#BringBackOurGirls- Doing Nothing as ‘Activism’

by on 2014-05-12 in Duck- 4 Comments

I really don’t want to write this post. I hate being a feminist or critical killjoy- especially when it comes to issues that seem to unite, motivate, and inspire large groups of people. We all need to feel inspired- like we are doing something good for the world. On Sunday I saw a small group of teenage girls wearing red and holding signs that read #BringBackOurGirls. It was sort of sweet to see them so clearly excited to be part of something- to be DOING SOMETHING. Activism is supposed to be political activity aimed at changing or influencing events. But what are the politics of #BringBackOurGirls and does #BringBackOurGirls DO anything?  Let’s start with a few more important questions:

1. To whom is #BringBackOurGirls directed? President Goodluck Jonathan? President Obama? The Nigerian military? Holding a sign in a shopping center on a Sunday is a nice activity for feeling part of ‘something’- but flashing a sign with a hash tag in such a setting feels more like a Western conversation with ourselves. A feel-good exercise, rather than political activism.

2. Who is the ‘our’ in this tag? ‘Our girls’ implies ownership rather than solidarity. What motivates this paternalistic feeling that ‘we’ can/should ‘save’ ‘our’ girls? In his article ‘What’s Wrong with the Well-Intentioned Boko Haram Coverage‘, Arit John argues “[o]ur coverage has reflected the oversimplified and paternalistic narrative western countries have of Africa, a narrative that underestimates the damage of colonialism and overestimates the ability of those former colonizers to help at the same time.” He notes the White Savoir motif throughout the coverage- from the reporting that American filmmaker Ramaa Mosley was responsible for the tag (compared to claims it was initiated by a South African activist) , to NBC’s Brian Williams confusing report that the girls were in Kenya, rather than Nigeria. John argues this perpetuates a general Western perception of vague and perpetual problems in Africa that require Western intervention.

3. By what means should the girls be ‘brought back?’ The Nigerian Government has already noted that it will consider “all options” necessary to secure the girls’ release and several countries have lent support towards the effort, including the US, Israel, France, and Britain. In a recent Guardian article, Jumoke Balogun argued that the hash tag has compromised democracy and merely supported the miltiarization of Nigeria and the increase of US troops across the African continent: “…the United States military loves your hashtags because it gives them legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa. Africom … gained much from #KONY2012 and will now gain even more from #BringBackOurGirls.”

4. Why did it take 9 days for the story, and then the hash tag, to gain traction globally? Miranda Neubauer provides a great graph of the timeline of #BringBackOurGirls- as compared to #chibokgirls and #bringbackourdaughters. Compared to #kony2012 (which, coincidentally hasn’t DONE much), or the social media response to the disappearance to Flight 370, the response to the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian girls was relatively apathetic and slow at first. Why the delayed enthusiasm?

The point here is not to provide a complete gender and post-colonial critique of #BringBackOurGirls, it is really to pose some questions that I hope those retweeting the letters ask themselves. Words should MEAN something. Activism should be about DOING something that will promote peace rather than legitimize Western imperialism and further military expansion.

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  • words for girls


    2 thoughts:

    1) What does it mean “to do” something? I don’t expect teenage girls in a shopping center to directly enter this bargaining game, either by contacting Boko Haram and negotiating the victim’s release or suiting up in arms and conducting a military rescue.

    Raising awareness or reminding people the issue is not resolved is just fine. If the public conversation continues (particularly in an in your face way in the meatspace) it becomes increasingly difficult and embarrassing for people in possession of political power to ignore because it may have a small adverse affect on their political fortunes, raising the potential to increase the costs interveners are willing to pay (concessions or military action).

    Personally, I’m always impressed by people, especially young people, who are interested in more than what is directly in front of them.

    2) The “our” is also the language of inclusion meant to bring us closer to the victims, so that they seem less like some far away strangers in a place we know nothing about. True, #BringBackTHEIRGirls, or #BringBackTHEGirls, is more descriptively accurate. My sense is the purpose of “Our” is to make us feel closer to the victims while fitting a paternalistic ownership narrative is merely an inconvenience. In the spirit of 9/11 Le Monde how about: “#WeAreAllChibokDaughters”?

    Perhaps the Balogun alternative is best: Stay silent, keep a stiff upper lip and hope Boko Haram will give up escalating to get our attention. Instead of talking, just read journalists who think Nigerian politicians should distribute goodies beyond their selectorate. They may tweet #BringBackOurGirls, but they tweet acceptable hashtags too. Yankee go home! We know your sword is double-edged.

    This whole thing veils the actual jugular between the lines, namely: How much should who pay to return these victims safe and whole to their homes? The arguments, as I follow them, can summarized to say, these girls lives are not worth risking neocolonialism in speech or deed. #CommitmentProblems

  • http://www.columbia.edu/~ju2178/ Johannes Urpelainen

    What kind of action would you recommend in this case?

  • Brett O’Bannon

    The assertion “‘Our girls’ implies ownership rather than solidarity” reveals a striking lack of familiarity with the way parents situated in social/community contexts commonly think of and refer to the children in their midsts. This is true where I live in small town Indiana, it’s true in both towns and cities in West Africa where I travel. The term “our girls” reflects a belief in a (fictive) kinship relationship among otherwise unrelated peoples. The expression “it takes a village” has never meant the collectivization of children as property. It has meant that the welfare of children — all children — is at least partly function of the degree to which members of the broader human community are prepared to act on behalf of the interests of “our” youth — on its willingness to “intervene” when necessary to protect “our” children. Perhaps we’ve lost all sense of community in the US, but where I travel in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, for example, it is still very common to see children fed, praised, reprimanded, punished, and even housed by non-family members. I’ve never seen any indication that doing these things conferred property rights on anyone. So the answer to the question “what motivates this paternalistic feeling that we can/should ‘save’ ‘our’ girls?” isn’t complicated for most people in the world. It is simply what one does as a member of a human community.

  • Jake Rabas

    I’m going to third the idea that the “OUR” in bring back our girls is not sexist or about ownership. It is meant to connote a community feeling designed to counteract the idea that because these girls are far away an in Africa (a place we are predisposed to thinking of as “not our problem”) they don’t “belong” to our group or aren’t important enough to warrant the effort. I can envision a “bring back our boys” campaign and I wouldn’t think that sexist either.