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

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

A quick plug.

“Don’t fall over, don’t fall over, don’t fall over.”

I’m running the Flora Women’s Mini-Marathon on Monday in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. I’ll be running the Flora Women’s Mini Marathon in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. This is an organisation that quietly makes a difference in all our lives, by supporting men and women we know and care about. We may never be told their stories, but the DRCC gives them a space in which they can speak and be heard. The value of that service is immeasurable.

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre offered me support when I needed it most, without question, without charge, and without judgement. I’d like you to help me pay them back.

You can donate here. Many thanks.

The Implications of the “Corrib Rape-Tape”

Another day, another sad reminder of the state of the nation. This afternoon, the Gardaí Síochána Ombudsman Commission released its report on the so-called Corrib Rape-Tape. For anyone unfamiliar with the situation, two women were arrested while protesting at the Corrib Gas Project, the police in the car in front of them joked about deporting and raping one of them, the other guards laughed along, they accidentally recorded themselves and unwittingly gave the recording to the women. Chaos ensued. Read the transcript of their comments here.

Today’s report cleared all the guards of serious wrongdoing, but recommended that one be subject to (fairly mild) disciplinary action. Two have already been completely exonerated and the Sergeant who actually used the word rape has since resigned from the force so isn’t subject to disciplinary action.

The report emphasises that neither of the women were directly threatened with rape. Well, that’s a relief, eh? It wasn’t actually a threat of rape, it was just a joke among lads. It doesn’t matter that rape culture unquestionably causes rape to occur by suggesting to men that rape is sometimes acceptable. It doesn’t matter that research on sexual assault has found that potential rapists use rape jokes to gain affirmation for their actions, and laughter acts as that affirmation. It doesn’t matter that the entirety of the force is now less able to represent and support the victims of sexual assault. If the standard the police force holds itself to is avoiding direct threats of rape, then there’s something very wrong with the standards of the police force.

The Gardaí don’t seem to understand that.  The Commission guaranteed that when victims of rape come forward they’ll be treated with compassion and sensitivity. Yet that has to take place in a culture of compassion and sensitivity. The guards should be considering all those who are already too afraid or too ashamed to come forward because of the culture we’ve built around rape. Because they feel they won’t be believed, or the process of reporting will be too traumatic, or their experience will be acknowledged but minimised.

The police should offer a safe space to the victims of crime, particularly such a traumatic one. The country has been given solid evidence that within the Gardaí rape is quite literally a laughing matter. Further, we have been given evidence that the dangerous norms surrounding rape extend to those responsible for our protection. In failing to recognise the severity of the Corrib-gate comments the Guards have failed us all as potential victims, and created a problem far larger than they seem to recognise. I don’t feel I can trust the Gardaí regarding sexual assault and so I don’t feel as safe. I assume I’m not alone in that.

To finish, the report actually includes this sentence:

“All four confirmed that the use of the word “rape” during this conversation was, at every stage, by their Sergeant and that it is his voice that can be heard on the recording talking of raping the females”.

Seriously? “Raping the females?”

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.