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.


  • Brett O’Bannon

    Megan MacKenzie’s assertion, elaborated on in this post, that “‘Our girls’ implies ownership rather than solidarity” reveals a striking lack of familiarity with the way parents situated in social/community contexts commonly think of and refer to the children in their midsts. This is true where I live in small town Indiana, it’s true in both towns and cities in West Africa where I travel. The term “our girls” reflects a belief in a (fictive) kinship relationship among otherwise unrelated peoples. The expression “it takes a village” has never meant the collectivization of children as property. It has meant that the welfare of children — all children — is at least partly a function of the degree to which members of the broader human community are prepared to act on behalf of the interests of “our” youth — on its willingness to “intervene” when necessary to protect “our” children. Perhaps we’ve lost all sense of community in the US, but where I travel in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, for example, it is still very common to see children fed, praised, reprimanded, punished, and even housed by non-family members. I’ve never seen any indication that doing these things was understood to confer property rights on anyone. The impulse to act to “save” “our girls” isn’t complicated for most people in the world. It is simply what one does as a member of a human community.

    • LauraSjoberg


      While growing up in a small community, I understand the (fictive) kinship use of the term ‘our’ I don’t think that’s what’s going on here – I think it is something much more sinister masquerading as the ‘humanity’ you (and even many who use the term) think it was/wish it was. After all, we like to think of ourselves as generous members of a human community. But the reality to me is that no one gave a damn about ‘our girls’ in Nigeria before ‘our girls’ were kidnapped – about living under the constant threat of something like that happening, about malnutrition, starvation, and preventable disease, etc. – what Rachel Pain and Caron Gentry have referred to as the terrorism/violence of the everyday. In other words, they just became ‘our girls’ and members of the human community when they were kidnapped; the many who suffer alongside of ‘our girls’ (or elsewhere around the world are curiously not ‘ours.’ Add to that the fact that most people who want to ‘#bringbackourgirls’ could not find Nigeria on a map, and I think there is a race/nationality problem with white Americans using possessives for a group of ‘girls’ that ‘they’ are not otherwise concerned with. I think that the gendering and infantilization in the cause is also quite problematic – think about the last paragraph mentions, #bringbackourprofessionalmen – if the exact same thing had happened to (in small town terms) ‘grown men’ – would the same response have come? I think you’d acknowledge, definitely not. Its not just that ‘girls’ are ‘people’ that are innocent and in need of protection – it is that ‘girls’ are ‘people’ the protection of whom can be orchestrated/possessed, and the orchestration/possession of protection is an indirect statement of both dominance over and ownership of the person. That’s why Cynthia Enloe’s use of the term ‘womenandchildren’ to describe the ‘civilian protection’ in the first Gulf War was so powerful – Enloe pointed out (like Helen Kinsella illustrated across the history of just war theorizing) that the group ‘womenandchildren’ is only possible when we make certain assumptions about the infantilization of women and the feminization of children – assumptions that evince paternalism. In the ‘save’ ‘our girls’ campaign, gendered and raced assumptions about ‘our girls’ make the phrasing possible, without the coupling of any real interest in or manifestation of the sort of fictive kinship that it would mean if the term was used locally, either in the small town that I’m from or maybe even in the towns that the ‘girls’ are from.

      • Brett O’Bannon

        Laura, thanks for that thoughtful rejoinder. I concede that there is precious sustained concern in this country for ‘saving’ those who experience structural violence on a daily basis. And that does undermine the position of those who would speak up in response to this case. Indeed, one of my criticisms of the responsibility to protect doctrine as it morphed from its 2001 version to the 2005 World Summit version is the way that it narrowed the conception of suffering and causes of suffering we have a responsibility to prevent and/or respond to. And your comments remind me of Anne Orford’s remarks concerning the heroic interventionist narrative in the west that ignores western complicity in creating the circumstances that are used in the west to sustain the call for “white men to save brown women from brown men,” as Spivak put it. And I certainly concede that woefully few here could find Nigeria on a map. But might at least some of the reaction to Boko Haram’s kidnapping reflect successful efforts to sensitize scholarly and practitioner communities, and indeed the public, to the unique ways in which women and girls experience armed conflict? I must familiarize myself with Enloe’s argument you reference concerning “womenandchildren” but in my case, at least, her work and that of others is partly responsible for my own views about the importance of retaining a distinct gaze on the condition of women and children in conflict situations (the instrumentalization of sexual violence, etc.).

  • Amanda Mbatude Edgell

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. My concern is similar to Brett’s. The original hashtag and those that followed, such as “#bringbackourdaughters”, were initiated by Nigerians in an effort to place pressure on their government to intervene. See this article: http://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/hashtag-wars-whos-behind-nigeria-bringbackourgirls-movement-n100771. Thus the usage of “our” was originally colloquial, and perhaps meant to remind Nigerians that they are all one family, that these children could have easily been their own. The media swarm and badvocacy that took off by twitter users outside of Nigeria may have distorted the “our” to imply some sort of ownership and dehumanization of the girls. At the same time, I am not sure I see the campaign as a dehumanization of the girls, beyond the dehumanization that occurs when anyone is seen as a “victim”. I wonder how many tweeters in the West related to the hashtag in similar ways as the broader Nigerian community did – seeing themselves as all part of the “human family” and these girls as very much like their own daughters, nieces, granddaughters, and so on. The Australian “Save Our Sons” movement during Vietnam, for example, demonstrates the usage of “our” in similar campaigns for males. Perhaps this is not an “us”/”them” phenomenon, but rather a moment of human solidarity. Granted, as I have posted elsewhere, this badvocacy without regard for the repercussions can lead to unintended, negative consequences for those it is trying to help. See http://acrowinghen.com/2014/05/06/why-we-should-care-enough-to-think-beyond-good-intentions/. I whole-heartedly agree with your assessment of the situation in that regard. The #bringbackourgirls campaign neglects the larger, structural and economic issues in Nigeria that have precipitated the crisis. Instead, it short-sightedly focuses on an immediate goal of freeing the girls. Their freedom would be a victory for the Nigerian government and advocates, but would not prevent future kidnappings or end the violence that plagues the North.

    • Amanda Mbatude Edgell

      As a side note, perhaps a #bringbackourprofessionalmen campaign would be successful for countries experiencing high levels of brain drain?

  • Christina M. Gray

    The girls are clearly being used as pawns by Boko Haram specifically because of their value as girls. The news has been full of threats that the girls will be (or have been) forced to ‘marry’ members of Boko Haram or that they will be sold on the marketplace. This threat is chosen because of the status of the girls as specifically valuable female property. If you look at Twitter, there are plenty of #bringbackourgirls tweets that refer to the girls as “stolen”. I think we can all agree that girls as property is a real and powerful frame, found in many contexts.

    At the same time, it’s not the only way “our” can be framed. Seeing the “our” in this case in terms of a broad, empathetic, communal sense of our children, part of the human family is a more hopeful interpretation. This meaning requires careful activism, and a deep understanding of human beings as interdependent across local and global lines. And that seems pretty elusive in the context of hashtag activism, but it’s something I am willing to stand up for, and work towards.

    A larger problem is, it’s easy to slide between these two meanings. Sometimes, people buy into the objectification frame without realizing what they are doing. The argument that girls are more valuable when they are sent to school, that they are “worth more than gold” (http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/05/16/4120915/kidnapped-schoolgirls-worth-more.html) when they are educated and married later with better earning potential reduces each girl to an economic function in development and anti-poverty strategies. The girls are more than that, and what has happened to them and their families and communities is and will be much, much more.

    A final thought, and perhaps the start of a way forward: some NGOs that work on human rights or girls education and empowerment have used the #bringbackourgirls hashtag as a hook for their own campaigns (both work and fundraising), even though there is no direct link between the community and the organizations themselves. These groups (and all of us who have an advocacy role to play) have a choice to make: do they move their audience toward a deeper understanding of the issues and a more mature empathetic link between people in different places on the planet, using the frame of “our” interdependent community? Or do they capitalize on the excitement and try to cash in on the fleeting interest in the issue, perhaps unquestioningly strengthening the frame of “our” girls as leverage?

  • LauraSjoberg

    I remain concerned, I think, about who the subject of the ‘we’ that has ‘our girls’ is – if, in the Nigerian use of #bringbackourdaughters, ‘our’ is the (narrow and broad) community where the ‘girls’ actually reside; that’s different than an imagined ‘global’ community – my problem with the imagined global community in that sense is that there isn’t an acknowledgment of either unfamiliarity or hierarchical positioning within that community.