Bring back all our girls

The recent #Bringbackourgirls social media outcry for the Nigerian girls who got kidnapped by Boko Haram and the news item today of a Sudanese woman being sentenced to death for her so called apostasy from Islam to Christianity are on the surface the same issue, Muslim fundamentalism extraordinaire.


Little is further from the truth when these issues are considered from its gendered and political perspective. From neither I know all the details, but common thread in both issues presented, is how women and girls are used for political purposes in conflict situations and how gender and women’s empowerment are a key factor to manipulate and maintain power.


Having recently visited Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency was of course a discussion topic with my colleagues. Like many conflicts land and power over fertile grounds and (hidden) resources are a good basis for conflict. Throw religion, large population growth, severe economic inequalities and clientelism based politics in the mix and you have a recipe for conflict. What easier way for a politician to feed the thought that ‘the other’ religious group are responsible for your economic and social misfortune when you are lacking power and influence to change a well-oiled machine of corruption and clientelism that works in favour of the ‘other’ group(s). The history of Nigeria in this is a long and complicated one, but one of the key elements in its recent history is ‘numbers’. Numbers count when you want to gain weight with ‘your group’ in a divided, but severely populous country putting a severe strain on all its resources. For this you need fertile women, but most of all powerless women, who are unable to decide for themselves on how to manage their reproductive function of their body.


If you think this is a simplistic thought, the psychology of rape in a conflict situation has from a power perspective two functions. In the short term ‘rewarding’ your foot soldiers for their life endangering ‘loyalty’ and sharing a piece of the new ‘power’ pie. In the long term, the purpose is the demoralization of the opponent’s society to its core by hitting those who are considered the weakest members in the conflict and keepers of its social values that should have been protected. In many cases women are ousted or stigmatized by their own community because of the shame of ‘letting’ themselves getting raped, is considered more relevant than the fact that she was severely violated and there was a failure to protect them. An even longer term function can be producing of ‘offspring’ from your ‘own’ side to increase your own power and binding the women to your group. Something which has been a practice in human history every time women were captured in a conflict situation. Our times are no exception, look at Syria now, Bosnia or Kosovo just a decade ago and this in almost any African conflict a recurring theme.


In the previous Sudan (when there was no (Northern) Sudan and South Sudan), in the province of (Southern) Darfur this was exactly the same case and as a colleague today pointed out to me (after I cursed wholeheartedly about the fate of the Sudanese woman), the Christians in Northern Sudan are now severely under pressure, the original country has been split in North for ‘Muslims’ and the South for ‘Christians’, but of course there are power groups trying to gain power over its natural resources in the recent recurring conflict using both religious movements and existing minority groups on either side of the border and related clientelism as their scapegoat for their war-waging efforts.


I have therefore trouble with the notion of ‘bringing back our girls’ or ‘seeking justice for our Christian sister’ on an individual basis which I have seen recurring frequently on (social) media channels I follow. Yes, the girls need to come back and I truly wish they will return rather today than tomorrow and absolutely hope the media outcry for the Sudanese woman will spare her this ghastly political judgment – and note how her future ‘Muslim’ baby is allowed to survive, but the key effort that we need to keep on working for is gender equality and women’s empowerment in any society, but especially in conflict situations.


The case of Malala in Pakistan proved the main point, nothing is scarier for a fundamentalist then a well-educated girl that speaks up and is unafraid to make her own choices, including reproductive choices. She will not be easily convinced to serve her ‘sole’ purpose of creating numbers and supporting a male dominated power based society that uses religion and social values of women as moral compass of society, by her virtuous gender role of being a mother, as a scapegoat to maintain its power. But this is not a prerogative of fundamentalism itself, it is the politics and pervasive gender inequality practices in a society that protect such forms of fundamentalism or politics that enables the different power groups to use women in conflict to continue their power play. In this way they maintain a status quo or try to tip the power balance in favor of their power base among a group in the population (whether this is based on ethnicity, class or religion or a mix of all of these is from this perspective irrelevant). 


Conflict simply exacerbates the consequences of gender inequality in societies: the belief that women need to be controlled, protected, but most of all disempowered to make their own decisions as this might tip the power balance in a different way.


Hence, empowered women can break this cycle. First of all, by no longer being societies only moral representation as this dismisses also men in power from this role and making their conflict seeking behaviour ‘acceptable’ – what better reason to act then to protect the moral – read female – backbone of its society, while hiding ulterior motives? Second, by breaking their role of ‘producing’ numbers and taking control of their reproductive function and thirdly, making sure they are no longer a victim without representation in the political arena and being exploited in power games which lead to the persistent violence and demoralizing practices in conflict against women. This will be the difference in bringing back ‘our’ girls versus bringing back ‘all’ girls in conflict and hopefully a start to end the political judgments that are made over women’s  mind and (reproductive) bodies over and over again.

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