The problem with identity politics is that someone is always offended. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist and feminist, is learning that lesson. Transgender women are criticising Adichie for apparently failing to accept them as ‘real women’.
During a Channel 4 interview, Adichie was asked if a trans woman was any less of a real woman. She responded: ‘My feeling is that trans women are trans women.’ ‘If you’ve lived in the world as a man’, she continued, ‘with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then switched gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges’.
Trans activist and writer Raquel Willis says Adichie’s ‘cisgender hegemony’ is ‘dangerous’. Willis says that while Adhichie is right that women grow up experiencing oppression, she overlooks the fact that they also grow up with the ‘privilege of being seen, accepted and respected in their gender from birth’. Trans women, Willis and others claim, deal with an extra oppression on top of female oppression – not being seen as female. So Adichie’s refusal to acknowledge them as ‘real women’ is itself a continuation of the oppression of trans women.
This is the Oppression Olympics. Adichie says it is women who are afforded the least privilege, while her trans critics claim trans women get the gold medal for the most oppressed. Adichie and her critics are in essence locked in a battle over which identity group is the most marginalised by society. What an ugly and divisive game.
However, Adichie did hint at something interesting in her interview. Trans politics has thrown open the debate about gender, and in particular it has forced the question of what it means to be a woman, of how we define womanhood. And where much of trans politics seems to define womanhood as something superficial – looking, sounding and acting like a woman – Adichie seems to think womanhood is defined by oppression, by the fact that we supposedly don’t enjoy the same ‘privileges’ as men.