Have You “Seen” the Kidnapped Girls of Nigeria?

As many of us now know, more than 200 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their dorms on April 15 in the northeastern part of Nigeria. The terrorist Islamist group, Boko Haram—possibly tied to Al Qaeda—has been linked to this brazen abduction, as well as to the mass murder of other school children (29 school boys in February). On May 4, it was reported that another 8 Nigerian girls were kidnapped.

Boko Haram’s name translates to “Western education is a sin,” hence the targeting of schoolchildren, especially young girls whose educational progress they wish to halt—not unlike how the Taliban targeted Malala Yousafzai, who survived a gunshot wound to the head. Several of the Nigerian girls may have already been trafficked into sexual slavery and rape-marriages, some sold for as little as $12.

While this story was immediately and regularly reported in Nigerian and other African and international news sources, the silence of U.S. mainstream news was deafening, especially when CNN admitted to minimizing the story’s importance since its location in Nigeria meant that “mass abduction of school girls isn’t shocking.” You see, black pathology—as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us—is  a presumed condition of black peoples, whether here in the streets of cities like Chicago or “over there” in an African country.

Fortunately, as black women in the U.S. and abroad, we have had to learn to value our own lives (read Gabourey Sidibe’s incredible speech for inspiration). Had these Nigerian girls’ mothers and loved ones not taken to the streets in protest and to social media, not only would we not be planning worldwide mass rallies, but neither would our U.S. mainstream news finally be covering this event nearly three weeks later, including CNN.  Now, the U.S. government is planning to get involved.

Important lesson: We listened to the voices of local women and began mobilizing.

But now that the media has gotten our attention, how do we move forward while we continue to train our eyes and ears on the situation? How do we make global and local connections?

Last week, when I began to learn more about this situation, I brought it to the attention of the students in my course “Global Perspectives on Women.” We had just completed Cynthia Enloe’s Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crises as if Women Mattered, which highlighted the ways that “women’s issues” are almost always sidelined and feminist experts dismissed in stories of national and international crises. I wanted to assess students’ own engagement with current events, to see if they were making immediate connections between classroom learning and social reality.

“Have you heard anything in the news concerning women?” I began.

“Oh yeah!,” one of my students remarked. “That whole issue with Rihanna posing topless! Can you believe that?!”

Wait … what?!

I could already feel my students getting ready to indulge in a conversation based in a pop star’s antics and what would most likely devolve into condemnation, disapproval and the usual “slut-shaming.” I quickly dismissed that subject because there’s a real crisis going on: I informed them about the missing Nigerian girls.  With this new revelation, some have already taken to social media to raise awareness.

Looking back, I realize I missed a pedagogical opportunity. I wish I had not dismissed pop-culture stories and instead demonstrated their connections to women’s lives globally. I’m someone who does take media and popular culture seriously, as one of my concentrated areas of study. Besides, it was not that long ago that I was preoccupied with the news of dark-skinned Kenyan beauty Lupita Nyong’o being named People’s “Most Beautiful.”  We are all seduced by these images and sometimes jump to conclusions that such hyper-visibility of black women will somehow ensure that, as Nyong’o herself once said in a speech, we will be “more seen.” “The politics of containment” is what Patricia Hill Collins calls this dynamic, in which this hyper-visibility serves as a pretense to social progress while many others remain invisible.

Contrary to what many tend to believe, however, popular culture is not a simple distraction. Popular culture is reinforcement.

For instance, Rihanna’s topless photos on the cover of Lui, a French magazine, and in Vogue Brazil, exist in a larger context of global circulation of black women’s images and bodies. Both French and Brazilian cultures tend to perpetuate hypersexual images and narratives of black women and girls; indeed, these two countries reinforce sex tourism industries that traffic in stereotypes of black female hypersexuality and the intersectional oppressions of racism, sexism and classism. Those contribute to the  economic hardships of black women and girls, which may lead to their mobility through sex work, sex tourism and sex trafficking.

And Instagram’s censoring of Rihanna’s topless photos is indicative not just of its policy but also the larger U.S. culture’s sex-negative tendencies, especially toward black sexuality, thus prompting Rihanna’s own critique of such politics of respectability that facilitate our celebration of Lupita Nyong’o. However, these images of sexual irreverence (in the case of Rihanna) and beautiful and elegant respectability (in the case of Lupita) frame how other black women and girls are simultaneously seen and not seen.

Aside from the rising local religious extremism, with Boko Haram combining Islamism and militarism in frightening ways, Nigeria remains one of eight countries with the highest rates of human trafficking in the world. Many of the trafficked girls and women end up in European countries such as Italy. A few of my African American female students shared their experiences of studying abroad in Europe and South America, where they were routinely mistaken for sex workers. Yet their educational and class privileges insulated them here in the U.S., since they had to travel outside the country to be solicited for prostitution, even though right here in our own backyards, young black girls are also sex trafficked.

As we raise more awareness about the situation in Nigeria, what are the demands that we’re making? Are we simply going to expect U.S. military intervention or aid in intelligence and counter-terrorism? How will we place gender and its intersections with race and class at the center of our analyses? Will we frame this as another “black pathology” story of U.S. “benevolence” intervening on African/Third World “incompetence” or “corruption”? This narrative is not helpful, especially when it comes from U.S./Westerners who couldn’t even begin to point out the northeastern region of Nigeria on a map.

Will we also frame this as another “save the black and brown girls from the scary black and brown men” story? Such framing is also not helpful, since it flattens the complexities of how local and global forces mobilize capitalist struggles over oil, economic disparities, religious extremism and worldwide misogyny to reinforce the devalued labor and images of women and girls—especially in a globalizing world that has shifted so many cultural, political, economic and social structures.

Against this gendered lens, racial hierarchies determine which women and girls matter. How our media and popular culture frame these stories determine whether they get taken seriously at all, or if they will even be “more seen.”

As the story unfolds of finding and rescuing the missing girls of Chibok, let us continue to insist that these girls and their communities be taken seriously. Let us also remember to make the necessary global and local connections in a globalizing world that has brought us closer.

Photo of May 3 New York City rally courtesy of Michael Fleshman via Creative Commons 2.0.



Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.