A Bring Back Our Girls Reading List

Ifemelu wanted, suddenly and desperately, to be from the country of people who gave and not those who received, to be one of those who had and could therefore bask in the grace of having given, to be among those who could afford copious pity and empathy.

–          Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

(Note: see comments for an insightful critique of the tweet above)

In the evolution of mass social media campaigns, particularly those relevant to Africa, the point inevitably comes when Twitter is divided into those fervently hashtagging for justice and those criticising the shallow, callous, white privileged, neo-colonial nature of the campaign.

When it comes to the #BringBackOurGirls movement, I am squarely in the latter camp. But the discussion won’t be meaningfully forwarded by the opinions of another indignant white woman, so instead of writing myself I’ve compiled the analysis and opinions of some people who are far better-placed than me to illustrate the true dynamics at play here.

If you have additional reading suggestions, please pass them on and I’ll add them to the list.

From Africa is a Country, 4 May:

I reiterate, I am glad that the world is finally taking notice of the Chibok girls. On the other hand, I do grow nervous when overly sensationalized coverage of children in African conflicts in the West go the way of #kony2012. While the language we use to talk about these girls must do the utmost the horror of their plight, but that in our eagerness to “say something” we do not marginalize them further.

–          Karen Attiah, #BringBackOurGirls: What took the world so long?

From Foreign Affairs, 5 May:

Boko Haram is sneering at a world that has shown time and again that girls are expendable and easily weaponized. It is targeting society’s most defenseless and fetishized. This act in essence is not dissimilar to how the Syrian government has used women as targets of punishment in that war, allegedly perpetrating rape on women and girls in front of their husbands or sending videotapes of rape to families as a means of humiliating them. Both are showing they can take what “belongs” to other men and use them as they please.

–          Lauren Wolfe, director of Women Under Siege, Why women are the “spoils of war” in Nigeria and around the world — and nobody cares.

From Foreign Affairs, September 2011:

Instead of associating itself with Abuja’s heavy-handed military response, the Obama administration should urge Jonathan to address what are essentially political problems: poverty and the corruption-driven alienation felt by the population of northern Nigeria, factors that contribute to Boko Haram’s popular support. . . . Even if Boko Haram expand its operations and establish significant contacts with international terrorist organizations, the Obama administration should not let counterterrorism considerations trump these public diplomacy strategies. Too heavy a hand would risk alienating Nigeria’s 75 million Muslims, who already have legitimate grievances in the north. This, in turn, could undermine the very unity of Nigeria — something neither Washington nor Abuja can afford.

–          John Campbell, To Battle Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Put Down Your Guns

Instead, Obama has highlighted this as an opportunity “to mobilise the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organisation that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime.” Worth remembering that the U.S. already has a drone base in Niger, established a little over a year ago.

From The Scoop, May 4:

We are experiencing what is, apart from the Biafran war, the most violent period in our nation’s existence. Like many Nigerians, I am distressed about the students murdered in their school, about the people whose bodies were spattered in Nyanya, about the girls abducted in Chibok. I am furious that politicians are politicizing what should be a collective Nigerian mourning, a shared Nigerian sadness. And I find our president’s actions and non-actions unbelievably surreal. I do not want a president who, weeks after girls are abducted from a school and days after brave Nigerians have taken to the streets to protest the abductions, merely announces a fact-finding committee to find the girls.

–          Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The President I Want

From The Atlantic, March 2012 (soon after the release of Kony 2012):

There is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can. But beyond the immediate attention that he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local.

–          Teju Cole, The White-Saviour Industrial Complex

As privileged observers, we must acknowledge that this is not about us, by which I mean the privileged whites of the West. That no matter how much pain, outrage or need to act this situation inspires in us, we are bystanders. This is about hundreds of young women somewhere in West Africa and, to return to Teju Cole:

They are not thinking of Twitter, where the captivity is the cause of the day, nor of the campaigns on the streets of Lagos for a more competent and less callous government, nor of the rallies in front of Nigeria’s embassies worldwide, nor of the suddenly ramped-up coverage by international media, nor of how this war will engulf even those who are only just beginning to hear about it, nor of those who, free for now, will someday become captives.

They are perhaps thinking only that night is falling again, and that the men will come to each of them again, an unending horror.

–          Teju Cole, Captivity


Homosexual sex is a crime in India. Again.

What a terrible day. An emerging superpower, home to well over a billion people, taking such an appallingly retrograde step. My thoughts are with the Indian LGBT community.

NDTV reports:

The Supreme Court today said gay sex between consenting adults remains a criminal offence, dealing a severe blow to the largely closeted homosexual community in India.

The top court today said that the Delhi High court’s 2009 order decriminalising homosexuality is constitutionally unsustainable.

Activists say the onus is now on Parliament to legislate on homosexuality and repeal Section 377, a British pre-colonial era law that banned “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. Conviction carries a fine and a maximum 10-year jail sentence.

Although prosecutions have been rare, gay activists have said that the police used the law to harass and intimidate members of their community.

Don’t Hang the Rapist

A Case Against the Death Penalty for the Perpetrators of the Delhi Gang Rape

The first news story I read this year was about the death of a young Indian woman, whose ashes were being scattered over the Ganges. Two weeks earlier she was imprisoned on a bus, repeatedly raped by six men, brutally beaten and then dumped naked on the side of the road. Though reports suggest there was some hope for her survival, in the end the injuries to her brain and intestines (inflicted when she was violated with a metal bar) were too great to be endured.

Death Penalty Delhi Gang Rape ProtestsI’m sure most people already know the details of that story, but I feel it’s important to dwell on them, horrific as they are. It’s important, as I discussed a few months ago, to recognise the real horrors behind our protective language, to know what rape, gang rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment really mean. The horror of this case prompted the encouraging protests across India, calling for fast-track courts for sexual crimes, harsher and more consistent punishments for sex offenders and better police services for victims of rape or sexual assault. India, despite being the world’s largest democracy and in the top five world economies, is a terrible place to be a woman.

However, it’s intensely worrying to see that public outrage over the brutality of the attack has also prompted many, including the police and the victims father, to call for the six perpetrators (though one may be exempt due to his age) to be hanged.

The death penalty is wrong, I’ve discussed my reasons for believing that before (read them here). However, in cases of rape, the death penalty is also ineffective and perhaps counterproductive. A lawyer who participated in recent protests said the protest’s goal was for “the laws to be amended in such a stringent way that before a person even thinks of touching a girl, he should feel chills down his spine.”

Killing these six men does not achieve that. Men don’t rape because they think they’ll only be mildly punished, they rape because the overriding likelihood is that they won’t be punished at all. In India, where sexual purity is exalted, women are blamed for their own assault, and girls are coerced into marriages with rapists to protect their honour, a woman faces unthinkable barriers to reporting crime and seeking justice. The society is intensely patriarchal and that’s all the protection that most men need. Even if these six men are executed, across India and across the world husbands will continue to rape their wives, women will still be raped by family members and neighbours and politicians, but their cases won’t be in the headlines and the public won’t bay for blood and their lives will again be silently torn apart. As Samar Halamkar put it in a thought-provoking article:

What we do not speak of is the issue that is at the crux of our dysfunction — the Indian family’s moral decline. Deep hypocrisies lie under this family’s mask; terrible secrets hide behind its culture of religiosity and community spirit. Self-loathing, shame and the fear of being blamed and forever stigmatised prevent millions of girls from speaking out against the sexual abuse they face from predators among friends and family. This is India’s real war against women, its dark, silent night, which perpetuates private atrocities and primes men for their public outrages.

What’s more, if these men are hanged, and it seems quite a likely outcome, certain elements of the society will be sated. hang the rapist delhi gang rapeThe ones who want blood, who want primitive, vengeful justice, who want their women’s honour to be defended, will be able to rest easier. But the women won’t. Across the world we see that violent vigilantism towards sex offenders is a common public response, but it doesn’t actually stop sex offenders and it does not provide solace to victims.

Trying to stem the tide of sexual assault  requires steady systemic change across society. It requires adequate, consistent, respectful justice, not a single smash of the iron fist. It requires education, to instill respect for women and understanding of sexual norms and practices among young men and young women. It requires personal, educational and economic empowerment of women and girls so that they are not trapped in situations of dependency on known rapists, so that they can step out of the repressive practices of traditionalist communities and so they can report and speak out about being survivors. It requires sensitive, thorough police investigations into all sexual crimes and provision of carefully tailored physical and emotional care for the victims of trauma.

The protesters have, of course, been calling for many of this measures but I worry that the dramatic call for a lynching will override those more reasonable demands. The perpetrators will be executed and too many people will be content that the ultimate justice has been delivered and close their eyes once again to the epidemic of gender-based violence in India.

Why Democratic Constitutions Must be Secular

UPDATE 10/12/12: Have just read this article by Medhi Hasan on his refusal to give up on the Arab Spring. An important reminder of the shifts that have occurred and continue to occur in the Arab World.

“Yes, the stakes are high in Egypt and yes, Morsi, like every other autocratic leader, Islamist or otherwise, is not to be trusted. Power, after all, corrupts. But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.”


Two years ago, in the semi-final of the European Debating Championships, I debated the motion “That the West should promise preferential economic and political cooperation to Arab democracies who adopt secular constitutions.”

This was August 2011. Although battle was raging in Libya, Bahraini protests were being suppressed and the carnage in President Mohamed MorsiSyria was underway, many of us still quite confidently believed in the transformative potential of the Arab Spring. Sixteen months later, reading about tanks deployed after fatal clashes in Cairo, that debate seems uncomfortably prescient. As the Egyptian judiciary knows, as Morsi’s advisers know, as protesters and commentators know, this hastily drafted, ill-considered, religiously saturated draft constitution represents the danger of an unequal, undemocratic and intensely Islamist Egypt.

Non-secular constitutions are fundamentally incompatible with democracy. This issue is particularly close to my heart at the moment, as activists in Ireland continue to fight the spectre of our Catholic Constitution of 1937. Although I wouldn’t dream of comparing the two situations in terms of severity, there are bizarre similarities between the two constitutions:

Egypt Ireland
“The state shall provide motherhood and childhood services for free. It shall also guarantee co-ordination between the duties of the woman and her public work.” The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.
“Freedom of opinion and thought is guaranteed. Every person has the right to express his opinion orally or in writing, pictures or other means of publication and expression.” And yet yet “Insulting prophets and messengers is forbidden”  The State protects the right of citizens “the right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions” and yet “The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.”
 “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. The principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation.”  The State recognises the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens. (removed by referendum in 1972/3)

Seventy five years on Ireland is a nominally secular state and yet we are stuck in democratic limbo because of the lingering influence of Catholic morality. A dying woman can be refused life-saving treatment by her doctors on the grounds that “this is a Catholic country” and government after government after government can ignore the democratic will of the people and refuse to legislate to save women’s lives based on outdated and cowardly fear of a privileged Catholic subsection.

We could also discuss Catholic-run education, legal impunity for clerical abusers, imprisonment and forced labour for unmarried mothers, denial of rights to the LGBT community and plenty else. Even when explicit reference to the Church has been expunged, the influence of the “special position” persists.

Law built on Islamic foundations presents its own dangers and challenges to democratic systems. A particular danger of this constitution is the new powers it affords to the scholars of al-Azhar University, who will be consulted on all matters relating to Sharia.  While I don’t know the details that surely gives a great deal of power to the interpretations of a very small group of people. There are also wide-ranging and intensely worrying concerns about the rights and freedoms of Egyptian women, who are already victims of an epidemic of street harassment, brutality and sexual assault.

However, the underlying problem with any religiously based constitution is that there is no avenue for dissent against the “will of God” and as such, the privileges of citizenship are shut off to non-Muslims or non-Catholics. Believing in democratic systems means that we’re willing to risk being in the minority, but only on the assumption that we can criticise, debate and present alternatives.

Against a dominant religious entity that’s not possible. We can show the evidence of devastating harm, we can insist that what’s going on offends our innate sense of justice, that it defies all principles of equality, we can point out that people are unnecessarily dying because of government policy and the other side can simply respond with “well, yes, but God says…” or “yes, but Sharia says…” Religious morality is inaccessible to the non-believer and as such should not be applicable to the non-believer.  Equality cannot exist in a state that affords religious privilege, so a truly democratic state requires a secular constitution.

Of course, if we return to the debate back in 2011, Western economic and political incentives wouldn’t have offset the current discord in Egypt over President Morsi’s draft constitution. Very often Western interference does the opposite by playing into the anti-West narratives of Islamists and entrenching divisions. What’s more, as Western governments awkwardly try to shove decades of implicit support for Mubarak under the rug, I can’t imagine the secularists would welcome them with open arms either.

However, the principle stands and those of us who believe in the early democratic vision of the Arab Awakening should stand in complete solidarity with the opponents of  the draft constitution.

The Day I’ll Never Forget

Originally published on Totally Dublin.

The Day I’ll Never Forget, an award-winning documentary on female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya, will be screened in the Lighthouse Cinema this Thursday, October 25th at 6.30pm, by the Irish Consortium on Gender-Based Violence. The screening is free, but if you want to attend please RSVP to jcgbvmail@gmail.com.

FGM is an issue that most of us would like to ignore, or better yet, forget entirely. It’s sordid, violent and gory, it targets girls so young their genitals shouldn’t be anyone’s business, and it’s often performed brutally, without anaesthetic or hygienic surgical tools. Considering it in any depth invariably causes a surge of revulsion, followed by a lingering nausea. Not the hallmarks of a nice night out at the cinema.

However, with 130 million girls and women affected by FGM worldwide and an estimated 3,000 of those living in Ireland, the scale of the physical, emotional, cultural and political consequences is unfathomable. Thorough critical studies of FGM, its the justifications and impacts, are crucial and this documentary sets the standard for such exploration.

Female Genital Mutilation (also referred to as female genital cutting or female circumcision) is the practice of partially or totally removing the external female genitalia for cultural or non-therapeutic reasons. The most common reason for the practice is to deny women sexual pleasure and make sex painful, in order to prevent immoral sexual behaviour (e.g. Eritrea). It can also be associated with ideas of beauty and femininity in cultures where the genitals are considered to be unclean and ugly (e.g. Egypt). These are not cultural concerns; they are indications of extreme, violent prejudice. At an international level, they have been rejected as acceptable motivations and FGM is classed as gender-based violence.

In The Day I’ll Never Forget, director Kim Longinotto adopts a fly-on the wall approach, observing the practice itself, interviewing traumatised young women and questioning the mothers and grandmothers who continue to defend the practice (disturbingly, the procedure is generally carried out by a girl’s female relatives). Their motivations may be incomprehensible to most of us, but a forceful, polemical, culturally- and religiously-fuelled debate continues around FGM and Longinotto is right to include the voices on that side of the argument.

Elements of the film are also, despite the subject, inspiring and empowering. Longinotto trails an amazing group of teenage girls, who are seeking injunctions against their parents from the female courts, in an effort to protect themselves from the practice. She also profiles Nurse Fardhosa, a woman who, village by village, is educating Kenyan communities about the physical and emotional traumas of FGM. The scale of these efforts may be small, but change on this issue can only be created within villages, families and communities. Many countries have laws outlawing the practice of FGM that do little to counter its actual occurrence. In Guinea, for instance, the penalty for practicing FGM is hard labour for life, but no prosecution has ever been made under this law and the prevalence of FGM in the country is 98.6%. Top-down change won’t work; actually outlawing this practice depends on education of communities and empowerment of women. Longinotto’s film shows what this process of change actually looks like. Watching the film may be uncomfortable, but not watching it is probably worse.

Extract from the film The Day I Will Never Forget, warning – distressing footage:


Contact jcgbvmail@gmail.com to arrange an invitation to this free screening, on Thursday October 25th. The screening will be attended by director, Kim Longinotto.

London 2012: Our Revels Now Are Ended

Life seems grey and empty this week without the Games of the 30th Olympiad of the Modern Era.

No more long afternoons of watching sports I know absolutely nothing about.

No more overblown Twitter camaraderie every time an Irish athlete does basically anything.

No more unrestrained bawling every time RTÉ shows a medals ceremony.

No more Boris Johnson getting stuck on a zipwire.


Along with so many others, I think London put on an astonishing and admirable show, and got as close as it’s possible to get to  the Olympic ideal of uniting the international community for a brief period in peace, friendship, and absolute awe at the superhuman abilities of Usain Bolt. Plenty of people (somewhat disparagingly) pointed out that the world suspended its cynicism for the last fortnight. They’re right, but I found the enthusiasm and earnestness that surrounded the Games incredibly refreshing and heartening.

What but the Olympics could prompt a group of Thai children to perform a perfectly choreographed tribute to an amateur female boxer from Bray? Where but the Olympics do representatives of the U.S. and Iran or of North and South Korea shake hands and congratulate one another? Where but the Olympics can broadcast a cheeky lesbian kiss to oppressive living rooms worldwide? What but the Olympics would prompt Ireland to rally behind a young traveller from Mullingar? Where but the Olympics can a Saudi woman receive ecstatic cheers and applause for finishing a heat approximately six million miles behind the rest of the field?

All of these things are uplifting and highly symbolically significant. But as the smoke from the fireworks fades away and the venues are disassembled, we have to look the painful realities in the eye once again. The Olympics show us the joys that come with international friendship and amazing human achievement, but they also throw light on the brutality of conflict, prejudice and the suppression of human achievement.


It was rightfully celebrated that this year, for the first time ever, every country participating in the Olympics was represented by both men and women. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was browbeaten into allowing women to attend, and so Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani represented their country in 800m and judo respectively. It’s an achievement and it’s an important step, but it hasn’t changed the situation of Saudi women. Attar and Shaherkani are heroes in the eyes of many, but in the eyes of many Saudis they are “the prostitutes of the Olympics”. This week Saudi women are in the news because there are plans to segregate them into woman-only cities.

I know that this is being widely covered by the international media, but I want to throw my voice in. We’re all particularly horrified by different types of oppression. That Saudi women are banned from driving is abhorrent to many in the West. For me the ban on women exercising or participating in sport (which I’d never really considered before) is nauseating. It’s an attack on the health and well-being of the female population (as evidenced by soaring obesity levels among women). What really upsets me though is that it denies women the freedom to take pride in and enjoy their bodies and their strength.

For decades South Africa was denied access to the Olympics because of its degrading policy of apartheid. What’s happening in Saudi Arabia is apartheid. It is the most all-consuming, hateful, back-breaking,  discrimination imaginable.

We were right to cheer and applaud Attar and Shaherkani. But having been with Saudi women in a moment of triumph, we must also have the strength to stay with them in their daily experience of loss. The loss of dignity, the loss of freedom, and the loss of anything resembling quality of life.