Looking in the Mirror at the Missing Girls of Chibok

Still thinking about Chibok, still thinking about those girls.  Today, I tried again to articulate my thoughts.

This isn’t an article about what we can do — or what someone should do — to bring those girls back home.  This is an article about education, about the fear of educated women, about the risks all of us take every time we dare to learn something new, to use education to change our situations.  The girls of Chibok were kidnapped because they went to school.

When I first became an adult literacy teacher, I had a student who was a confident, funny, intelligent member of the class.  She was an absolute beginning reader and was making gradual progress.

One night I met her partner and saw my student become small and withdrawn in his presence.  Her greeting and hesitant smile were nothing like the bright, wide smile we saw in class each night.

Instead of a greeting, he tossed her The New York Times, asked her to read to him.  When she told him she couldn’t, he asked why she bothered with school if she couldn’t read, told her she was lucky she had him to take care of her, that she’d be helpless otherwise.

I’ve thought about her so many times since that night, and thought of her as my initial horror and sadness over the abductions in Nigeria churned into anger.  What was that man so afraid of?  How could it have been so terrifying to him that his girlfriend was learning to read?  I know an answer to this question.  He imagined that an education would help her see just how much she didn’t need him.  But while he had every right to be afraid, he had no right to use his fear as a weapon to smash her curiosity, her cleverness, her smile.

In the years after that class, I saw many women for whom attending school was a dangerous decision.  A student in one program withdrew from classes when her boyfriend reported her for child neglect because she left her daughters with their grandmother to attend classes three nights a week.  A GED student missed every test she was scheduled for because as each test date approached, her husband would beat her so severely she couldn’t leave the house.  Another student’s partner destroyed her birth control each time she enrolled in school so that she would get pregnant and need to leave school before taking the test.

We aren’t the missing girls of Chibok.  We aren’t.  We have experienced trauma and abuse, but we aren’t those girls … except that we are, too.  I think about past students as my heart aches for those girls and their families because people around me keep saying they can’t imagine a culture in which girls would be punished, would be terrorized for wanting an education.

No?  Look outside.  Look in the mirror.  We are that culture.  And we, as women learners, teachers, researchers, advocates, and allies are fighting back against that culture.

And so are the girls in Chibok, and Warabe, and other Nigerian villages under the shadow of Boko Haram.  They are going to school.  Now.  Still.  They are asserting their right to learn, their right to determine who they’ll be in the world.


I use the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag.  It’s one painfully small way to remind people that those girls are still missing, that many may already have been sold into slavery.  I can’t go to Nigeria and rescue them, but I can work here at home to change attitudes and dismantle systems that harm women.  I can continue to support WE LEARN and education for women as vehicles for equity and change, for putting power in women’s hands.


SOL image 2014

Slice of Life Tuesdays are hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

10 thoughts on “Looking in the Mirror at the Missing Girls of Chibok

  1. So glad you put into words what I think about when I see the images of those girls now accepting Islam and giving up their education. How insane! It’s something that should bond us together still… after all the years of women’s lib we still need to keep liberating right?


  2. jmjd

    Social media is being mocked for this hashtag as if those of us who are using it think that it will magically bring these girls home. Continuing to bring pressure to bear on our govt. might help. And as you so eloquently put it, we can’t ignore the girls in front of us.

    Thank you.


  3. woaca2008

    Thank you for thinking through this so clearly. It’s heartbreaking to think of your students who couldn’t finish their classes with you out of fear. There’s also something terribly wrong in the education of boys that they feel so insecure that they must use their (usually) superior physical strength to keep down the women they claim to love. All women’s liberation is still far from complete, alas, but we have to keep fighting, and supporting our sisters who need our support.


  4. I’m so thankful I stumbled across your slice, so grateful to have read your words–this was a wonderfully thoughtful reflection about the girls closer to home who need our help. I’ll be thinking about this essay of yours for a while.


  5. aka Mopsy

    Great to see that your blog post was featured in the WE LEARN newsletter – it deserves to be read far and wide…


  6. Thank you all for your comments. Articulating this connection was important for me. It hasn’t in any way lessened the reality of the loss of the girls from Chibok, but it has clarified that I can fight a system that normalizes such treatment of girls and women


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