global politics, relationally

Whose Girls?


Questions around #bringbackourgirls came up a number of times this weekend at the International Feminist Journal of Politics 2014 conference, and Megan MacKenzie brought up a number of like-minded concerns on the Duck of Minerva yesterday. In conversations that appeared unrelated at the IFjP conference, we also talked about some of the positives and negatives of the legacy of radical feminism. While I do not intend to solve the problems of sexism, feminization, racism, nationalism, and/or militarism that I see as inherent in the hashtag, or the complicated legacy of radical feminism, I think its important as the US military mulls intervening to “bring back” “our girls,” some radical feminist questions about property might be incredibly important.

In 1994, Catharine MacKinnon first outlined her view of the difference between womanhood and humanity in women’s ‘human rights’ advocacy, where “what is done to women is either too specific to women to be seen as human or too generic to human beings to be seen as specific to women.” This builds on an earlier argument that “sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away.” I don’t think you have to buy the radical feminist outlook on the world to think that this position says something meaningful about #bringbackourgirls. And while I would never want to minimize the terrible tragedy that remains ongoing in Nigeria, I do think it is important to look at some of the tragedies its critics are generating and reifying.

In fact, I think there are two key take-aways: the first is that the condition of possibility for concern for the girls who are abducted is that they are female, and children, and female children. They are at once Cynthia Enloe’s ‘womenandchildren’ and literally women and children. The basic claim to outrage, to protection, to the desire for intervention, and the urgency for return is based in a reading of the victims not as humans, but as girls. Each news story I read brings MacKinnon’s 2007 question into sharper focus: are women human in human rights discourse and activism? While some may say that the focus of femininity and on childhood is getting a terrible human rights violation noted, I worry that the discourse of the violation of femininity and childhood reifies the disassociation of women’s rights/bodies and human rights/bodies.

Which to me brings up the second, and perhaps more powerful, thing that thinking about #bringbackourgirls with the lessons of radical feminism might bring. A lot of radical feminist work relies/relied pretty heavily on Marxist analysis of ownership translated onto questions of women’s rights/bodies. While there might be a number of flaws with that sort of analysis, there might be a number of ways to learn from it as well. Megan MacKenzie starts this conversation by asking who “our” is in the tag, and noting that it implies ownership. I started thinking about how MacKinnon’s readings and critiques of the gendered ownership structure in the world might respond.

That inspired me to asks few questions about “our” girls: who the owners of the girls are, and what they own, in #bringbackourgirls. A few insights I think might be worth sharing. First, whatever it is that is owned, it is not owned either by the girls themselves or by their immediate families, or even their fellow Nigerians. They, obviously, are not the ones tweeting, and the tweeters aren’t tweeting ‘bringbacktheirgirls’ or ‘bringbackthegirls.’ While the “back” part of ‘bring back’ implies whatever is owned will be returned to Nigeria, it does not imply that Nigerians own it – rather it implies that it is not owned by Nigerians but will be returned anyway. Second, a literal reading of the hashtag suggests that whatever is owned is actually owned by the tweeters – collectively not individually. The ‘our’ in the tweet refers to a group that the tweeters see themselves as in, whether that collective is their nationality, the twitter community, or the global community, the tweeters appear to see themselves as part-owners of the girls that they are advocating (if in a slack-tivist way) the return of. In other words, they are reading the girls as their property to be returned, presumably either by or inspired by their twitter demands.

Third, this assertion of ownership would itself be considered problematic in human rights terms if it were made towards subjects fully recognized as human (in MacKinnon’s terms). Its hard to imagine if the people in Nigeria kidnapped had been professional men of no particular relation to the tweeters, and subject helplessly to similar fates, a hashtag of #bringbackourprofessionalmen” or something like that coming up – not least because the presence of ownership terminology is reliant on the dehumanization that accompanies the ability to identify girls/women as property. Fourth and finally, the ability to identify girls/women as property can be looked at through the lens of MacKinnon’s second statement quoted above to understand how they can be identified as such, and what is owned when the girls are ‘ours.’ In cases as diverse as this one and the one of Jessica Lynch, what is owned seems to be heavily related to girls’ sexuality: the biggest fear about kidnapping and captivity is sexual violation and the destruction of purity and innocence. To me, this seems like a catch-22, because, as MacKinnon notes, sexuality is the thing closest to us and therefore the thing most important for us to have ownership of yet most often removed from our ownership. In #bringbackourgirls, then, it is not only the girls which are made property, but they are, in Marxist terms, being alienated from their sexuality (purity/chastity) both by their attackers and by those looking to ‘bring back’  the girls (and their girl-hood). The #bringbackourgirls movement makes no reference to ‘bringing back’ ownership of these girls to and for themselves, and their communities.