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BECOMING AN “INTIMATE PUBLICS”:


EXPLORING THE AFFECTIVE INTENSITIES
OF HASHTAG FEMINISM

Shenila Khoja-Moolji, Teachers College, Columbia University

Several scholars have written about the convergence on ‘the girl’ in the field of international
development and its ideological implications (see Ofra Koffman and Rosalind Gill 2013;
Heather Switzer 2009, 2010). In this commentary, I join this conversation by exploring the
practices of activism, specifically hashtagging, encouraged by campaigns for girls’
empowerment, the kinds of publics that are created in and through them, and their
consequences for thought and action. I argue that if we hone in on a different unit of
analysis than the individual, we observe the emergence of a publics that engages in
epistemic violence against women and girls of the global south by enacting a liberal
feminist salvation narrative that has long been critiqued for being a handmaiden of imperial
348 COMMENTARY AND CRITICISM

expansions and interventions in the global south (see Saba Mahmood 2002; Sunaina Maira
2009).
The explosion of tweets in the aftermath of the kidnapping of approximately three hundred
schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, in April 2014 with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is a clear
example of a feminist campaign that relied on rallying support via social media and using it
to pressure the United States and Nigerian governments to take action. What interests me is
that through the practices of hashtagging and (re)tweeting, the participants become part
of a collectivity that seems to have certainty about the lives of girls in the global south as
well as its own role in alleviating their suffering. Lauren Berlant’s conceptualization of
“intimate publics” (2011, 22) is particularly useful here. Through this notion, she directs us to
consider the ways in which strangers can form communities through affective ties. This is
precisely what happened during the hashtag feminism that surrounded the kidnapping.
The kidnapped schoolgirls became (and continue to be) the site of collective worries, and
future happiness seemed to be linked to their freedom. Advocates in the United States, for
instance, urged state institutions to protect the innocent girls, even if that meant a military
intervention, and to reprimand the Nigerian government for not taking immediate action;
the threat of the girls being sold into marriage (as noted in an article by Nicolas Kristof on
May 3, 2014) loomed (and continues to loom) large. The affective ties stretched beyond the
kidnapping—the event has been assimilated into the broader rhetoric about girls’
education and rights in the global south, as seen in an article entitled “Girl Power” written
by Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in 2014. Brown (2014)
notes, “the Chibok girls—kidnapped simply because they wanted an education—have
become a powerful symbol of this wider struggle for girls’ rights” (www.project-syndicate.
org). This was irrespective of the fact that Boko Haram’s—the organization that claims to
have kidnapped the girls—grievances have less to do with girls’ education than the legacies
of British colonialism in Nigeria (see Paul Newman 2013), economic marginalization of
populations in rural areas, balkanization along tribal lines, and the negative consequences
of American and Nigerian involvement in Somalia. Nuanced analyses of non-state actors
such as Boko Haram reveal that such acts of violence are often an expression of anti-state
and anti-US sentiment. Girls, however, do make ideal targets of violence given societal
affective attachments to them as “promissory objects” (Sara Ahmed 2010, 38)—they are
often foregrounded in international development discourses to promise elimination of
poverty, disease, and terrorism. This makes them symbolic sites of western liberal projects,
and hence, ideal targets.
Berlant’s conceptualization of “intimate publics” also points to the broader
implications about being part of a collective. An “intimate publics” assumes that those
who are affectively brought together also share worldviews and orientations towards the
objects of concern. Said differently, participation in #BringBackOurGirls is premised upon,
what Ahmed calls, individuals’ “prior affective situation” (2010, 40). We are not neutral
bodies; we bring with ourselves impressions of history and its affects, which make it
possible for us to enter into particular kinds of affective relationships, or not, with the
objects that we encounter. Thus, the participants’ eagerness to take up hashtag feminism
on behalf of third world schoolgirls from Nigeria betrays the awareness and histories that
they bring to feminist activism. Specifically, I note that the kidnapping fits well within the all
too familiar trope of the threat of Muslim terrorists, especially towards women. In discussing
the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States, anthropologist Saba Mahmood notes that
the “twin figures of the Islamic fundamentalist and his female victim” (2002, 341)
COMMENTARY AND CRITICISM 349

legitimized the negative consequences of the intervention—such as increased insecurity


for women in rural areas, drugs trade, etc.—as the sacrifice needed for the country’s own
good. It is, therefore, not a stretch to assimilate the story about the kidnapping of Nigerian
girls and Boko Haram within this paradigm, get angry about it, and seek the emancipation
of the victims, even if it requires military intervention that may lead to loss of additional
lives. It is critical to note here that particular kinds of abuses seem to cause rage more so
than others—no similar hashtag activism has emerged around the killing of girls
and children during drone attacks in Pakistan, or the more recent ground incursion in
Palestine.
While it is important to seek justice for the specific suffering of the schoolgirls
kidnapped in Nigeria, this form of feminism produces an oversimplified analysis of the
situation, focusing narrowly on Boko Haram and its immediate actions. It sidesteps some of
the critical tools for analysis and critique that the feminist movement has provided, such as
a deep engagement with history, understanding the entanglements of the local with the
global, and exploring the unequal gendered relations of power that produce violence
against women and girls in the first place. For instance, hashtag feminism around
#BringBackOurGirls creates equivalence between remarkably different groups—Boko
Haram, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban—as if the causes of their actions were singularly the result of
extremist interpretations of Islam. Scholars such as Lila Abu-Lughod (2013), Hamid Dabashi
(2006), and Mahmood (2002), among others, contest such forms of equivalences, and have
shown that these groups have emerged in response to specific geopolitical events,
including intervention by American and European countries, and have different grievances.
In the same vein, the category of schoolgirls as a descriptor for the kidnapped girls in
Nigeria also flattens them and masks the differences in tribal affiliation and socioeconomic
status, which position some girls at more risk versus others. The practice of hashtag
feminism, then, does not enable a consideration of such complexities and assimilates varied
situations within already-circulating discourses.
In short, while the hashtag feminism of #BringBackOurGirls makes a tenuous
collectivity out of its audience, it is critical to note that the affective intensities that attract
individuals to this campaign draw upon, and rearticulate, long-standing colonial and
imperial conceptualizations about Islam, Muslims, and schoolgirls. And, in doing so, may
engage in epistemic violence against girls and women. I, therefore, propose that this form
of feminist participation would be more meaningful if it is supplemented by attention to
the broader principles and politics that feminism has inaugurated.

REFERENCES
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350 COMMENTARY AND CRITICISM

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LOITERING, LINGERING, HASHTAGGING:


WOMEN RECLAIMING PUBLIC SPACE VIA
#BOARDTHEBUS,
#STOPSTREETHARASSMENT, AND THE
#EVERYDAYSEXISM PROJECT

Ryan Bowles Eagle, California State University, Dominguez Hills

Over the past year, activists in Delhi, India, have protested violence against women in the
streets, on the buses, and on social media with hashtag awareness campaigns including
#BoardtheBus. These campaigns hinge foremost on discourses surrounding women’s
safety, but are also part of a larger effort to shift the conversation toward women’s rights to
claim public space. That effort had a horrific catalyst: in December 2013, a twenty-three-
year-old physiotherapy student Nirbhaya was gang-raped on an evening bus by five men
who then left her and her beaten male companion on the side of the road; she later died
from her injuries. The tragedy incited local and global outrage, and its coverage in the
mainstream press and blogosphere drew attention to the restrictions on women’s safety
and mobility in India.
#BoardtheBus is a Delhi-based campaign that was started by Breakthrough, a global
human rights organization that, according to the “mission” on its website as of October 15,
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