Volume 18, Issue 4

Hashtagging Girlhood: #IAmMalala, #BringBackOurGirls and Gendering Representations of Global Politics.  

Helen Berents, Lecturer, School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology  


 I have a strong interest in the ways in which youth and childhood appear, act, and are narratively or visually constructed in the context of conflict, crises, and disaster. How do these appearances and imposed constructed narratives intersect with questions of power, privilege, and politics? I’ve asked this and related questions enough—in social media posts, blogs, and my academic work—that now friends and colleagues send me emails, tweets, or Facebook messages asking if I’ve seen the latest horrific image, or devastating incident, or (far less often, sadly) story of a young person doing something amazing. In my article I focus on the social media movements around Malala Yousafzai and the Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, but here I want to point to the broader instances of representations of young people in global crises, how I’ve navigated and responded in an emotional and intellectual capacity, and what questions it raises for feminist scholarship.

These images and stories that I have come to collect fall broadly into three categories that are well documented and critiqued: victim, hero, and delinquent. For young girls, the most common two are the dichotomised victim and hero. Less often we see examples of the delinquent girl. These categories are gendered, youthed, and racialised. Young women, as I explore in this article, frequently are framed as the innocent victim (the Chibok girls) or heroine who has triumphed over adversity (Yousafzai). The delinquent is usually a young male (see reporting on the 2011 riots in London, or the reporting on the New Years Eve sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany at the beginning of this year, highlighting a fear of the young Muslim male as other to European values). However, as I’m exploring in ongoing work, the complex intersection of narratives about “jihadi brides” demonstrates the potential for girls to be seen as delinquent also.

In recent years the ubiquity of social media has meant that conflicts and crises often break into broader public consciousness when particularly shocking images of children are circulated and shared. Since initially writing the article, the image of the tiny body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee, on the Turkish beach in September last year overwhelmed my social media. 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh, ‘the boy in the ambulance’ in Aleppo, Syria, was also circulated by a horrified public (and even invoked by Clinton in the US Presidential debates) in August this year. For many, while these images were deeply affecting, their lasting impact has been questionable. I have wrestled in blogs (here and here and here) and forthcoming academic work, about the implications of sharing these images, and the representations of children—at the intersections of race, age and gender— within them.  I assuredly still do not have satisfactory or complete answers to the questions I want to ask about them, but I feel they are questions that need to be taken seriously.

The images of young girls and boys that my friends and colleagues send me often have emerged as viral social media posts that become catalysts for activism. Activism can be good, amplifying voices of suffering and standing in solidarity with those marginalized are powerful and important tools of complex and meaningful feminist activism.  However, social media is predicated on uneven power relations and selectively amplifies certain narratives, thus what sort of narratives advocacy via social media depends upon and amplifies deserve close scrutiny. 

In the context of the two movements I explore in this piece, #BringBackOurGirls and #IAmMalala, there is an explicit cooption of the girls. In one instance, it is a claim of ownership, of the Chibok girls as ‘ours’; and the other is a claim of solidarity expressed as appropriation through the use of “I am”, which moves the focus to the tweeter rather than the girl in question. The uneven topographies of power and privilege were evident in the frequently circulated tweet of Michelle Obama posing in a White House room holding a sign reading #BringBackOurGirls while pulling a sad face. In the two years since the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, any time girls are freed from Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, after providing the basic details, the news almost always includes a sentence lamenting that despite initial hopes, none of these girls are the Chibok girls, as if the value of their freedom is measured against their social media virality. Last October (2016) came the news that twenty-one of the Chibok Girls had been freed; the consequences of their abduction will persist far beyond the hashtag advocacy of the event. 

While developing the ideas in this article I spent a lot of time caveating this work to myself, to audiences, to colleagues. “These critiques aren’t to diminish the incredibly bravery of Malala” I’d say, or “in saying this I’m not minimising the horrific results of the kidnap of the Chibok girls”. I wanted instead to explore the reactions, the representations, the responses of those who consume and engage in these stories of extraordinary girlhood and victimisation via social media and campaigns of the global North. To acknowledge that the girls who live through crises and catastrophe are complex human beings, is to be compelled to recognise that their narratives and experiences are complex also.

These reflections, and my article in IFjP, are offered as the hopeful start of a conversation. The asking of questions, not the answering. While social media is not a ‘new’ phenomenon any more, the ubiquity of platforms like twitter in the daily lives of many people, and the fact that for many these are the primary ways they get news and engage in international crises, means that the way stories are told and circulated via the bodies of young women, should be critiqued and questioned. I think we can and should, as feminist scholars and activists in diverse ways, bring critical consideration of social media activism into conversation with concerns about uneven topographies of power, and gendered (and youthed) experiences and representations of crises.