Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author of six books and recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, spoke at Georgetown University on March 16 as part of the Faith and Culture Lecture Series. Widely celebrated for her activism and poignant writing, Adichie spoke about the intersection of Catholicism and feminism in a conversation moderated by Paul Elie.
“I like to say that I was raised Catholic. I am very uncomfortable saying that I am Catholic,” Adichie said, noting that Catholicism takes on a strongly political identity in America, one that reflects a different religious culture than in her native Nigeria.
Catholicism has deep roots in Nigeria, particularly in the southeastern region of the country, which is historically Igbo. Missions were established by the Portuguese and the French in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and English-speaking Catholic schools became popular as the Igbo sought to advance in colonial society. Because of the Church’s involvement in Igbo culture, it was a staunch supporter of the breakaway south in the Biafran Civil War from 1967 to 1970. Although the Igbo lost the war and failed to separate from the rest of Nigeria, the Catholic church continued to provide aid and education to the south, which became more Africanized as a result.
Nigerian Catholicism today is thus a blend of traditional Igbo practices and Christian theology, but it is still a highly conservative ideology that can present challenges to those fighting for gender equality in the country. Nigeria is currently ranked 118 out of 142 countries in the Gender Gap Index, a score which has worsened over the past several years. The unequal treatment of women creates a pressing need for feminist discourse, but Adichie claims that many women in Nigeria are hesitant to take on the label of “feminist” because of their religious beliefs.
Adichie described an interaction with a woman in Nigeria who was vocally against homosexuality, but who said that if such views were not present in the Bible, she would be more tolerant of homosexuality. Adichie used this anecdote to emphasize her hope for the future, and her belief that with more effort and interreligious dialogue, it may be possible to “craft a [progressive]platform from Christianity.”
Throughout her career, Adichie has been an outspoken proponent of gender equality through multiple TED talks and published essays. Speaking about her belief system, she said that “feminism is not an abstract concept or academic discourse, but a way of life – a way of changing the world – and there’s a lot of hostility that’s directed at any woman who publicly takes on that label.”
This hostility has not stopped her from spreading her message across America and throughout Nigeria. Adichie’s presence at Georgetown served to highlight the ongoing discussion in Nigeria and around the world about the role of women and religion in society and the importance of gender equality in the fight for progress for all.