We know rape and violence is used against women and girls in wars. The mass rapes of Muslim females in Bosnia and the ongoing violations of the female body, sometimes to the point of death, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and parts of Sudan have, maybe, inured us. We feel for the victims (if and when we learn about what is happening) but most of us are acquiescent, helpless. The global revulsion against this kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria is unexpected and breaches that terrible acquiescence.
What’s happened to the rest of the girls? Imagine the thoughts and feelings of the parents. Have some died or are they being punished? Or have they been sold as sex slaves? Showing half the group only raises more fear and horror.
The first thing that struck me was their demeanour, the wiping out of their individuality. They are in a herd, showing the passivity one sees in domestic cattle, unexpressive, quiet, docile. Their bodies are covered up, as is their hair. They are all in grey, dark grey, black, the colours of clouds that block out the sun in the sky. (One or two have some brightly patterned hair bands. I hope it is their small bit of insubordination and that their captors don’t catch them out).
Boko Haram is an evil movement but what it presents here is not abhorrent to millions of ultra-conservative believers. For them a good Muslim woman should be shrouded, uneducated, must submit to male power and negate herself. It’s a cunning move by the group’s hardline leader, Abubakar Shekau. These images imbue terrorism with piety.
The government of Nigeria also appeared to think these women were nothing, not worth saving, just stolen goods which there was no point trying to find or save. Goodluck Jonathan and his cronies were only really stirred after protests spread across the world and Michelle Obama took up the cause. These men in power and some of their fancy wives didn’t give a damn about girls out in the sticks.
In truth, as British Nigerians have pointed out, female rights and respect are not a priority in that country. Boko Haram knows that and must have been confident that the army and police would do nothing in the crucial early hours and days. Other girls have been taken before and were never traced.
Then there is the prayer, a prayer I recite every day. It says: “Praise is due to Allah, sustainer of all the worlds, the most beneficent, the most merciful. You alone we worship and from you alone we seek help.” Those lines will now be reminders of forced conversions, of faith used to coerce and justify crimes against humanity.
Again, if Muslims are honest they will acknowledge that compulsory conversions are an unholy part of Islamic practice the world over and have always been. To marry a Muslim, you must become a Muslim. To live with full rights in some Islamic countries, it is wise to embrace Islam.
We must hope the girls are found and freed. But this abduction should make the government and Muslims examine their own values. Female rights matter and must be safeguarded against everyday oppression as well as religious bandits.