In the beginning, three weeks ago, the news slipped almost unnoticed into the world’s media: Islamic guerrillas kidnapped some 300 women students from a school in the village of Chibok in remote northeastern Nigeria. Some managed to escape but more than 200 remained in the hands of the Boko Haram group, whose ominous name translates as “Western education is unclean.” Three weeks ago, one could say that this story concerned only the girls’ families and the Nigerian authorities, who had the duty to track down the guerrillas and free the children. When weeks passed without the government doing much, the story began to concern all of us. The fate of these young women has become a measure of our civilization and our era.
At the heart of the matter lies the question: How important is a life? Are some lives more valuable than others? The immediate answer is that it depends on where that life is being lived. In other words, would the authorities have acted differently, would the international media have been quicker to focus on the story, if the abduction had occurred somewhere else, where the government cared more for its citizens? To be frank, if this had happened outside Africa it would have provoked an uproar and immediate mobilization of many forces, with the government obliged to give account to its citizens. In Nigeria’s case, the government appeared indifferent and incompetent.
This indifference and incompetence cultivates the mentality that “if they aren’t concerned, why should I care?” It provokes our indifference, an indifference related to racism. But then we learn that desperate parents, armed only with bows and arrows, dared to track the heavily armed guerrillas into the jungle, that women threatened to embarrass the government by going into the jungle themselves, that citizens around the world, at demonstrations and on social media, were demanding action for the girls’ return. World leaders began to make statements. Seeing the agony of Nigerian citizens we made the leap from indifference to identification. We saw the young women as our own daughters. We felt the agony of their families, their efforts to raise them, to educate them, to have them near them, to love them.
On Monday, the leader of Boko Haram declared that the girls would be sold at slave markets, giving the drama yet another dimension. This is the most extreme, the most literal form of women’s oppression – their abduction and sale. But around the world we see women oppressed in one form or another, from societies that deprive them of education and individual freedom to the liberal West’s confusion. The young women’s abduction reminds us of the danger faced by so many in their search for a better life, for the precious rights that we take for granted. The fate of the girls of Chibok – their salvation or slaughter – will go down as a moment of hope or of despair in humanity’s long march.