On Memes and Missing Girls

by Jillian Schwedler | published May 16, 2014 - 9:37am

Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself on her official account last week using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, joining the Twitter campaign on behalf of the hundreds of schoolgirls, most of them Christian, who were kidnapped a month ago by the Nigerian Islamist group, Boko Haram. The purpose of the kidnappings remains unclear, but at least two girls have claimed to have converted to Islam, and at least 130 appeared in a video wearing, as the Guardian put it, “Islamic-style dress.” The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau, indicated a willingness to release the girls in exchange for jailed militants.
 
It is hard to imagine that the First Lady and her handlers did not foresee the explosion of memes that would follow her tweet. A meme, for those who don’t know, is an idea (e.g., an image, behavior or style) that spreads within a culture from person to person, often being altered along the way and creating a wide variation on a theme. For example, after last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, fans circulated alternative endings to the character Tyrion’s speech.

Similarly, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up a cartoonish diagram of a bomb during the September 2012 meeting of the UN General Assembly -- attempting to represent the grave danger posed by Iran obtaining nuclear weapons -- the image went viral as a meme because it provided a ready-made platform for Internet mockery: a powerful person holding a sign. Sure enough, the First Lady’s entreaty on behalf of the missing girls inspired many responses. Some posed demands or questions of their own, while others sought to redirect attention to the many deaths caused by US policies over which President Barack Obama has some control. Prominent in the latter regard were statements related to drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, which have taken the lives of some 5,000 individuals, including as many as 245 children.

I welcome any attention to global humanitarian issues like mass kidnappings of girls, particularly since Africa is perhaps the part of the world that Westerners find easiest to ignore. One brilliant post this week displayed a link that purported to contain five photos related to the reported rifts among the rapper Jay Z, his superstar wife Beyoncé and her sister, Solange Knowles. The chipper and gossipy tone of the text was juxtaposed with images of the kidnapped girls, burned-out cars, and other scenes of conflict and devastation in Africa. It is heartbreaking when so many care more about a celebrity spat than they do about the dire circumstances of people elsewhere, particularly but not only people of color and in parts of the world that don’t seem to immediately concern us.

Thus, it is with some reticence that I raise concern about why this particular issue has caught fire on the Internet. Instead of seeing a growing concern about a part of the world we blithely ignore, I see people fueling a panic about the abduction of girls by Islamist militants. Unquestionably, the kidnappings are a terrible crime. Who, indeed, can object to a plea on their behalf? The question is not whether the crimes are deserving of a response, but why the deaths and disappearances of so many others receive little or no attention. Further, it always seems to be girls or women who are in need of urgent rescue, particularly when Islamist militants are involved.
 
Narratives about saving girls, it seems, resonate even more when they are about saving girls from radical Muslims. Laura Bush's ongoing campaign to "save” Afghan girls and women from the Taliban never seems to lack an audience. This campaign, of course, goes back to the late 1990s and has involved the Feminist Majority Foundation and prominent liberal women as well. Indeed, the broader question of how “Islam” treats women brings liberal do-gooders together with the right wing like no other (cf. Maher, Bill).

Meanwhile -- and just to give one example -- there is no mass Twitter campaign on behalf of Afghan girls maltreated by US allies (not to speak of the US bombs falling on wedding celebrations and the like). On May 13, a string of tweets also revealed -- or reiterated, since the information had been repeatedly published in mainstream media -- that an Afghan “torturer in chief,” Haji Gulalai, is living in a pink two-story house in southern California with what Afghan officials see as the blessing of the United States. Gulalai had ties to the CIA while torturing victims in Afghanistan, and his brutality was so extreme that US allies and UN officials sought to rein him in. He disappeared in 2009, but somehow managed entry into the US, despite a significant record of human rights abuses that should have given the responsible officials pause.
 
The Afghan National Directorate of Security -- the US-funded agency responsible for much of the torture in Afghanistan -- has a history of torturing schoolgirls, as journalist Matthieu Aikins (@mattaikins) reminded his followers on Twitter on Tuesday. In a July 2012 article for Newsweek, Aikins reported on how he caught the NDS and the Afghan police torturing schoolgirls into giving false confessions. Yet today, the lead “enhanced interrogator” lounges beside a pool in California, and no one seems to care or notice.
 
The critical responses to Michelle Obama’s plea, particularly those that have attempted to shift the attention toward the children and adults killed by US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, have invited a backlash of their own. One set of voices from within Africa, including Nigeria, implore that attention not shift away from the Nigerian girls’ plight, which is real and urgent. The hashtag originated in Nigeria. A similar critique expresses frustration that the drone critique is complicit in focusing world attention yet again on the Middle East and undercutting the very rare attention given to the needs of black women, or people of color in general. On the other side is the argument that Westerners demanding that their countries intervene in a domestic issue in Nigeria will not only not help, but will likely make things worse. Still others push back, noting that solidarity has a value in and of itself, and that many Westerners of color have been deeply disturbed by the kidnappings and have welcomed the possibility of drawing global attention to the issue, even if that happens through what some disparagingly describe as “slacktivism.”

This online “debate” has gotten a bit nasty, as the various sides argue over whether an important message has been hijacked by another (important) message and why, and whether outside (particularly Western) attention to the issue will ultimately prove productive or counterproductive.
 
I fear that these tensions are suggesting that we must make a choice: whether to draw attention to atrocities elsewhere or to sit on the sidelines out of fear of inadvertently advancing imperial projects (i.e., revisiting the notion that white men must save black women from black men, to slightly alter Gayatri Spivak’s famous phrase). Why do we have to make that choice? Can’t we agitate on behalf of these girls while also demanding more responsible foreign policy from the United States? And can’t we advocate for these girls while also noting that yes, the concerns of people of color are wrongly ignored on a daily basis, domestically and internationally? Can’t we point out that drones kill thousands, including hundreds of innocent children, but that governments should be held accountable even while we condemn radical groups for atrocities like mass kidnappings?

Why do we have to elevate one cause over another? I am happy at the attention the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has attracted but concerned that this story captures our attention in a way that the presence of a torturer living a leisurely life in America does not.

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