The strengths and weaknesses of #BringBackOurGirls

Currently circling the social media globe with the force of impassioned clicktivism is the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Sometimes it’s accompanied by photos of African girls (not always Nigerian), sometimes by photos of Nigerian mothers gathered in protest, sometimes by links to news stories, sometimes by nothing at all. It offers solidarity and raises awareness — but it isn’t without issue.

Jill spoke with MSNBC’s The Cycle yesterday about the hazards of hashtag activism. She points out that two years ago, #Kony2012 circled the Internet to the sound of hundreds of millions of impassioned tweets… and has now faded into memory, having had little lasting impact. #BringBackOurGirls brings attention to the current tragedy without the context of any of Boko Haram’s atrocities for years before now, or of the regional ongoing and historical circumstances in and around Nigeria that have led up to those atrocities. It’s good that people care enough to click “retweet.” But we need to understand what we are and aren’t accomplishing.

What #BringBackOurGirls won’t do

Spur direct individual action. When you tweeted that picture of your boobs in the name of “breast cancer awareness,” there was a chance, however remote, however really remote, that someone would see the photo and actually think, “You know what? I am overdue for a breast self-exam.” That’s not likely to happen here, unless you have Twitter followers who have the resources to fly down to Nigeria with their favorite bloodhound and help search, or hand out water to protesters in Abuja. Basically, the one action twitterers can take when they see #BringBackOurGirls is to… also tweet #BringBackOurGirls.

Give you a place in the tragedy. When the woman handing out flyers by the hot dog cart downtown says that this tragedy happened to all of us, that’s not sympathy or empathy — that’s missing the point. #BringBackOurGirls isn’t about making Westerners feel bad about what’s happening or good about taking action. When we say, “Bring back our girls,” we’re saying, “We support this cause.” When masses of mothers marching on the Nigerian capital say, “Bring back our girls,” they’re saying, “Our girls have been kidnapped and are being sold into slavery, so go out there and bring them back.” It’s different. Sometimes you’re the rockstar, and sometimes you’re the mic; our place is to listen and give support where we’re needed.

Spread understanding. The abduction of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls is about education. And fundamentalist religion. And global politics. And national politics. And history. And corruption. And oil. And terrorism. And sex trafficking. And violence against girls. And global, archetypical misogyny. None of those things fit into 140 characters on their own, much less as a complex and ongoing crisis. To change those things, they need to be attacked head-on, with every tool we have at our disposal, in their own context. And they do need to be attacked. But trying to make #BringBackOurGirls about any single cause, no matter how noble that cause is, dilutes the message and weakens its ability to do the one thing it’s actually capable of doing.

What #BringBackOurGirls can do

Keep the eyes of the world on rescue efforts — or lack thereof. Here’s the deal: Initial efforts to find the kidnapped Nigerian girls were made more or less entirely by their parents, who hiked into the forest armed with bows and arrows and rocks and sometimes nothing. The day after the attack, the Nigerian Defense Ministry released a statement saying that soldiers had rescued all but eight of the girls. This wasn’t true. About 50 girls managed to escape and find their way back as a group, on their own, but locals say that the promised soldiers never showed up.

Three weeks later, a social media campaign has drawn international attention to the kidnappings, the lack of coverage by international traditional media, and particularly the way the Nigerian government has been alternately bungling and lying about rescue efforts. #BringBackOurGirls wasn’t invented by caring Westerners; the hashtag originated with Nigerian lawyer Ibrahim Abdullah, tweeting the words of Nigeria’s former minister of education Oby Ezekwesili. And families and friends have been marching and campaigning online to bring attention from the world and concrete efforts from the government from day one.

It’s in the past week or so that the hashtag has found footing in a broader audience, demanding that the international community pay attention. Eyes are on the Nigerian government and President Goodluck Jonathan, who finally spoke publicly about the abductions for the first time on Sunday. Eyes are also on organizations like the U.N. and governments like the U.S., which has promised to send advisors to help with the search efforts. It would be great if all these parties were moved to action simply because rescuing these girls is the right thing to do. Failing that, though, they’ll do it because now everyone in the world will notice if they don’t — for as long as everyone in the world pays enough attention to notice.

So tweet, and continue tweeting as necessary, to show solidarity and to demand that level of accountability without which people in power can’t bring themselves to fulfill their responsibilities. It is both the least and the most we can do.

12 comments for “The strengths and weaknesses of #BringBackOurGirls

  1. Lucy
    May 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    I’ve been struggling with the “our” since the hashtag appeared. On the one hand, I can see how it’s meant to represent solidarity and the fact that the safety of the girls means a lot to people despite the lack of action being taken on the part of any authorities/lack of press coverage, but it feels too much like cultural and even personal appropriation to me. In a very real sense, they are not ours – or anyone’s but their own.

    I’m wary of the infantilisation of women of colour, particularly from non-western backgrounds, and I’m even more wary of the way the west can treat the personhood of individuals and groups perceived as less privileged/advanced. The narratives around adoption of kids of colour or ethnic origin unrelated to that of the adoptive parents from overseas – as told by the adoptive parents – can often be pretty iffy (“the best we can do for these kids is adopt them and bring them to civilization” rather than actually trying to figure out what’s best for families and communities in the developing world), and I get the same uneasy feeling from the use of the word “our” in this context.

  2. LF
    May 9, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    People like Lucy is a big part of why fundementalists succeed. Leaving people to their own devices out of a misguided notion of “appropriation” is probably the worst thing you can do in situations like this.

    • May 9, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      That comment didn’t state that the kidnapped girls should be ignored and not helped out. Lucy just said that the hashtag contains a form of cultural appropriation than infantilizes women of color and disrespects their personhood. “Our” is completely unnecessary for the message, anyway. So I think Lucy’s points make a lot of sense.

      And if you think this is an instance of someone applying a “misguided” notion of appropriation to a situation, I’m wary about what you consider to not be appropriation – or whether you even care about it at all.

  3. birdie
    May 9, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    I think Malala nailed it when she said the West needs to be noisy to stop The Spread of such atrocities. Don’t see our governments doing much.

  4. Sonia
    May 9, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    #BringBackTheirGirls doesn’t have the same ring. And most people will misspell the 3rd word.

  5. Donna L
    May 10, 2014 at 12:07 am

    The hashtag, I believe, was started by someone in Nigeria, so from that person’s viewpoint, the “our” was entirely accurate.

    • May 10, 2014 at 12:53 am

      Well, that changes everything.

      • May 10, 2014 at 6:43 am

        I was going to mention that, because Caperton did point it out in the OP, and for a hashtag to get traction as a “trending” topic people have to all be using the same hashtag, not changing it to something they think is better (for them).

        Westerners using #BringBackOurGirls in their tweets and retweets are amplifying Nigerian activists rather than appropriating Nigerian pain.
        [eta: the normal caveats about clicktivism in general still apply]

  6. kj
    May 11, 2014 at 12:46 am

    Amnesty International sent me an email the other day with a petition to the Nigerian High Commissioner in Australia but perhaps people from other countries can do the equivalent if looking for more ways to make noise.

  7. Rachel
    May 12, 2014 at 3:04 am

    Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has been posting very interesting critiscism of the campaign and context to the whole situation on twitter @tejucole.

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