Mary Frances Pipino, Ph.D., Director of the Ursuline Studies Program
Recent events in Nigeria—the mass kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from a boarding school by the extremist group Boko Haram (which translates as “western education is sin”)—have galvanized the international community. Leader Abubakar Shekau has laughingly declared that Allah has commanded him to sell the girls; the girls are either being sold as wives to militia members (and the bride price collected), or used as sex slaves.
Several have died, according to reports, and many more are seriously ill. An attack on a village at Nigeria’s border with Cameroon on Monday, resulting in hundreds of deaths, is believed to be motivated by the village’s use as a base of operation to track down the kidnapped girls.
Sexual violence against women as a weapon of terror and control is not a new tactic; in 2008, speaking of similar tactics during the civil war that raged in the Democratic Republic of Congo, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch Anneka Van Woudenberg commented, “This is not rape because the soldiers have got bored and having nothing to do.
It is a way to ensure that communities accept the power and authority of that particular armed group. This is about showing terror.” Boko Haram is wielding the weapon of kidnapping and selling/sexually enslaving girls, while misappropriating Islamic teaching, to justify a lust for power and dominance rather than moral or religious principle.
While the leadership of Boko Haram asserts that its actions are rooted in Islamic law, Nigerian Muslims—particularly the women—are making it clear to the world that these kidnappings represent a gross misrepresentation, if not outright perversion, of the Qu’ran.
The true underlying cause is the yoking of ancient patriarchal attitudes and traditions that promote the devaluation, abuse, and denigration of women with scriptural cherry-picking. Furthermore, even if the girls are found and returned to their homes, it is likely they will face further recrimination and shaming for having brought dishonor to their families.
As efforts ramp up to rescue the young women, we must not lose sight of the bigger problem—that for all of the advancements of women across the globe, the fact remains that in many places these advancements are viewed as threats to the social fabric, threats that must be neutralized by any means possible.
The kidnapped young women and their parents decided that getting an education was worth the risk—and now they are paying the ultimate price, simply for trying to claim what ought to be a basic human right.