On April 15, Nigeria’s militant group Boko Haram loaded nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls onto trucks in the middle of the night, telling the girls they were taking them to safety. A month later, most of the girls are still missing. In the past few weeks, however, their plight has caught the world’s attention. Parachute reporters have descended on the tiny and otherwise ignored northeastern town of Chibok, thrusting cameras in the faces of the girls’ parents. The United States dispatched a reconnaissance aircraft to Nigeria to help rescue the girls. The State Department is redoubling its efforts to defeat Boko Haram, which it considers a foreign terrorist organization. An 18-member interagency team has been deployed, and drones have been provided to assist with the search.
This is not the first time the cause of beleaguered girls in faraway lands has become the subject of inordinate media attention or a pretext for U.S. military intervention. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, then–first lady Laura Bush launched a global effort focusing on the plight of women and children. “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” Bush proclaimed in a radio address on Nov. 17 of that year. “Civilized people throughout the world are speaking out in horror — not only because our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan but also because in Afghanistan we see the world the terrorists would like to impose on the rest of us.” Packaging strategic incentives with feminist motives and painting benevolent Westerners as the saviors of the childlike natives is an old tactic. These colonial tropes were widely discussed during the United States’ more than decade-long presence in Afghanistan.
This brand of intervention resurfaced recently when a young schoolgirl in Pakistan became a target of the Taliban. In October 2011 its Pakistani wing, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), shot 15-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai at close range on her way home from school. In a country that increasingly excludes women from the public sphere, Yousafzai’s story of survival and continued commitment to girls’ education is exemplary. Her courage and inspiration — words seldom pinned to Pakistan in the vernacular of American media — drew Western attention to the poor country’s dull desperation.
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.
As with Yousafzai’s case, the decontextualized tale of the Nigerian girls is encapsulated in the sound bites that the West spares for such stories. 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.
Western feminists should go beyond singling out schoolgirls and look deeper when liberating women is used as a pretext for military intervention.
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. For example, Yousafzai does not question the CIA’s use of a polio and hepatitis vaccination program as a means of getting to Osama bin Laden — an act whose consequences have led to the denial of basic health care to several millions of Pakistani women. Nor has she joined hands with anti-drone activists who are seeking justice for hundreds of innocent civilians (including children) who have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
Similarly, the Nigerian schoolgirls, absent and silent, cannot question enthusiastic American Instagrammers to stop filling the gaping mouths of their gas tanks at Shell Oil, which has been accused in international courts of large-scale environmental degradation in Nigeria. These diffuse effects of Westerners’ complicity have no place in the rescue narrative playing out on the world’s glowing screens. In February, Boko Haram singled out and killed 59 schoolboys in the town of Buni Yadi — an incident largely ignored by the media. The only explanation as to why the kidnapping of girls became the basis of a media blitz is that the former is harder to fit into a clichéd archetype such as schoolgirl feminism.
Not only is Western feminists’ indifference to their governments’ propagation of militancy and corporate resource exploitation ignorant, but it also provides argument for groups such Boko Haram and TTP that oppose Western strategic and military interests. Nigerian feminists who challenge the expansion of Western corporations or Pakistani feminists who take on U.S. drone attacks are absent from the schoolgirl recipe of feminist solidarity, planted as it is in the unquestioned goodness and pristine benevolence of Western intentions and attentions.
The proper response to this unequal engagement, in which local stories are transferred to a global context only when they fit the stereotypes of a majority, need not be silence and inattention. Western feminists whose intentions are truly to join forces with the underrepresented brown and black feminisms of Africa and South Asia must go beyond singling out schoolgirls and look deeper when liberating women is used as a pretext for military intervention. The state failures that allow such atrocities to occur are not solved by a meddlesome superpower’s further eviscerating sovereignty and the rule of law, by droning, by surveillance or by ill-conceived intervention.
There was a time, not very long ago, when Western feminists spoke for all women. In Pakistan and Nigeria, Victorian and Edwardian feminists and more commonly the wives of British colonists consistently portrayed black and brown women as uncivilized and imprisoned others, against whom their own liberation could be posed and the exploitation of those lands justified. Given this history, the emergence of the schoolgirl paradigm — in which one side is so visibly unequal, younger and simpler — as the basis of feminist and activist engagement bears just enough resemblance to the past to require further scrutiny and reconsideration.