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


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.

Language We Use, Prejudice We Practice

I read a terrific article on Women Under Siege this morning, on the appallingly high levels of sexual crime in Egypt, which are predominantly reported as sexual harassment or street harassment, but should be described as sexual assault or rape. Is the distinction that important?

“Well, yes, actually”, Bates argues.  “It matters because there are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice.” 

This has been a big issue for me lately. So many of the phrases we thoughtlessly use are deeply patriarchal. I use many of them myself. There are more of these kinds of sexist linguistic ticks than any of us could list or explain, but I’m going to discuss three glaring and particularly bothersome examples here. If there are others that particularly bother you please feel free to discuss them in the comments.

1. Having the balls: 

See also: Grow a pair, grow some balls, ballsy.

People use this phrase all the time. Congratulating Andy Murray for having the balls to win a tennis match, criticising Nick Clegg for lacking the balls to take strong political stances. Horrendously enough, I was recently asked if I’d ever have the balls to commit suicide. The world and its mother is mocking Naomi Wolf this week for bigging up the vagina and its emotional and spiritual significance. But none of us really seem to question that in our language and so in our culture strength, nerve, daring and power depend on having testicles?

There’s no evidence of the veracity of the following Betty White quote, but I’m going to use it anyway. And by the way, I will be reviewing ‘Vagina: A New Biography’ in the next few days.

2. Man up:

See also: Don’t be such a girl, be a man.

I have used this phrase far too much, for far too long. I liked to believe I was using it ironically, but what does that even mean? I used the phrase to tell people that they should be less feminine, less emotional, less childish. More like men. Those tough folk who don’t feel pain. The strong half of humanity.

This one feeds into a social narrative that’s hugely harmful to men and women alike. In Michelle Obama’s DNC speech (which I loved overall) she told a clearly heartfelt story of her father, who struggled through MS to provide a better life for his children than he’d had for himself. Why?

You see, for my Dad, that’s what it meant to be a man.

Not a good parent, not a good American, not even a good man. That’s what it mean to be a man.  Moments later she told an equivalent story about Barack Obama’s grandmother and the adversity she faced, in the form of systemic sexism:

Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank…and she moved quickly up the ranks…but like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling. And for years, men no more qualified than she was – men she had actually trained – were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack’s family continued to scrape by.

It reminded me of a great story I heard from a friend. Her parents got married in the late sixties (after her Dad came back from Vietnam) and quickly became very comfortable financially. Why? Because her mother earned more than her father, so when they got married his employer significantly boosted his salary to ensure that he was the primary breadwinner in his family.  They recognised that the attitude was wrong, but took the money anyway and as an impoverished young person I can’t blame them. But he got that extra money ahead of someone else, someone like Barack Obama’s grandmother.

Michelle Obama is not sexist. And I’m sure that her speech was exhaustively tested and they factored in that a few feminist bloggers somewhere would take issue with the use of the word man and decided it was worth the hit. But I think it’s really important to recognise that the “being a man” rhetoric reinforces the glass ceiling. Men got promoted above Obama’s grandmother because of what it meant to be a man, because they had to be providers and head households so they needed to be paid more.

It takes a huge amount to actually dissemble that particular prejudice, largely because so many people still believe in the manly ideal. However, I can stop casually using a phrase that encourages it.

3. Suck it:

See also: Suck on that, suck  my balls, suck my dick.

I cannot count the number of times that these phrases have left me close to tears. They are horrific. At best, they make it degrading and a sign of weakness to perform oral sex on a man, which is outrageously sexist and homophobic. At worst, and far more often, they are sexually violent expressions used in angry, threatening contexts. This phrase is used so frequently that I’m sure people will want to tell me to calm down and not make such a big deal of it (or they would if those kind of people read my blog!) In fact, I’ve spent the last few days delighting over Tina Fey’s wonderful memoir Bossypants and she uses the phrase twice in the book. I also heard it used in the final of an all-female, very feminist-orientated debating competition and seemed to be the only person who responded negatively. What that suggests is that we have been frighteningly desensitized to the use of these absolutely horrific expressions.

Let’s look at why they’re so horrific. Someone does something to offend you. You angrily suggest that a fitting punishment for them would be to suck your penis (whether or not you have one) because that would be a demeaning and painful thing for them to have to do. That’s an invocation of sexual assault as deserved punishment. That’s a frightening manifestation of rape culture.

In a previous post about language I quoted Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals and the quote is so perfect that I’m going to use it again.

“…the limits of my language which are the limits of my world fade away on every side into areas of fighting for concepts, for understanding, for expression, for control, of which the search for the mot juste may serve as an image. Everyone, every moral being, that is every human being is involved in this fight, it is not reserved for philosophers, artists and scientists. Language must not be separated from the individual consciousness and treated as (for the many) a handy, impersonal network and (for the few) an adventure playground. Language, consciousness and world are bound together, the (essential) aspiration of language to truth is an aspect of consciousness as a work of evaluation.”

“There are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice.” Changing the way we speak in small ways is simple, we can all do it, and it will change our political, social and lived reality.

The Self-Defence Myth

I was just invited to a free self-defence class, held by my old university’s Judo Club in tandem with the Dublin University Gender Equality Society. The purpose is to “help people learn some basic pointers to defend themselves against physical and sexual assault.” While the organiser went out of his way to specify that these classes are open to men and women, they’re clearly primarily intended for women, as are most self-defence classes.

Although I know their intentions are good, I find the idea of a feminist society promoting the self-defence market a bit unsettling. I object for two reasons.

Firstly, I think that a self-defence myth has been created, and a considerable market has grown from that myth. If you think a bit more about the nature of sexual assault, the idea that some “basic pointers” in martial arts can prevent sexual assault is highly implausible. The vast majority of sexual assaults are carried out by people known to the victim. Assessments of the processes of rapists show that they take care to isolate their victim, minimising the likelihood of being stopped or caught and punished. They use threats, fear, weapons, force, and often drugs or alcohol to restrict the victim’s ability to resist. Most sexual assaults are also committed by men against women, therefore the attacker will almost always be naturally stronger than his victim. Taking all of this into account, a woman would need to be incredibly adept in self-defence or martial arts to stop her attacker. Your basic self-defence class (particularly a once-off hour-long class) won’t provide that kind of proficiency. It might allow you to get a few good hits in at your attacker, but that’s precious little consolation. I object to how the self-defence industry uses women’s fear of assault to sell an ineffective means of protection. It feels a bit exploitative.

Secondly, I think that the self-defence myth feeds into a seriously problematic social attitude towards rape and sexual assault. The painful reality we must face is that as long as there are men who want to rape, women will be victims of rape. We can take self-defence classes, we can never walk alone at night, we can watch our drinks, we can watch our backs, but there is no absolute protection. There is the guilt that comes with feeling that you could have done more, you could have been more careful. It’s not that those who provide self-defence training blame victims, but they do feed into the automatic tendency of victims to blame themselves. Who knows what they would have told you in that self-defence class if you hadn’t stupidly chosen to have a long lunch instead? There’s also a feeling of powerlessness that comes with paying the freedom tax, paying the class fees, taking all the precautions and still becoming a victim. For any woman there’s the fear that’s created and enhanced by being reminded that we’re at risk all the time, that we have to plan for the likely event of assault all the time.

And you know what, I love martial arts. I love most sports and exercise. But I love them because I like to feel strong and comfortable in my body, I like the endorphins, I like learning new things and I love competition.  All of this is diminished when my participation is a constant reminder that I, along with all the other women, live under siege.