ends in themselves, not as means to other people’s ends.