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Boko Haram: #Hashtags and tiptoe diplomacy will not save the girls

Written By | May 13, 2014

LOS ANGELES, May 12, 2014—Boko Haram’s ugly campaign against civilization in general, and women in particular is quite chilling and scary. Chilling in its effects over Nigerian life and education; frightening because of Western society’s lack of understanding of Boko Haram and its aims.

It’s as though everyone has been taken by surprise at the brutality of this terrorist organization, when they have been clearly telegraphing their moves for years. This is reminiscent of the manner in which the U.S. government handled Boston Marathon bombing suspects Tamerlin and Dhokar Tsarnaev—but Boko Haram is an organized entity rather than two actors, making their force more deadly, and more virulent.

Declaring war and placing boots on the ground would not be the correct response, but neither is this international tiptoe alliance that is currently forming. Along with French and British assistance, the U.S. has sent specially-trained experts, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also offered his aid.

According to Aayan Hirsi Ali, the women’s rights activist who has been deeply critical of radically-Islamic groups like Boko Haram, Western media has adopted the loose translation of the Hausa name Boko Haram to mean “Western education is evil.” It makes for convenient sound bites, but does not reflect the group’s true aims. The group’s more formal Arabic name: Jam’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-da’wa wal-Jihad roughly translates as “The Fellowship of the People of the Tradition for Preaching and Holy War.” This name shows that this group of Salafist is clear in its intent. They are not interested in peace or peaceful means.

Since 2002, Boko Haram has been waging war against the Nigerian government, and taking innocent people in their wake. As recently as February, Boko Haram slaughtered nearly 60 sleeping students in a Yobe, Nigeria boarding school—all of them were boys. In the same week, the group took credit for murdering another 60 in the town of Bama. While these were reported through international channels, there was no international outcry.

It was reported as business as usual in Western Africa.

The kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian girls, seemed to be the tipping point for outrage. In a video featuring Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, Shekau claimed he had forced the girls to convert to Islam and would sell them off in marriage if certain political prisoners were not released. A not surprising, but still horrific form of blackmail and intimidation.

The question is, will the Nigerian government and this new international coalition cave to this? A Nigerian government document reviewed by the news source Reuters shows that Boko Haram was paid $3.1 million by negotiators from France and Cameroon when a French family of seven was kidnapped by the group in November 2013. The fact that Boko Haram has had unchecked success at their violence and intimidation tactics leads one to believe that this current hostage situation might not end well.

In Shekau’s first rambling video where he took credit for the kidnappings, he threatened to sell the girls and marry them off. Because the only place for girls is to serve their husbands, NOT to be educated.

This brought to mind a quote by William Butler Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Along with the accompanying violence, Boko Haram is doing its level best—and sadly succeeding—to quench the fire of knowledge, passion, and extinguish these stirrings from the societal map of Nigeria. If it is true that the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world, then Boko Haram wants complete rule over women-folk to reverse engineer this statement. They want Islamic rule to dictate the world in which we live, which means any possibility of Nigerian women transforming themselves, their people, or their culture for the better must be aborted.

Last week, Ahmed Idris of Al Jazeera reported that Nigerian schools are closing, parents are pulling their girls out of the Western schools that remain open, and choosing to send their boys to Quaranic schools. More than 10.5 million Nigerian children have been pulled from the country’s educational system. Dreams and visions of a better life and society have been overtaken by fear loss, reprisal, and death.

Idris interviewed Bulama Malli, a Nigerian parent, who spoke of Boko Haram’s tactics: “They want people to go back to the archaic days. They just want to live in society as mere animals. They don’t want anyone to go to school, particularly women. So we cannot train our children—we cannot train our daughters to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, or whatever. It means our society is doomed.”

Even this father recognizes that a society rises and falls on the quality of how it treats its women, and Nigerian society will be less than nothing if Boko Haram continues to get its way.

Sarah Lawaman, one of the Nigerian young women who escaped being taken captive by Boko Haram was interviewed by The Guardian UK. Lawaman said, “‘I am pained that others could not summon the courage to run away with me,’ she said. Now I cry each time I come across their parents and see how they weep when they see me.'” (emphasis mine)

Nineteen-year-old Lawaman is a science student who was able to summon that courage, where many of her other peers could not. Do you think it is any accident that her fear of having her hopes, dreams, and goals destroyed overrode her fear for her life? Courage found in Lawaman and the few girls who were able to escape from the hands of Boko Haram are what fuels transformation and change.

Think about a world without Sojourner Truth, escaped slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist; Aung San Suu Kyi, who fights to bring democracy to her country of Myanmar; Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú Tum, an advocate for Guatemalan indigenous people’s rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation; or Aayan Hirsi Ali, who knows all too well about the violence of radical Islam.

These women of courage represent exactly what these terrorist do not want. They wish to set back the clock and watch the world which they hate burn. What will be left is a vacuum that can only be filled with oppression and ignorance. This is what eliminating Western education would do to Nigerian society if Boko Haram has its way. Fear and capitulation need to be overridden, and a way to stop Boko Haram found; but it must be done wisely and decisively. From Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, to our own politically correct and Muslim-extremist denying President Barack Obama, these qualities appear to be lacking. Where will they be found?

On May 8, Hirsi Ali, penned a piece in the Wall Street Journal about this tragic subject and asks the fair question: When will the West wake up?

“The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists’ mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai—as she rode a school bus home in 2012—because she advocated girls’ education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.”

The tiptoe diplomacy mentioned earlier has been on the heels of the Twitterverse employing the “power of hashtag”. #BringBackOurGirls has gone viral, becoming one of the highest trending topics on the social media site. Everyone from First Lady Michelle Obama to celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Kim Kardashian have posed with somber faces and a cardboard sign sporting the hashtag.

But is this helping the cause of saving these abducted girls, or is it just giving people a warm, fuzzy, feeling that they care?

Olivia Becker at Vice News interviewed a counter-insurgency expert who states that this type of advocacy may do the girls more harm than good:

“‘Although it may have prompted the White House to deploy specially trained troops to Nigeria, it is unlikely that a hashtag will quell an Islamist insurgency. Social media is not going to rescue those girls,’ Dan O’Shea, a counter-insurgency expert and former Navy SEAL, told VICE News. ‘In reality this is mostly a symbolic gesture and hashtag diplomacy is not going to solve these sorts of crisis.

“’On the one hand, it brings attention to the crisis but that doesn’t necessary translate into meaningful action. Too much media attention is never advantageous for those trying to rescue hostages,'” said O’Shea.

Hirsi Ali is equally dubious of hashtag diplomacy:

“How to explain this phenomenon to baffled Westerners, who these days seem more eager to smear the critics of jihadism as “Islamophobes” than to stand up for women’s most basic rights? Where are the Muslim college-student organizations denouncing Boko Haram? Where is the outrage during Friday prayers? These girls’ lives deserve more than a Twitter hashtag protest.”

They do deserve more, but will they get it? And will we move beyond the rallying gestures and marches, which quickly fall out of fashion from the news cycle and public consciousness, to an actual solution? Between full-on war and stumbling diplomatic efforts lies an answer—but between the outcry and the violence, is anyone truly equipped to find it?

Jennifer Oliver OConnell

Jennifer Oliver OConnell offers witty, insightful, and direct opinion, analysis and musings on local and national politics and popular culture, with occasional detours into reinvention, food, and Yoga. Jennifer also teaches Yoga, and coaches clients on careers and reinvention. You can keep up with what's in Jennifer's orbit through her As the Girl Turns website.