On Boko Haram, Missing Children, and Narcissism – The Feminist Wire

On Boko Haram, Missing Children, and Narcissism

By Niama Safia Sandy

This month I’ve watched as everyone talked about the mounting tension between the Ukraine and Russia, the Heartbleed superbug, the South Korean ferry disaster, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, NBA team-owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments, the banana that was thrown at Dani Alves of Atletico Barcelona fame, and whatever other news items were flying around. For at least a week now, I have been following the story of the 191-234+ (reports vary on the number) kidnapped school girls in Borno State in Northeastern Nigeria on April 14.

The young girls were reportedly taken by Boko Haram, also known as Jama’atu Ahlus Sunnah Lid Da’awati Wal Jihad, an Islamic fundamentalist group founded in 2002 whose followers believe it is “‘haram,’ or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society.” Since 2011, Boko Haram has significantly ramped up its activity becoming the scourge of Nigeria and neighboring countries including Cameroon and Chad. In recent years, the group has claimed responsibility for violent incidents at mosques, churches, and other common high-traffic spaces where civilians are sure to be nearby. Thus far, according to Human Rights Watch, Boko Haram is responsible for the loss of at least 3,000 lives, at a conservative estimate.

Although the group has yet to claim any responsibility for the abductions, the girls represent the very embodiment of everything Boko Haram stands against. The Western education these young women sought (at least in theory) make them less tractable to the abuse of a man and more of a threat to Boko Haram, particularly the way of life their bombs and the strike down of ordinary citizens all over Nigeria have attempted to enforce. There are reports that the young women are being kept in the dense bush of the Sambisa Forest nature reserve where Boko Haram is purportedly based, that they are being sold and married off without their consent, or that of their parents.

Men, who are both Muslim and Christian alike, have waded through the nature reserve to find their daughters, nieces, sisters, and neighbors with no headway. The Nigerian military has supposedly also attempted its own fruitless searches. For the 18 days since these young women have been missing, few media outlets outside in Nigeria have covered the story (with the exception of The Guardian and the BBC). Is it because their lives and innocence are considered less worthwhile, less deserving of protection because they are girls? Because they are from a place that does not mean enough to the rest of the world? History has shown these are all valid assumptions.

Thus far, has even an iota of the resources offered up in search of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 been used to find the girls? That story stayed on the tongues of newscasters for at least four weeks. There were roughly the same number of souls aboard that plane as there were taken from Chibok. Is that story more mysterious and interesting than a narrative of stolen Africans – something that is frankly much more common in our collective modern history, try as we might to excise it?

Earlier this week, I shared a post from Smithsonian Magazine’s website discussing the school girls’ story. My link has been shared 49 times (at the time I wrote this). In the time since then my social media feeds (chiefly, Instagram and Facebook) have exploded with the story; and with it has come an influx of selfies and memes featuring the #BringBackOurGirls or #BringOurGirlsBack hashtags. Although the hashtag trend began in Nigeria, I find its pervasive use in the West troubling. We have a tendency to play “hot potato” with topics, and by extension the people who they actually affect. I’m sure all of those who have been using the hashtag/selfie have good intentions and do so in fealty toward the families of the abducted girls and the hopes we have for the young girls and women in our own families. While that may be so, it also trivializes the matter. Sure, the use of hashtags/selfies absolutely provide a boost of agency to the affected community. But there is a certain narcissistic and callous character to a selfie; to attach one to something like this is an affront. There are lives at stake, and while the idea of literally attaching a privileged face or body to this brings these girls legitimacy in our minds, it does not negate the peril they are in.

In New York, DC, and London, we get to hide behind our computers and iPhones and take selfies and make memes and collages that we can neatly upload to whichever social media platform we choose. There have been calls to action at Nigerian embassies and other public spaces. We believe that if we stand together donning head wraps and traditional Nigerian gelé we can implore the White House and other Western humanitarian agencies to act – how very authentically American. Unintentional but inherent condescension and cultural appropriation aside, who is all of this really for?

Boko Haram, in their disavowal of technology and Western society is not on Instagram or Twitter or online at all checking those hashtags from deep within the Sambisa forest. Boko Haram has no interest in your selfies or photo collages. One could even argue that it isn’t for the Nigerian government – as it seems they are barely interested. It’s not for the young women who are Heaven knows where. It’s not for the families in Chibok who do not know if they should be grieving for their daughters or their lost honor. The harsh truth may be that it’s for us – so we can feel better about the relative privilege, access, and safety that technology and economics afford us; about all of the knowledge and money we often squander. The fact is there is nothing that most of us – even those on the ground in Borno State – can do but pray.

Photo credit: Corey Thompson, Photoleer

Photo credit: Corey Thompson, Photoleer

Niama Safia Sandy is a Brooklyn-born Creative Anthropologist, Writer, Femi-Humanist, and Aspiring Curator of Caribbean heritage. An alumnae of Howard University and School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), she is a force to be reckoned with in any arena she sets foot. Her professional interests include the African Diaspora, history, gender, popular culture, and the arts.


  1. Audrey DuPuy

    May 2, 2014 at 5:29 am

    Here are some things that I wonder about as I pray for these kidnapped young women:
    1. Why haven’t I read about the cables, emails, phone calls, press conferences, public appeals, etc. made by the Nigerian Government to the leaders of African nations to help them locate these girls?
    2. There has been some media reference to “negotiations” to get the girls returned. Doesn’t that mean that the Nigerian government has been in contact with the kidnappers? If that be the case, why haven’t they asked the USA to send over those airplanes that can see inside of buildings? Why isn’t technology from major western nations being sought to catch the criminals?
    3. Has anyone asked why the Mothers and family members see a need to beseech their government to look for their children/relatives?
    and finally, 4. Are these Islamic extremists Africans? I’m deadly serious? Are they men who grew up in the place where they seized these young women?

    My stomach is in knots because I dread learning the answers to my questions.

  2. Aishah Shahidah Simmons

    May 2, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Thank you for writing this article. Many parts of it resonated with me and other parts of it were quite challenging for me, which I believe is a good thing. It is when I am challenged that I’m forced to interrogate, reconsider and stretch. In addition to Boko Haram, there are millions of people throughout the world who don’t have access to or use social media. Simultaneously, there are millions who do. I have many critiques about social media…MANY and I simultaneously use many platforms (Facebook, Twitter Tumblr, Instagram). While I firmly believe that social media can cultivate/feed/nurture/support narcissism, I also believe that it has the power to inform and galvanize locally, nationally and globally. For those with access (and many do not have it), it’s been a way to not be solely dependent on a white supremacist mainstream media that ignores the realities of the majority of the world as their only source of information. When I reflect upon how social media was used to inform, organize and galvanize so many people during the Iranian elections and the Arab Spring, among many other examples, I’m grateful for the platforms. I do not believe that wearing a gele (and I may one tomorrow in Philadelphia) or posting a selfie will bring the girls back. I do believe that the collective gatherings of people across the United States and around the world that DEMAND a safe return (WITHOUT additional bloodshed or more enforced colonialism/imperialism from the “Western Superpowers) can play a role in making this happen… Boko Haram may not give one damn about social media. In the specific instance of bringing the girls back, it doesn’t matter at all. There are many in positions of power in Nigeria and around the world who do give a damn… In my mind’s eye, we need all hands on deck, which include multiple tactics of which social media is one… Rather than view these social media acts as narcissism why not consider that they may be consciousness-raising experiences for many, which could lead to further involvement in engaged participation in transforming our global societies. Towards Understanding and In Peace

  3. J Baker

    May 2, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    While this is certainly a human tragedy, why seek solutions from Western society? Why even concern yourself with Western reactions, or lack thereof. Boko Haram is a Muslim group and should be condemned by and solutions proferred by Muslim groups and nations. Boko Haram, by your definition of the group, they abhor all things western and won’t respond kindly to anything from the western powers.

  4. Yaa

    May 5, 2014 at 8:49 pm

  5. dorothy jones

    May 6, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    I think this is horrible that these innocent young girls are taken and used as slave and sold to be used by others. What a low disregard for girls. It is so puzzling that over 300 of these young ladies have disappeared without a trace. I pray for their safe return.

  6. Antimis

    May 9, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    “Is it because their lives and innocence are considered less worthwhile, less deserving of protection because they are girls?”

    If you were to watch the BBC that is the conclusion that you would be forgiven for drawing.

    However, the facts documented by the BBC completely demonstrate this as feminist spin. So far as to be a lie.


    At least 29 students have been killed after suspected Boko Haram militants attacked a boarding school in north-east Nigeria…

    All the victims were teenage boys and 11 others were seriously injured. Most of the school was burned to the ground…

    …Teachers at the school in Buni Yadi said the gunmen gathered the female students together before telling them to go away and get married and to abandon their education.”

    The coverage of the kidnapped girls has been morning noon and night on the BBC News. Why is the kidnap of girls, horrible though it is, so shocking, When the murder of boys, after releasing the girls, is less worthy of attention.

    Do the BBC,western women and men consider their lives and innocence less worthwhile, less deserving of protection, because they are boys?

    It sure seems so.