On April 15, 2014, 276 schoolgirls were abducted from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram; these girls became known as the “Chibok schoolgirls.” When the kidnappings occurred, the Nigerian government took no action. Following a few days of no answers or action from their government, the Chibok parents took it upon themselves to raise attention and get their children back. By the end of April, the cry of the parents had been amplified by the power of social media.
#BringBackOurGirls was retweeted over a million times in the first week it was created.
Although Boko Haram was very well known as a terrorist group in the area, this event brought new international attention to what was taking place.
Abosede George, Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Barnard College, gave a lecture on Nov. 11 to examine the way history can help to think about contemporary feminist activism. Using her research and profession to help understand the way we view Nigeria, George put the “Bring Back our Girls” phenomenon into a historical perspective.
George discussed the stereotype that third-world women need to be saved and pointed out that this image of the weak appears often in the discussion of African girls and is one that has been used throughout time for political purposes in Nigeria and beyond.
“The ideas of vulnerability and abjectness serve to create political opportunities for activists and colonial administrators,” George said.
To elaborate on this idea, George spoke of previous girl-saving campaigns in Lagos, specifically the girl-hawker project. This project sought to spread the idea of the modern girl, a notion that centered around Western-style schooling and education in the socialization of girls.
“An idea of modernization that centers around school took girls out of the other primary space of socialization—the market,” George said.
Elite women wanted to take girls out of the market, which they saw as a place of sexualization and in competition with acquiring a western-style education.
“Why were women so invested in bringing more girls into the school-centric form of socialization?” George inquired to the audience, “[They] saw them as a constituency. [It was] also to uplift. It was political and moral.”
She further added that these women were seen as being a service to their community.
The elite women, however, needed to rely on the coercive power of the state. George highlighted the vulnerability of the girl-hawkers.
“[They had to] bring the state into seeing girls as governable subjects, as political actors, as meriting state attention,” George said. “They had to garner the support of the state, who typically care about the most productive subjects. They had to demonstrate how the elimination of hawking would speak to the new colonial state and replace them with the modernized school girl.”
She then added that to begin, the state draws a portrait of the girl hawker, where she is rendered as a vulnerable and abject figure.
“By focusing on their exploitation, they played to the state’s ego by showing that they could function as their saviors,” George said. “When in the 1940s, anti-street selling laws were passed in Lagos with the intention of rescuing girls from a dangerous economy in a dangerous city, it just led to the criminalization of young girls and their families as they continued to sell.”
Although the law was largely ineffective and did not extend beyond the city of Lagos, it had many effects. It provided a new narrative and portrait of the hawker.
“It makes [young girls] available for state intervention and these different kinds of salvation projects,” George said.
George raised the question: How does the context of this neo-liberalism and the history of women’s role in politics influence the Bring Back Our Girls movement?
George explained that through this, a new feminist movement unfolded.
In the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, there is a clear emphasis of the word “our.” The cause became a seemingly universal one, as people all over the world began to show their support. The idea of these girls as vulnerable figures belonging to everyone spread quickly over the internet as the world began to claim the Chibok girls as their own.
“The abducted school girls were portrayed as everyone’s,” George said. “In their vulnerability they were made to be available to all.”
A large emphasis was placed on the global aspects of the activism around the Chibok school girls.
“This brought up whether there is or is not a universal feminism,” said Gayon Yang ’19. “I’m coming to the idea that there is not just one feminism. There is not one type of social justice but [many types of] social justices and feminisms. They need to be rooted to the actual people that are suffering from it.”
Yang added that individuals cannot look at the activist work being done to support young Nigerian girls unless the context in which they are marginalized is recognized.
According to George, this sense of ownership was heightened when one of the girls escaped and was pregnant. This contributed to a new reading of the Chibok girls as Boko Haram mothers. George pointed out that people began to speak about how these girls were carrying the seeds of violence in their own bodies; they were seen as contaminated.
“They can be transformed from being perfectly available to salvation projects to dangerous figures,” George said.
Now, these images are being monitored by feminist activists. There are projects going on discussing how to engage the international community in a salvation project without handing over the sovereignty of the nation. This raises the question of how to achieve this global activism without supporting an idea of integration intervention into Nigeria.
Persisting still is the challenge of maintaining focus on the abductees 20 months after their kidnapping.
“There is a fatigue surrounding the movement now,” George said.
Audience members spoke on the topic of the nuances at play in the Bring Back Our Girls Movement.
“[The issue of the] Chibok girls resonates with me both as a scholar and as a mother with daughters,” Interim Director of the Student Writing Center Meg Furniss Weinberg said. “[It was interesting] seeing how this particular incident has resonances with earlier history and specifically the idea of portraying girls as vulnerable and using that portrayal to mobilize people…. This was about garnering international attention to put pressure on the national government.”