“Bring back our girls” is the international rallying cry of those demanding the return of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Islamic extremists. It should also be a constant imperative for all civilized people who seek the release of females, both young and not so young, from the chains of ideology, tradition and exploitation.
On April 14, a small army invaded a girls’ school in northern Nigeria. The contingent was part of the Islamic guerrilla faction called Boko Haram, a name that translates as “Western education is forbidden.” The soldiers kidnapped 276 female students and burned down the school. In the days since, the terrorist group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has threatened to sell the girls into slavery or marry them off to Boko Haram members, which would be just another form of slavery.
Boko Haram’s brazen, evil act has been met with outrage around the world. President Obama condemned the abductions and has sent a military and law enforcement team to Nigeria to help in the rescue effort. Rescue, though, will not be easy. The Nigerian north is a region of chaos. In a quest to enforce strict Islamic law, Boko Haram has murdered thousands of Muslims and Christians, including 300 people gunned down in a market just days ago.
The anarchy in Nigeria is not the only daunting element that complicates return of the girls. The greater problem is the much larger system of female exploitation and oppression that spans countries and continents. Once the girls are fed into that dark world, they are not likely to come back.
The United States sent an army to Afghanistan that, for more than a decade, has been pushing back the forces of that dark world. This has created a space in which girls have been able to go to school, read books and hope for a future beyond the veil. The grim likelihood is that, once Americans soldiers leave, that space for young women will once again disappear.
The darkness is not confined to Afghanistan and Nigeria, of course. Throughout Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, there are men who cling to their traditional male privileges and often subscribe to a regressive interpretation of Islam that defines women as chattel. To such men, education of women is a threat. So, too, is the contention that females should be able to choose their own husbands, find work and walk freely in the world.
To resist any form of women’s liberation, no tactic is too extreme for these men, from mutilation and murder to slavery. And enslavement extends into an even wider realm of misogynistic profiteering, from sex trafficking in Europe and East Asia to the seamier depths of the porn industry in America.
The story of the stolen Nigerian schoolgirls is heartbreaking and horrific. “Bring back our girls” is a just demand. But we should not stop there. In every place where repression and exploitation of females exists, there are girls that must be brought back.