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Nigeria’s missing schoolgirls, gender inequality and voices of women who are Black and Muslim

By Jehron Muhammad | Last updated: Jun 6, 2014 - 9:18:02 AM

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(FinalCall.com) - Reaction from Black Muslim professional women in the U.S. to the reports of April 14 kidnapping of over 300 school age girls in Nigeria ranged from “deeply saddened” to “outrage” that the girls would be used as “bargaining tools” to free Boko Haram combatants.

Of special concern were the plight of mothers, especially from a mother of three girls who pondered “what their parents must be going through, what their families and their community (must be suffering),” said Donna Alston, a Ph..D. candidate in Anthropology.

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The April kidnapping of the girls from Chibok, in the Borno state of Nigeria, may also be a testament to the historical plight of Nigeria’s women.

The popular response, which included the usage of social media and the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, and protests showed Nigerian women and other women—to borrow a phrase—“mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.”

According to Frida Ghitis, world affairs columnist for the Miami Herald and World Politics Review, “Women in many countries are vulnerable and victimized, but they are fi ghting back in unexpected places with the built-up fury of long held frustration. And they are getting results. Women are no longer powerless.”

“Let there be no doubt,” she continued, the reason the entire world is fi nally “paying attention,” and the reason that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has moved the release of these school age girls to the top of his agenda is “that Nigerian women demanded it.”

The ease of the kidnapping and the slow-to-respond Nigerian government also beg questions: What is the back story, what is not being reported?

As New Jersey resident Donna Alston shared with this author, “Not knowing a whole lot about contemporary politics in that part of the world, my fi rst question is, what kind of environment allows that something like that is even possible?”

In a recent special report over the plight of Nigerian women, published in FrontiersNews.com, cited an “array of obstacles” to equal rights historically faced by the women in West Africa’s most densely populated country.

“The Nigerian women … suffer the disadvantages of an unequal household division of labor, barriers to ownership of land and other property, discriminatory inheritance practices and lack of collateral for accessing bank credit.”

In addition, it cited National Bureau of Statistics, “only 11.1 percent of (Nigerian) women have access to micro-credit compared to 88.9 percent of their male counterparts.”

Part of women’s unequal status stem from having the lowest rate of children attending school. Of the nearly 60 million youth globally not “receiving a former education, more than 10 million live in Nigeria—and with the current climate that number is rising,” according to the UK-based Guardian newspaper’s “Poverty Matters.”

The majority of these “non-attendees” are girls, located in Nigeria’s majority-Muslim North. “Of those fortunate enough to enroll, less than two-thirds complete primary school and even fewer girls fi nish secondary school,” reported the Guardian.

Then there is the global context of this story and its ramifi cations; this is where the word murky could be used, as in-depth reporting and analysis are missing.

Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad, M. Ed, MRPYC, Interfaith Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and campus minister to the Muslim community, was not just “saddened,” about the delayed global response to the kidnapping. She pointed out that when “things like this are happening around the world,” the response, or the lack thereof shows a “kind of collective ignorance around the fact that these are Black Muslims and Christians, and that they’re Black women.”

Moving forward the Ph.D. candidate believes there has to be a conversation that focuses on “intersectionality— multiple forms of oppression and how people respond.”

Iris X Utley, a longtime educator based in Durham, North Carolina, who runs a literacy program in a Montessori school, spoke of anger felt after hearing about the kidnapping. “As a Black, female Muslim, I feel misunderstood,” she said. Many Nigerian Muslim sisters also probably feel misunderstood, she added.

This is because, as Utley explained, Black Muslim women not only face racism for the color of their skin, but discrimination for being garbed as a Muslim, and misogyny and other gender issues as females.

“So,” as Rashad pointed out, “if you ask me about my experience as a Muslim woman, that’s not the right question. When I respond, I have to say I’m responding as an African American Muslim woman. Why? Because, I can’t divorce my understanding of myself racially, culturally from how I try to integrate that with what resonates with Islam, or how I come to an understanding of myself through religion.”

The circumstances surrounding the kidnapping, including whether or not state offi cials were warned of an imminent attack are vitally important, according to Nigerian author and playwright Sefi Atta. It has been reporting that there was some forewarning of a possible attack.

What Atta, who in 2006, was awarded the Wole Soyinka Prize for Publishing in Africa and was raised by Muslim parents, says “is that for a state that would have been swift to prosecute the girls for adultery and other sharia-related crimes, Borno was incredibly slow to respond when the girls became victims of a crime.”

That Boko Haram could assume “ownership of the girls” and threaten to either sell them as wives or barter them for the return of fellow combatants, begs the question “what gave him (Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram) the right to make such a reprehensible statement,” wrote Atta, in Time magazine.

The fact that what’s being called sharia laws, adopted in Northern Nigeria, in reported cases, have been “blatantly” unfavorable toward women, apparently gives groups like Boko Haram the belief that it can, with impunity, treat women and girls in whatever manner they please.

Jehron Muhammad, who writes for The Final Call from Philadelphia, can be reached at Jehronn@ msn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ JehronMuhammad

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