Last year, after Islamic militants abducted hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls right out of their classrooms, shocked observers worldwide hastened to put together the #bringbackourgirls campaign that swept social media sites. It flourished for a few news cycles, then largely faded from global consciousness.
Now a new campaign — #BeingFemaleinNigeria — is taking aim at the plight of girls and women there. And early indications are that it just might hold the world’s attention long enough to bring about real change.
The idea emerged from an all-female Nigerian book club’s discussion of “We Should All Be Feminists,” a pamphlet by acclaimed novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The Abuja-based club’s members soon found themselves discussing the challenges they face in a country in which 41 percent of women are genitally mutilated, abortion rights are almost nonexistent, the first female presidential candidate went all but unnoticed by the Western press, and not even the harrowing tales of rape and brutalization at the hands of Boko Haram could reignite the fervor seen at the start of #bringbackourgirls.
“We all started discussing our experiences,” Florence Warmate, the club’s leader, told Buzzfeed, “and then we thought, ‘This should go to a wider group.’ If no one talks about it, it just escalates and it becomes a normal thing that happens to everyone. So we wanted to spread this fire.”
In an age when social media can trigger revolutions (see the various iterations of the Arab Spring), these women’s personal tales of routine microaggressions and everyday sexism found a waiting audience with remarkable speed. Within mere hours of launch, Buzzfeed noted, the tag was the top trending topic in Nigeria.
Women from all corners stepped forward to share stories of being ignored or marginalized at work, of being pressured by family and society at large to marry and have children, of being chastised by that same group if they gave birth outside marriage, of facing discrimination in education, career opportunities, housing and all other facets of their lives.
Since the campaign began on June 30, it has been used almost 70,000 times on Twitter alone.
#Bringbackourgirls was dismissed by some as “slactivism” when its high-profile champions proved unable to keep the world’s attention. The image of girls kidnapped from school and forced to serve and service trigger-happy religious fanatics was just too painful to contemplate. Many people simply tuned out.
The same thing happened when girls who had escaped began telling their horrific stories of life in captivity. Even the news that some of them had been brainwashed and radicalized into committing acts of violence, including murder, elicited about the same relative lack of reaction as reports of a girl, thought to be just 12 years old, carrying out a suicide bombing that killed 10 people at a Nigerian market.
The depth of the degradation and violence against the most vulnerable in Nigerian society numbed much of the rest of the world. The result was that outsiders stopped trying to make sense of the seemingly endless wave of nauseating tidbits coming out of Nigeria and its neighbors. Related headlines caused many to just shake their heads and sigh how terrible things must be “over there.”
Today, these same observers are finding a lot they can relate to in #BeingFemaleinNigeria, such as losing a promotion to a less deserving male colleague, feeling frozen out at business meetings, being told in so many words that they do not have dominion over their own bodies, getting mistaken for the personal assistant or a member of the cleaning crew or a food-service worker.
The new campaign’s success lies in its relatability across cultures. People are not simply retweeting and hoping that someone will do something. Instead, they are sharing their stories and contemplating what they can do to help.
In fact, the campaign may already be bringing positive change. It is likely no coincidence that a resurgence of #bringbackourgirls (which never flamed out within Nigeria itself) appears in play just as #BeingFemaleinNigeria is trending — or that Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, suddenly did what predecessor Goodluck Jonathan refused to, meet with those who have campaigned for the release of those girls still being held, prompting Boko Haram to propose a swap of the girls for 16 of its members currently being detained by the government.
Whether or not such a trade occurs, the women behind #BeingFemaleinNigeria are hoping that whatever else happens, their efforts help to change for the better the country the girls find when they do return.