When Boko Haram gunmen stormed a school in northeastern Nigeria, they seemed to be closely following a premeditated plan of attack. They lined up students against a wall and killed them with single bullets to the head. They then doused nearby dormitories with gasoline, locked the doors, and set them alight. Those who tried to make an escape were stabbed to death.
Forty-six boys were killed in that July 2013 attack. All of the girls were spared.
Does the victims’ gender factor into why the international media paid no heed to the carnage Boko Haram wrought a year before the Islamist militant group kidnapped 276 girls from their school in Chibok? Why didn’t big-name celebrities and political officials rally behind the slaughtered schoolboys as they did the abducted schoolgirls? Why was no hashtag created to demand justice for the boys?
Maybe crimes committed against girls — and particularly schoolgirls — bear a heavier impact on the consciousness of outside observers. Taken together with the full-throttle focus Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai after she was shot by Taliban gunmen in October of 2012, and the outsized role that ISIS’ sexual assaults and enslavement of Yazidi women has played in framing U.S. intervention in Iraq, it seems that schoolgirls draw not just more attention, but also action than similar attacks on others. While Boko Haram, ISIS, and the Taliban have all waged a bloody reign of terror, it’s the crimes they commit against schoolgirls — archetypes of innocence and vulnerability — that have earned them the most disdain.
Society’s Most Defenseless
“The problem with putting girls and women into some kind of ‘precious’ category is that it makes them high-value targets.”
Lauren Wolfe, the director of Women Under Siege, a Women’s Media Center project that investigates how sexualized violence is used as a weapon of war, says that our concern for these girls may actually make them only more unsafe. She writes in an email to ThinkProgress, “The problem with putting girls and women into some kind of ‘precious’ category is that it makes them high-value targets.”
She considers this issue further in an op-ed for Foreign Policy:
Boko Haram has chosen a group — girls — that is historically vulnerable, yet whose members carry precious undertones about the purity of most societies. And with that designation as the bearers of purity, girls become a group that is little more than a symbol. In reality, these girls are human beings who are marginalized, exploited, and ignored globally. Girls are the low-hanging fruit of the biblically proportioned anger at Eve.
In attacking girls, Wolfe writes, Boko Haram “is targeting society’s most defenseless and fetishized.”
That’s part of a relatively new strategy for Boko Haram, says Elizabeth Pearson, who researches Islamist militancy, especially as it relates to women and gender. In 2012, after the Nigerian government began to detain the families of Boko Haram — including the wives of Shekau — the militant group for the first time began to make targets of women and children.
“Since you are now holding our women,” Shekau says with a laugh in a video released at the end of that year, “Just wait and see what will happen to your own women…to your own wives according to Sharia law.”
Pearson says the kiddnapping of the girls from their school in Chibok may be a part of Boko Haram’s retaliation for the Nigerian government’s detention of the families of its members.
“It’s a humiliation to be unable to protect your family,” she says in a phone interview with ThinkProgress. “And [the Chibok kidnapping] is a way to maintain esteem — they say ‘So we can do it bigger and bolder and better.’”
The kidnappings were one way to hijack others’ family members and reroute them into their way of life. Shekau said from the onset that the girls should be married and that they should quit school. Some of the girls were sold into marriage early on for as little as $12 according to reports from Chibok officials. (Wolfe notes onthe sale of girls as wives, “As if their being sold for a higher price would somehow improve the situation.”) By marrying them off, they extracted the girls from their lives as students in royal blue jumpers and forced them into confined, cloaked domestic lives. This is a part of their aim to create a society organized by their maligned interpretation of Islam in which strict gender roles and segregation are the norm. It’s also the ends by which Boko Haram and other Islamist militant groups justify their unendingly violent means, although there are also very real personal and political grievances that serve to motivate them in their mission.
In the case of Boko Haram — and in the incidents of the Yazidi women and Malala — Islamist organizations may knowingly pick on those who are seen to be some of the weakest in a society to signal their “no mercy” approach to waging war. Although signalling such ruthlessness to a state or even individuals may help to defang their opposition, the shock that follows isn’t always something they expect.
Pearson says that Boko Haram is an incredibly media savvy organization, and though the group was taken aback by the incredible global media response for the Chibok kidnappings, it took advantage of the situation. The video it released of the girls draped in gray and black burqas saying that they had converted to Islam and were not being harmed by their captors is one clear example of how they drew attention to the girls — and to themselves.
Part of why the kidnapping dew so much attention from the media as well as activists is because the girls hold a dual significance.
“They’re symbols, but they have a practical function as well,” Pearson says. “They’re bargaining chips.”
Boko Haram’s leader Shekau denied negotiating a ceasefire deal with the Nigerian government to discuss the fate of the kidnapped girls,. It’s possible that he was in fact negotiating, and only denied it as a way to delegitimize the government. But many Nigerians believe the government may have talking to a different Boko Haram faction, or the wrong lot entirely — especially since Shekau has said repeatedly that he isn’t interested in negotiating. For its part, the Nigerian government has reason not to release false statements, having already stomached a great deal of embarrassment for falsely claiming the girls had been released to its army.
Even if the girls were not being used as bargaining chips by Boko Haram, they, along with others such Malala Yousafzai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October, have been given a place on the world stage, for better or worse. It’s just that their role is often that of a victim — even before they come under any sort of real threat. Seeing girls inhabit that role, especially girls in the developing world, is an appealing retelling of a familiar story. And, columnist Rafia Zakaria says, that’s what draws so many of us in.
The single stories that get elevated are generally ones that substantiate some idea of a brown girl or a brown woman or a black girl or a black woman as being persecuted by their own culture and then somehow being saved by global culture or western culture or white culture.
“The media and academic culture as well as well as feminist impulses for solidarity have been so concentrated in distilling black and brown women into single stories. The single stories that get elevated are generally ones that substantiate some idea of a brown girl or a brown woman or a black girl or a black woman as being persecuted by their own culture and then somehow being saved by global culture or western culture or white culture,” Zakaria says in phone interview from Bloomington, Ind. where she’s working on a PhD in political theory.
We’re drawn to their stories, she says, because they represent familiar colonial tropes of victimized women in what were once called “uncivilized” lands.
In an op-ed for Al Jazeera America, Zakaria outlines some of the issues with what ensues when those girls are allowed to stand in for all women in their region. “Schoolgirl feminism” is the name she gives to this phenomenon which is perhaps best characterized by Malala Yousafzai:
In the days following the attack, Yousafzai was anointed and elevated as the voice of Pakistani women, her cause — education — touted as the solution to Pakistan’s myriad problems. Questioning Yousafzai’s age or the narrative that reduced an entire country’s feminist struggles to a schoolgirl’s resilient but still childish ebullience could make one a suspect, a bearer of pouty misgivings or, worse still, sympathies for the Taliban.
Then it was packaged into a kind of Malala mixture — schoolgirls from an underdeveloped land, a barbaric Islamist group and an ineffective government cast against a setting of conflict, haplessness and misogyny. Yousafzai’s successors, the schoolgirls of Chibok, have been anointed in their absence. Hashtags demanding their return are shared, tweeted and reshared. Vigils and petitions are organized on their behalf. This virtual furor epitomized a Western caring for the girls against the implied callousness of Nigerians.
The global attention and Western feminists’ efforts to empathize with the suffering and despicable persecution of young women in Pakistan and Nigeria are welcome. But the positioning of a grownup, liberated Western feminism against the simple, naive schoolgirl feminism of brown and black lands, where the girls are imagined as just beginning to scramble for an education and awaiting Western liberation, is a cause for concern. This opportunistic centering of the world’s feminist attention on the schoolgirl, whether Pakistani or Nigerian, defangs black and brown feminism. A trademark of schoolgirl feminism is its refusal to question narratives of global inequality or Western complicity.
The problem with latching on to young girls as emblematic of the strife in a certain country or culture, Zakaria explains, is that they cannot fully represent all sides of a story. They’re likely too young and too tied to their own basic struggles to see how their concerns are a part of a bigger picture. The Chibok girls are in no position to represent, for example, the resource depletion of northern Nigeria at the hands of Western companies which have, in some way, allowed Boko Haram to draw support and gain force. Similarly, she says, Yousafzai has not discussed how the sort of education she advocates for has long been a part of American strategic policy in Pakistan.
“And so,” Zakaria says, “Female education has directly implicated the western powers and become tainted as something that’s part of a strategic war agenda rather than a universal value.”
That’s an issue that she says more “grown up articulations of feminism, race, and anti-colonialism,” from “strong feminist women figures who have earned their stripes in very, very hostile environments” would be unlikely to overlook.
The Education Agenda
For Yousafzai’s attackers, her education was very much tied in with a pro-Western, pro-American agenda. Perhaps it’s because of the use of education to promote certain ideals by the U.S., including, for a time, an anti-Soviet agenda, that there has been a notable backlash there to use school curriculum to forward extremist ideology. The same might be said of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the girls at the Chibok school.
And so it might be because they were attacked while attending the sort of schools advanced by western designs in post-colonial countries that western audiences are more drawn into their stories — perhaps even unwittingly. There’s an understanding that many around the world have of education as a basic right — and even if gunmen have been known to attack schools in America — we retain a sense of outrage against those whose mission it is to keep girls out of school. But Islamist militants often have a more hostile view of secular education because it’s very often tied up with colonial-era politics and, what they see as the imperialist efforts of the West that replaced colonialism.
For Boko Haram too, targeting the schoolgirls seems to be tied up in a bigger mission to thwart the sort of education they’re getting.
While the phrase “Boko Haram” is often translated as “Western education is a sin,” isn’t how the militant group refers to itself. Its leaders call the outfit Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad, a more formal Arabic phrase which means “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.” Some have argued that the phrase Boko Haram in itself is more complicated than the English translation implies.
The word “Boko” refers to something that’s fraudulent or a sham, and came to refer to the British colonialist project in Nigeria which brought “Western education” to young people there, but the sort that was infused with colonialist and neo-imperialist principles.
“Boko” is not unlike what many see English-language education to be in some parts of Pakistan, which explains, in part why she has come to be seen as a Western stooge by so many there.
Even the Taliban walked back on their initial reason for attacking Yousafzai because of her support of education, writing in a statement, “We did not attack her for raising voice for education. We targeted her for opposing mujahideen [freedom fighters] and their war.” It went on to say, “We targeted her because she would speak against the Taliban while sitting with shameless strangers and idealized the biggest enemy of Islam, Barack Obama.”
Following from those views, in the minds of Islamist militants, schoolchildren may be seen as more fair targets than those of us who were thoroughly appalled by these attacks could even imagine. It’s may be that this stark divide — and our intellectual effort to understand the perpetrators’ rationale paired with our emotional unwillingness to accept such brutal crimes against innocent children helps to make these stories so compelling.
The Flipside Of Vulnerability
For those sympathetic to their attackers, the Chibok girls and Yousafzai are likely seen not only as of victims of violence but also as the pawns in geopolitical designs and historical paradigms. They signify something very different to those concerned about the rights of girls.
I think the girls were not targeted because they’re vulnerable but because they represent something incredibly powerful.
“I think the girls were not targeted because they’re vulnerable but because they represent something incredibly powerful,” Diana Duarte of MADRE, an international women’s rights organization says in a phone interview. “They can grow up to become advocates and leaders. There’s a power behind them that…strikes fear into the hearts of those whose minds are rooted in misogyny and gender discrimination.”
It’s the fear of the potential of schoolgirls that might make them targets for those who believe the role of women in society is limited to the home, she says.
Indeed, the potential of schoolgirls to not only change their own fates but that of their communities is well substantiated.
If a woman has had even a single year of primary school, she’s able to earn 10 to 20 percent than a woman who hasn’t been to school at all. A secondary school education will earn her 15 to 25 percent more. Each additional year of schooling will prevent two maternal deaths per 1000 women. And, a study in Uganda found that each year of education reduces a girls’ chances of contracting HIV by nearly seven percent.
“I think we have to be able to hold both ideas in our mind about vulnerability and power. I think the girls are targeted not just because they’re easy targets,” Duarte says, though there is a sense that such attacks don’t constitute a fair fight.
That could be another part of why we feel so moved to read on when young girls are attacked by militant men.
Or maybe it’s far simpler than that. Maybe we were drawn to the Chibok girls because they offered us room for something that’s rarely present in the days’ news: the ability to hope.
Though gruesome, the murders of the 46 boys killed after the kidnappings at Chibok leave little cause for baited breath — or for following up with their story day after day, news cycle after news cycle. New information about their killings might emerge, but that would lead to their safe return.
The extended period of wonder and worry is there too with the Yazidi women, many of whom are still trapped on Mount Sinjar despite Obama’s overt reference to their plight as a rationale for beginning airstrikes against ISIS. And hope was there too with Yousafzai before she seemingly miraculously surviving close-range gunshots to the head. While many desperately called for Boko Haram to #BringBackOurGirls, after more than six months, it doesn’t seem we can hold out much more hope for the 219 girls who remain in the hands of their militants. And as hope dwindled, it’s possible that our interest in their plight did too.
“We have have married them off [to Boko Haram fighters] and they are all in their husbands’ houses,” a man who claimed to be Abubakar Shekau, the head of the Islamist militant organization said in a video released last week.
“All we are doing is slaughtering people with machetes and shooting people with guns,” a man who Shekau continued. “War is what we want.”
If the video is legitimate, it confirms the worst: the girls who were kidnapped from their school in northern Nigeria in April will not return to their hometowns, their families, their studies, their lives.
And all of our pleas for their release may only put more girls like them at risk in Nigeria and elsewhere in the world, too.