Macron’s historic decision to recognize Algerian War atrocities

PARIS — Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron made a historic decision: He formally recognized the French military’s systemic use of torture during the Algerian War from 1954 to 1962, and pledged to open the archives on the hundreds of thousands who “disappeared” during the conflict. The decision represents a major departure from his predecessors, who had only tiptoed around the subject, a taboo in French politics.

Macron made the announcement by calling for an end to the opacity surrounding the death of a 25-year-old anti-colonial activist and mathematician named Maurice Audin, who was taken from his home by the French army in 1957, during the Battle of Algiers, likely tortured and forcibly disappeared. Although Macron addressed a specific case that’s been the subject of extensive investigation by historians and journalists over the past six decades, the president also denounced an entire system that “allowed law enforcement to arrest, detain and question any ‘suspect’ for the purpose of a more effective fight against the opponent.” That recognition has been likened to Jacque Chirac’s apology in 1995 for France’s collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, and holds particular relevance for Algerian immigrants and their descendants—a population with which the French state has often been at odds.

Some French-Algerians have, while praising Macron’s recognition of Audin’s case, also expressed disappointment that so little attention has been given to the violence that played out on French soil during the war, including a massacre in October 1961, when French police killed some 200 pro-independence Algerian protesters, throwing many into the Seine River.

And many contend that France’s potential reckoning with its history in Algeria is as much about the past as the present. “The toxic effects of colonialism are very present today,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toulouse—who is herself French-Algerian—told me. She characterized constant tension around Islam and integration as rooted in neocolonial impulses.

Indeed, the relevance of colonialist thought to debates over French secularism, or laïcité, has consistently underscored my research over the past year. So many people I’ve interviewed—from career teachers to high school students—have insisted on the centrality of the colonial period in explaining the particularity of France’s rapport with Arabs and Islam, both in terms of a deep-seated “colonial-era racism” and the endurance of the mission civilatrice—the so-called civilizing mission that formed the intellectual justification of the institution of colonialism.

While Macron’s reference to the system that justified the torture and disappearance of Audin and thousands of others—one of unchecked executive authority in the name of national security—is important, it also prompted some to point out that the current president himself has been eager to use those very powers. He ended the state of emergency that his predecessor, François Hollande, had put in place after the November 2015 terror attacks—an emergency provision created in 1955 in the context of the Algerian struggle for independence. But Macron also made some of its most controversial provisions permanent tenets of his government’s counterterror legislation, passed in November 2017. The controversial law allows local authorities to place terror suspects under house arrest without judicial authorization. Human rights advocates said the law would disproportionately affect French Muslims with impunity.

Macron’s decision over Audin doesn’t consider the way France’s colonial legacy has shaped the current climate, of course. But it marks a significant shift from a culture of denial and erasure—a move that could create space for a more frank discussion about how that historical chapter influences the present. “It’s a legacy that needs to be taken down,” Alouane said. “I think and hope this step will allow that, or at least allow for reflection that it may be time to tackle this. One can only hope.”

Does an ‘ultra-right’ vigilante group reflect the French national mood?

PARIS — Last month, the French authorities announced they had derailed a violent attack by an ultra-right group called the Action of Operational Forces (AFO). Its ten members, led by a former police officer known as Guy S., were planning to attack Muslims—imams and veiled women in the street at random—and poison goods at halal grocery stores. They had stockpiled weapons and materials to build homemade bombs. But although they were immediately charged with terrorist conspiracy—some were also accused of illegal possession of firearms and explosives manufacturing—they were subsequently released with “judicial supervision.”

The AFO’s stated objective is to “fight the Islamist peril.” It is an offshoot of a legal association called the Volunteers for France (VPF), created in the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Both groups seek to recruit among the French police and military to help achieve their vision of fighting radical Islam, although the VPF condones the smaller group’s violent tactics.

The main far-right political party, the National Rally—until very recently named the National Front, which is currently in upheaval despite significant electoral gains last year —immediately distanced itself from the AFO, even though much of the party’s rhetoric mirrors the group’s depictions of Muslims and a France under siege. The VPF, for its part, questioned the accuracy of official reports, attempting to undermine the credibility of journalists who reported the story. The news media has referred to the groups in question as the “ultra-right” to differentiate from the political far right. But while their strategies differ, they are consistent in their depiction of a country in peril—from both immigrants and Muslim citizens who refuse to integrate.

The incident is an important indicator of the scope and depth of the far right in France. But perhaps more interesting, the AFO’s planned violence against Muslims—not radicals, but French Muslims at large—must be understood in the context of a constant media narrative about Islam and its incompatibility with the Republic that I have outlined in my newsletters for ICWA.

recent controversy over a student-union representative who wears a hijab is just one example, but one doesn’t have to dig too deep to come up with an exhaustive list; public-opinion surveys asking about Islam’s “compatibility with the Republic” have been a fixture for decades. Such rhetoric is hardly limited to the right or the far right—it is decisively part of the French mainstream. It’s worth considering how the hysteria that has reigned since the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016—on the heels of two decades of a seemingly endless debate about the headscarf—have allowed groups like the AFO and the VPF not only to thrive but also come so close to launching coordinated, violent attacks.

It is important not to overstate the capability and scope of right-wing extremists. Numerous experts told the New York Times that groups like the AFO are young and disorganized. But beyond the constant questioning of Muslims that has become so common in the French media, the hardening of views toward Muslims is another manifestation of an anti-immigrant wave sweeping across Europe [YES?]—in tandem with President Donald Trump’s unprecedented crackdown on migrants that is wreaking havoc across the Atlantic.

In a particularly striking move this week, Denmark introduced harsh new laws that officially deem 25 low-income, heavily Muslim neighborhoods “ghettoes.” As of age one, children in those areas—“ghetto children,” officially—will be separated from their families for some 25 hours a week for mandatory training in “Danish values,” from Easter and Christmas to the Danish language. Failure to participate could  cause families to lose welfare payments—a sinister and authoritarian inculcation in national values. And Germany was flung into a political crisis over immigration last month that forced Chancellor Angela Merkel—who had doggedly insisted on welcoming migrants and refugees—to agree to build border camps for asylum seekers and strengthen the country’s border with Austria.

The AFO’s violent aspirations, and the French government’s light condemnation of them, provide just another example of the rightward shift across the continent. Perhaps that’s why they quickly faded from the news media’s view here, a chilling reminder of the current moment.

France attack an early test for Macron

PARIS, France — Late morning today (March 23), an armed gunman opened fire on police before taking hostages in a supermarket in the small southern town of Trèbes. The incident broke the period of calm that had followed the spate of terrorist violence that struck the country in 2015 and 2016. By 3 p.m., officials had announced three dead and at least three wounded, one critically. The gunman was also killed by police.

The assailant—who yelled “Allauh Akhbar,” or God is great, in Arabic—pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, and demanded the release of Saleh Abdeslam, the only survivor among the 10 attackers of the November 2015 attacks in and around Paris. The group subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack, calling the perpetrator a “soldier of the Islamic State.”

The authorities revealed that the attacker, Redouane Lakdim, was of Moroccan origin and previously known to intelligence services. He was 26 years old, lived in the nearby town of Carcassonne and had been notorious for small crimes. “We didn’t think he had radicalized,” Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said, but that he had “abruptly taken action.” Still, he was known to have been active on fundamentalist Salafi online chat rooms.

It’s not the first time someone already on the government’s radar successfully perpetrated violence on French soil. But it is the first such major incident to hit France under the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron (last October, a knife-wielding man at a train station in Marseille killed two), and how he responds will be an important moment for his administration.


It’s not the first time someone on the government’s radar perpetrated violence on French soil. But it is the first such major incident under Macron’s leadership.


After the previous attacks, it was revealed that prison officials had documented that Amedy Coulibaly, responsible for the shooting at a kosher supermarket in January 2015, had earlier radicalized in prison, information they failed to transmit to security forces. Said Kouachi, one of the armed gunmen who stormed the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo directly prior, had previously been under surveillance, but the monitoring was lifted when he moved from Paris to the northeastern city of Reims. And Samy Amimour, one of the men behind the attack at the Bataclan theater in November 2015, had traveled freely from France to Syria in 2013, despite a travel ban.

In July 2016, just a week before Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian-born man living in France, drove a truck through densely packed crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, a parliamentary committee had called for an overhaul of the intelligence services. That was in response to an investigation that exposed numerous intelligence failures that lawmakers argued could have thwarted the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and other sites in and around Paris.

Upon taking office, Macron had announced a new “national center for counterterrorism” that would report directly to the executive, aiming to avoid the kind of coordination gaps that led to past failures. That the Trèbes attacker had been known to the security services is likely to renew criticism of the French security apparatus, and Macron—who’s already the target of significant public discontent for his social policies—will have to respond carefully.

Shortly after he took office, a state of emergency that had been declared after the November 2015 attacks under then-President François Hollande, was set to expire. To the consternation of human-rights advocates, the new president passed a sweeping counterterrorism law last October, supplanting the state of emergency but integrating some of its elements into common law. Critics said the law would institutionalize discrimination against French Muslims, who, following the attacks, were disproportionately subjected to home raids, placed under house arrest and subject to police profiling.

But despite that controversial law, Macron has generally tried to ease the tense climate that had reigned since the 2015 and 2016 attacks. He has attempted to distance himself from the previous government, which many considered fueled hysteria around terrorism in relation to French Muslims. Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, for example, is notorious for his attempt to ban “burkinis” on French beaches in the name of laïcité, or French secularism; he defended the measure even after it was rejected by the European Court of Human Rights. Since leaving office, he has become a regular on TV and radio talk shows, espousing a certain vision of laïcité that seeks to minimize Muslims’ visibility in the public space.

In what some considered a veiled reference to Valls, Macron, during a meeting with representatives of major religions in France, warned against the “radicalization of laïcité”—a statement that generated an outcry from the far right, but also from Valls and his followers on the left, whose positioning I described in-depth in my January newsletter.

The Trèbes attack is still fresh. But once the dust settles, it will be an early test for Macron, who must both reassure the French public, once again on edge over future violence, and ensure a level-headed response that doesn’t deepen the already-high tensions around Islam in France.

Image credits here.

In China’s countryside, Xi’s continued leadership warmly welcomed

BANGDONG, China — Western media spilled tankers of ink this week about this country’s proposal to abolish the two-term limit for president. If ratified by the National People’s Congress—the legislature  that convenes on March 5—the changes to the constitution would effectively enable President Xi Jinping “to be the most important and powerful person in China for life… so long as he is alive and the Communist Party is running China,” writes Bill Bishop of Sinocism.



Inside the country, the proposed amendments were read in their entirety on the Sunday evening news—a full 17 minutes showing blue screen and white text—and the announcement generated a stir on social media. But in this remote village of 350 people in southwestern Yunnan province, none have even heard the news. Nor do they seem concerned about the risk of political abuses that has engrossed the West.


Viewers read along with the text for 17 minutes as evening newscasters read word-for-word the proposed amendment changes


For now, Cao Yong is preoccupied with other things. The 30-year old owner of a convenience shop is preparing to travel to the nearest city with his wife to prepare for the birth of their second child. We chat on a squatty brown couch in the shade of his plywood porch.

“Do you follow the news?” I ask, trying to delicately navigate the sensitive topic.

“Not really, most people here don’t,” he says matter-of-factly. “Older folks might watch TV. My generation mostly uses phones for texting and games, but sometimes I open Toutiao.” Jinri Toutiao, or “today’s headlines,” is a news app recently shut down by the Party for vulgar content. However, it was quickly resurrected after its owners recruited Party members to comprise what is now the largest content-screening team in China. For good measure, they also added a “New Era” news channel on the app—a tip of the Mao cap to the current president’s political theory, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.


Although Mr. Zhang did not know about changes to the constitution, he supports Xi’s staying in power longer, which he says will bring more benefits to the countryside


Cao Yong had heard nothing about the term-limit issue, but was curious enough to open Toutiao. There was nothing about it in the top headlines, but typing “constitution” (宪法) in the search bar auto-populated recent popular searches: constitution term limits, constitution amendment content, constitution national chairman… One of the top articles was from the Global Times, a pro-Communist Party tabloid, on how foreign media had welcomed the proposed amendments. It seemed Toutiao’s new content screeners were doing their jobs: all news about scrapping term limits was positive.

So was the response of every other villager I talked to. “That’s great!” exclaimed Brother Huang after I broke the news. “Xi is doing great work and should continue—especially in cracking down on corruption. That’s good for everyone.”

Following typical Bangdong custom, we chat over local tea and a plate of plain sunflower seeds. Brother Huang, a local tea farmer, also gets out a bag of special seeds that have been roasted and seasoned. The rose petal seasoning tastes like soap. I opt for the plain seeds.

Like Cao Yong, Brother Huang also doesn’t follow the news. “You can follow it, but you can’t do anything about it.” He shrugged off his fatalism with a carefree laugh as he cracked open another seed between his front teeth. “Anyway, Xi does a good job,” he added. “Even if he did a bad job, the other leaders would take care of it. We common folk don’t have to worry about it.”

Bangdong consensus holds that Xi is an excellent leader for China. Villagers are quick to point to his successful poverty-alleviation and anti-corruption efforts. Because Xi himself spent seven years laboring in rural Shaanxi Province as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution, many believe he is sympathetic to their struggles and genuinely working to improve their lives. “Twenty years would be better than only 10!” quipped one villager. Xi has become a symbol of stability, praised for leading the Chinese people to a great rejuvenation following a century of war, hunger and humiliation.


Cao Yong’s father-in-law mans the convenience shop while his daughter gives birth to her second child in Lincang City three hours away


“We need him to continue to carry us forward,” said an animated Party member, the only one to have heard the news prior to our conversation. “Xi has done great, now he can do even greater things for China,” he added. “If we shift power, we will lose our momentum, if not our stability.”

In fact, it was precisely to establish stability and build momentum that former President Deng Xiaoping voluntarily transitioned power to his successor Jiang Zemin with these words: “To build the fate of a country on the renown of one or two people is very unhealthy and very dangerous.” He had suffered severely under Chairman Mao and shared a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship. So Deng embarked on institutionalizing collective leadership and the peaceful transition of power that China has followed for the last 30 years.

Xi is undoing those norms. Ironically, Xi and his family also suffered immensely during the Cultural Revolution and he has appeared to be unwavering in his pursuit of stability to avoid history repeating itself. Nevertheless, he also continues to concentrate power and dismantle the political checks and balances established to avoid another calamity. Why? Villagers say Xi is the only one who can continue to maintain stability, address corruption and further growth. They find it unfathomable that there would be risk in his unrestrained power. I think Xi agrees with them.


Power lines in Bangdong village


“Xi is good,” the Party member said. “But we don’t know about the next guy, so we should stick with Xi.”

Even as the Party member assures me of Xi’s benevolence, Deng Xiaoping’s words come mind: “When nothing’s wrong, it’s no problem. Once something’s wrong, it’s too late.” (不出事没问题,一出事就不可收拾)

The Party member must have sensed my misgivings because he looked at me with gentle reassurance and added, “There’s no need to worry.”


Editor’s note: This blog was updated on March 26.

BLOG: International Women’s Day 2017: Taking Bold Steps for Change

Messages and Reactions From Nigeria

On March 8, the world celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD), a day set aside to acknowledge the contributions women make in society and highlight the challenges women continue to face. This year, the United Nation’s theme “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030” urged action to promote gender equality among men and women globally. All over the world, public events were hosted to commemorate the day using the campaign message and hashtag #BeBoldForChange. In Nigeria, I had the opportunity to participate in two events: 1) a rally hosted by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and 2) a roundtable discussion on bold steps for women taken by youth-led organizations. The rally involved about 150 men and women walking in a parade and holding placards with various messages centered on issues Nigerian women face. Below are picture highlights from the day:


Woman holding "I don't have to die bringing life"


Man holding "Real Men Don't Rape"

Youth participants at the parade send strong messages on IWD 2017

As I reflected on this year’s IWD, I wondered what Nigerians felt should be the priority focus for women in Nigeria this year. So, I asked around. Below are the responses I gathered:

“Our priority this year should be on Entrepreneurship. Let’s try to find a skill within us and build on it. Educate other women in doing same. We are in a world now where every woman wants to be independent.”

“I think the priority for Nigerian women should be self-development. Have a job, start a business, go for a development course, anything but don’t wait for the tides to change. Change them yourself. So it’s obvious that a woman has to do twice more than a man to prove her mettle, but we can do it! A woman should be skilled!”

“Educating the Girl child no matter who she is, where she [lives] or where she comes from.”

“Women are blessed with a gift, we multi-task and can do that well… there should be a balance in all. Women shouldn’t just work hard to get to the top, financially, socially, politically and forget their place at home, especially with the kids. The better parts of a person’s character, belief, and desires begin at childhood. A lot of adults are scared for life cos of things that happened to them in their childhood, most of them continue that way and it forms their belief systems… we are able to [do] a lot of things and do them well if we challenged ourselves. We are not weak, we are powerful… Great women”

“The US Women’s March has ignited a global movement for women across the world. And I was looking forward to a Women’s March to celebrate the IWD in Nigeria but I learned there are about 4 planned Marches all marching for different reasons. Marching is good, but I think this is the time for us to come together to demand 1 thing for Nigerian women and then we can align our other interests under that 1 big ask. There is great power in unity and we all have to be patient to start somewhere and gradually build up. Where are our founding women rights movement leaders? They can champion us to deploy our networks and technology to mobilize the younger generation.”


Girls Belong in the Classroom not the Other Room


End Violence Against Women

It appears that depending on who you ask, Nigerian women have diverse priorities. However, the theme of empowerment runs through each of the articulated needs –financial, academic, and social empowerment. As we have come upon another IWD, we must ensure that we don’t make the day all about hashtags. We must ask ourselves how far have we come in this movement for women and how do we address the present gaps?
At the roundtable event, a question was raised about closing the gender gap. How do we accomplish this? My response is: women and girls have a voice and rights and they deserve to be heard. It’s not about competing against men. It is about pulling together the capacities and potential that women possess to make the world a better place for all. Every human being wants to be great and achieve his/her potential. Why should women be hindered from making their contribution? It is time we take bold steps as a community by speaking out, calling out injustice, and equipping women and girls to know that they are strong enough to use and share their talents.
My one wish is that women and girls in rural and remote communities also get to hear/know about International Women’s Day and can be empowered to BE MORE. We must take intentional bold steps to engage these rural women; they’re the ones that are often left out of empowerment programs, despite their increased vulnerabilities.

Group of young men perform a dance during the IWD parade

Some of the bold steps highlighted by the youth groups during the Roundtable discussion include:
• Engaging women using technology to advance the health and rights of women
• Implementing public health projects with a women-led consulting company that ensures 60% of its workforce are women; this will help to bridge the gender gap in professional settings.
• Conducting and launching the report on “An Examination of Girls’ Education Policies in Nigeria with focus on the Northeast”
• Establishing a scholarship fund to help girls stay in school and support them to attend tertiary institutions with mentorships
• Launching of the Nigerian Languages-translated Breast Cancer Materials for Women in Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Pidgin
• Integrating women’s empowerment with children’s vaccination which has led to a reduction in infant mortality in target communities
• Engaging women in combating human trafficking

Youth Roundtable Discussion on “How We Took Bold Steps…”

Blog: Five Cartoons about Cairo’s Cathedral Bombing

December 16, 2016

Cartoonists for Egyptian newspapers regularly draw in the wake of a tragedy. On December 11, a suicide bomber attacked attacked St. Paul and St. Peter Church, leaving 25 dead and 50 injured. While Egypt has experienced targeted assassinations, attacks on police outposts, and a plane crash in recent times, the strike on the Coptic churches was the most drastic example of targeting civilians in the capital. How would illustrators react to the brazen act of terror?

In spite of the dwindling space for dissent in Egypt, independent cartoonists harshly criticized the government’s response. Cartoonists for privately owned newspapers often go father than columnists or reporters in lambasting the government’s misdeeds. Even I was surprised by their boldness this week as they penned provocations in the shadow of terrorism and as President Abdul-Fattah El-Sisi sought to allay fears about the targeting of Egyptian Christians. Meanwhile, in government-run newspapers, there were strong expressions of solidarity with Egypt’s Christians and absolute support for the state.

The duty of the cartoonist is to push the reader beyond the normal scope of contemplation, to offer a joke, jab, or insight. That is exceedingly difficult in the midst of national mourning. These five cartoons about the heinous attack offer a variety of perspectives on terrorism, violence against Christians, and fissures within Egypt today:


jg-blog-pic1(Anwar, Al-Masry Al-Youm, Dec. 13, 2016)

“Where is the nearest entrance of the cathedral, sir?” asks the masked bomber.

“Not sure. Ask a bit farther up,” replies the slouching police officer.

This cartoon exemplifies the audacity of humor in face of tragedy. Anwar, an independent cartoonist for the country’s most widely circulated private newspaper, skewers the authorities incompetence. He directly blames the police for not thwarting the attack, for not providing necessary protections to the country’s Coptic minority. In recent years, Anwar has drawn many stinging indictments of the security forces.



(Farag Hassan Al-Ahram, Dec. 15, 2016)

This cartoon appeared in Egypt’s flagship state-run newspaper Al-Ahram and thus closely mirrors the president’s message of hope and courage. Mother Egypt stands upright above church and mosque, with the Great Pyramids of Giza and a traditional Egyptian sailboat (felucca) in the background; the glamorous Cleopatra signals defiance of terror.

Below it reads a simple equation: “Muslim + Christian = Egypt.” This equation is exclusionary (what of Egypt’s non-Christian religious minorities, like Jews or Bahai, are they not part of the country?). It also obscures the systematic and institutional discrimination that Egypt’s Coptic minority is subject to. “Egypt’s Christians do not share in equality of citizenship,” writes Michael W. Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in Public Orthodoxy. He goes on to detail the de facto and de jure biases against the religious minority. Hanna’s takeaway is striking: “A state and society that tolerates and normalizes bigotry and sectarianism will also engender more malicious expressions of that hatred.” It’s a message, he notes, that goes far beyond the Egyptian context.

Cartoons like the above, however, seek to paper over such difference and advance a warm and fuzzy narrative of unity. Also of note: In traditional Egyptian editorial cartooning, Egypt is frequently depicted as a woman, implicitly saying that her honor must be protected. This topic demands wider investigation given the prevalence of such tropes in the mainstream media and is the subject of an excellent historical study by scholar Beth Baron.



(Makhlouf, Facebook, Dec. 11, 2016)

The evening after attack, the cartoonist Makhlouf posted a piece of gallows humor on his Facebook page. “Another explosion?! OK then, prepare a nationalist song — quick!!” yells an official to his assistant. Makhlouf alludes to the attack, two days prior, on a police checkpoint near the Giza Pyramids, which killed six officers. Importantly, the cartoonist is serving as an ombudsman, reminding his readers that no anthem can eclipse the authorities’ failures.

The government often flexes its nationalistic muscles in times of tragedy. The funeral for Church bombing’s victims was no exception, and many observers have lambasted the state’s politicization of bereavement. “Watching the ceremony on television, one could scarcely escape the impression that the relatives of the martyrs were of only secondary importance compared with the tightly interwoven array of military, state and church officials who dominated the scene,” writes scholar Paul Sedra in a close reading of the ceremony.


(Mohab, Mada Masr, Dec. 12, 2016)

The photos of the attack’s aftermath were harrowing, almost biblical—bloodied scenes of a holy space. In an arresting remembrance of the martyred, the independent artist Mohab illustrates a bloodstained stained-glass window. The text reads, “At last, O Virgin? There is no hope.”



(Andeel, Mada Masr, Dec. 13, 2016)

Also on the independent online news outlet Mada Masr, Andeel drew an oblique image. In a typical scene of a Cairo apartment building, a pile of garbage bags waits outside a doorway. Look carefully and there is a small note that reads, “Maalesh,” an Egyptian word for “I’m sorry” or “Excuse me,” and sometimes also “whatever.”

In this image, Andeel reminds readers that garbage collectors in Egypt are known to be Christian, a role that they have played since the 1930s. The punch line—the small note that says “Maalesh”—indicates the hallowness the country’s condolences or apologies following the attack. Once the reader understands the implied meaning there, there is no qualms about it: The cartoon suggests that Christians take out the country’s trash, a thankless job of the underclass.

Beyond the Kitchen and Other Room: Where do Women and Girls Stand in Nigeria?

“When you give a woman a responsibility, she either abuses it or lets you down. I hope neither will happen in this case,” said the Head of Department (HOD) at the weekly team meeting of a Nigerian government institution in Lagos State as he introduced the new female Supervisor. It was about 8:15am as staff members stood outside in the usual parking lot meeting location under the hot rays of the morning sun. I looked around and observed uncomfortable snickers from members of the staff. Though, no one had the courage to speak up. I wondered to myself, did the HOD really just say that? Was that all he could say about the new woman Supervisor? I hoped for even a delayed reaction from someone, anyone; but, alas, nobody said anything. Could it be that they weren’t paying attention? Did they not understand the derogatory nature of his words? I stood there disturbed at the silence. In this group of about 25 people (male and female), surely, someone should have noticed. I then thought to myself: well, this is Nigeria; a country where very few people challenge authority.

Author with new friends at the October 11 Stand With A Girl (SWAG) event commemorating International Day of the Girl Child.

Author with new friends at the October 11 Stand With A Girl (SWAG) event commemo-rating International Day of the Girl Child.

As I stood with the group for the remainder of the meeting, all I could think of was how do I respond to what I had observed? I had been invited as a visitor to attend the monthly team meeting that, on this day, was a transitional meeting for the HOD (who was being transferred to a different location) and an occasion to celebrate those born in the month of October. My celebratory spirit was quickly dampened, however, by the HOD’s statement. How do women find their voices in a society that says you cannot have a voice? Where are the male advocates for women and their rights? How do women learn to speak out?

Two weeks before that meeting, Nigeria faced a national controversy relating to the status of its women. “Have you heard what’s happening with the President and his wife?” asked my new acquaintance Tina as she walked into the living room where I was sitted watching television. She looked distraught as she asked me to turn the TV station to a news channel to hear about the recent crisis. Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, had committed a political blunder; he insulted his wife on international television, saying, “She belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.” The President made this comment while standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel – notably the most powerful female leader in the world – at a news conference in Germany. Mr. Buhari’s comment was in response to his wife’s earlier statement during a BBC interview in which she said “[t]he president does not know 45 out of 50 of the people he appointed [as Ministers] and I don’t know them either, despite being his wife of 27 years.” She added that, “He is yet to tell me [if he would run for re-election] but I have decided as his wife, that if things continue like this up to 2019, I will not go out and campaign again and ask any woman to vote like I did before. I will never do it again.”

While it can be contended that the First Lady should not have disrespected the Head of State in such a manner publicly, the President’s blatantly derogatory public response was inappropriate. I found it hard to believe that a Commander-in-Chief of a nation could utter such words about his wife or about a woman, particularly in an era when promoting gender equality is a key global development agenda.

His comment signaled to me a deeply rooted cultural and social belief that women’s sole role is in the home, attending to domestic duties. This event awakened me to the reality of the Nigerian society; a disturbing reality of misogyny, even at the highest level.

Coming from a family of three girls, I never experienced what it is like to be treated differently by my parents or extended family members because of my gender. Being a girl was never an excuse not to participate in certain household chores or activities like sports. I grew up – even within the first 13 years spent in Nigeria – believing that I could do anything I wanted to do. Though I know my father would love a male child (every African parent wants a male heritage), he never made me or my sisters feel inferior. This upbringing, as I am learning, is not the dominant reality in Nigeria; a country that remains highly patriarchal, where male children are preferred over female children.

Being back in Nigeria as an adult is allowing me to experience and assess fundamental social and cultural norms that affect the lives and status of women and girls. As a young woman educated in the United States, I am considered to be “different.” I find myself wondering at times if I am “out-of-place” for raising my hand and/or speaking out in certain situations/environments, with certain people. However, the reception I receive when I speak up lets me know that while I am “unusual,” my comments are welcomed and appreciated. My friends tell me “You don’t have the Nigerian mentality… and this is why everyone wants to meet you and be around you.” They call me “brave” for tackling the issue of girls and women’s empowerment in Nigeria, noting that it is a complex and deeply ingrained problem to try to solve in Nigeria. I am curious to know why women and girls are so fearful of speaking up.

In late September, I attended a “Wiki Loves Women” workshop hosted by Wikipedia in Abuja. I was one of 15 young Nigerian women leaders selected to attend the workshop, which was designed to “encourage the contribution of quality information on African women.” I was invited by a female friend, but selected (after submitting my profile) to attend the event by the organizers. At the workshop, we were trained on how to find and write notable content on African women. Women, as we were told, make up “less than 10% of Wikipedia editors” and “only 12% of biographies in sub-saharan Africa are about women.” I was impressed at the vision behind this notable event. Of particular interest to me at the workshop was the question of “What makes a person notable?” Wikipedia has very strict criteria for a person to be featured on its site. One of the key criterion is that the person must already be prominently featured across traditional and social media platforms; not just for the work he/she does, but for who he/she is as an individual- early life/background, career, legacy, etc. As participants pondered this criterion of notability, the question was raised on “how many Nigerian women can we say that we know about what they actually do?” The answer was very few; not even a handful of women could be named. Participants shared that many women, especially African women, are seen through the eyes of their partner/spouse or their work. In fact, typically, when a woman is being interviewed in the media, she portrays/describes herself in the shadow/background of her spouse and/or her work, without highlighting what makes her noteworthy as an individual.

Participants at the “Wiki Loves Women” workshop held in Abuja.

Participants at the “Wiki Loves Women” workshop held in Abuja.

The social and economic status of women and girls in Nigeria remains unimpressive. Women’s activities and actions continue to be influenced by the patriarchal social system and culture that undervalue a woman’s worth and place in society. (In my next newsletter, I will address how women’s low self-esteem factors into this inferior status). The culture of patriarchy is deeply rooted in religion and tradition. In almost all of my conversations with Nigerians about gender equality, the biblical story of God creating Adam before Eve and the Bible’s commandment to women to be submissive to their husbands while the man is the “Head” of the family are brought up. When I asked a male friend what he makes of President Buhari’s public remark, my friend noted, “The President spoke as a traditional and Muslim man. He told us where his wife belongs in his home.” My friend does not find anything wrong with the President’s position because, as he told me, he values the African tradition and the assigned gender roles. Though, he added, that supporting tradition should not mean denying a woman of her rights to a productive livelihood. But, how do you balance traditional gender expectations/roles with global development goals that require the equal participation of women and men to advance world health and economy? My experiences have shown me that women and men are not sure how to accept and establish this equality between men and women.

The meeting I discussed at the beginning of this newsletter exemplifies the lack of respect and value for women in leadership that pervades a large part of the Nigerian society. I wondered if the HOD made his statement based on his previous experiences with female Supervisors and/or even the women in his life. The experience highlighted to me how much of a long way Nigeria still has to go in understanding, accepting, and achieving gender equality. It also made me wonder if there is a lack of positive female leaders in the country. Actually, Nigeria has few outstanding women leaders in the likes of the Honorable Minister of Environment, Amina J. Mohammed, the Co-Convener of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, Obiageli Ezekwesili, renowned author and writer Chimamanda Adichie, and renowned economist, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. In addition to more female leaders, what I think is lacking are women mentors. As women leaders have risen, I am uncertain the extent to which they have reached back out to provide mentorship to other Nigerian women. Many Nigerian women are disempowered; they are not taken seriously and many do not know how to be advocates for themselves. I read a Facebook post recently by a Nigerian woman (on a page for young African women leaders), which states:

“In my daily interactions with women, I have made an observation i will like to discuss about. Majority of these women seem to have issues with Complexity. And this is one major reason why we do not see many women getting involved in leadership. The women are even yet to deal with the self esteem issues which will give them nudge to step out of their comfort zone. My question is ‘What steps can be taken to help women overcome this issue (especially that of low self esteem), knowing that this affects who they become as a person and also a potential leader?’”

I agree that women and girls in Nigeria have low self-esteem. “Complexity,” as used in the above statement, refers to the “inferiority complex” that women have been nurtured by society to embrace. I also believe that the multiple roles of women as caregivers, homemakers, and professionals have proved to be very challenging for women to balance. I have noticed that men tend to speak on behalf of women even in the presence of the woman. For example, I attended a meeting recently commemorating African Youth Day where the topic of gender equality was discussed. As soon as the floor was open for comments, the young men in the group began expressing their disapproval of “gender equality,” noting that it has become “women equality” and has left out the male gender. Someone said that gender equality has turned into an “overpowerment” of women. One young man said “If you give this world to women, they will crumble it.” I watched with amazement as these young men spoke so aggressively and authoritatively. Four men spoke before a young lady shared her thought on the subject. After I interjected on a male participants’ incorrect argument, he told me (at the end of the meeting) that I was his favorite person at the meeting because “you were the only one that insisted on interrupting me while I was speaking.” This young man had established a visible dominant presence and voice throughout the conversation, which caused everyone to become quiet when he spoke. I laughed at his statement, realizing that not many young ladies/women have the boldness to speak up and interrupt a man while he is speaking, especially not in Africa.

One has to wonder, why did First Lady Aisha Buhari say what she said? Clearly, this is an empowered Muslim woman who understands the nature of the Nigerian society. It can be inferred that she had already had this conversation with her husband and still felt the need to bring it up in public, possibly due to a lack of appropriate response from the President. One Nigerian journalist told me that the First Lady is trying to protect herself because her husband has “crossed a lot of people.” In the event that something happens to the President, the First Lady will have to deal with the consequences of his negative actions with/towards people. As one contributor shared “When the chips are down, it is she, her children and Buhari’s children from his first marriage that will carry the burden. So nobody has the right to tell her what is appropriate or inappropriate.”[1] Is this where women and girls fit? Should they just be bearers of consequences of other people’s actions, even when they were not a part of the action? Why can’t women and girls be empowered and allowed to be active participants in decision-making?

I asked the lady who had been promoted to the role of Supervisor how she felt when the HOD made his remark. She responded, “I felt angry. I wanted to ask him if he has ever given a woman a task and she disappointed him. But, I did not have an opportunity to respond at that moment.” She added that in Nigeria, it is unthinkable to challenge a public servant. “When you speak out, you are alone. It’s not like outside there [abroad] where you have your right and you can protect it. Even when you know your rights, you cannot assert it. That is the issue we find ourselves in in this country” she said. Because people want to be favored above others, they allow tribalism and politics play into whether/how they support a colleague in speaking out. When I asked her how her colleagues (and women) can be empowered to speak up, she said “Well, before I tried to find a platform to address these issues. But, now I am on my own because it seems like no one else sees the problem. Let me just do what I need to do and get out. You know in Nigeria you are not protected.” She proceeded to commend me for noticing the HOD’s derogatory comment and asked that if I have an idea for how she can work with her colleagues to speak up in such instances, I should let her know.

As I reflect on the events of the month, I am left with the following reasons for women’s disempowerment/inability to speak up:

  • Lack of female mentors
  • Culture of patriarchy
  • Culture of fear: public servants are (unofficially) sworn to “secrecy” and cannot challenge authority (which is mostly male-dominated) in public; otherwise they risk having a job.
  • As one Director of a youth development non-profit stated, “You are powerless until society gives you power; the society determines the limit of your power.” Women are yet to be conferred power by the Nigerian society.

As a Nigerian woman who has been privileged to live and learn in the US as a second home, I have been empowered to believe in and use my voice in a way that many Nigerian women and men cannot comprehend. To them, I am ”notable” and inspiring. My hope is that more girls and women become notable and are never described as incompetent in public. Empowering women and girls to speak up for their rights, at home, in school, in the office, and in the community is something that needs to be addressed; not just in developing countries, but across the globe as we seek to promote a sustainable world for humanity.

Author with Mallama Fatima, a third wife, mother of four, and women’s empowerment advocate.

Author with Mallama Fatima, a third wife, mother of four, and women’s empowerment advocate.


[1] Punch Newspaper. Nigerians back Aisha Buhari, as she slams President. Accessed: 10/31/2016

Blog: Nigera Says NO to Child Marriage

Last week, I attended what was possibly the most important high-level meeting for me as an ICWA Fellow in Nigeria. The Federal Government of Nigeria, on Tuesday, November 29, committed to end a deeply-rooted cultural and social menace in the country — child marriage. “Our stand is clear. No child marriage,” declared the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo as Nigeria joined 15 other African countries in the fight against child brides. In June 2015, African leaders made a resolution to end child marriage in the continent during the 25th African Union (AU) Meeting with Heads of States held in South Africa. Since then, governments have been charged with developing strategies and action plans aimed at eliminating the practice. Child marriage (also referred to as defilement) is defined as any union (formal or informal) where either party is below the age of 18. In Nigeria, the practice is most common in the Muslim-dominated Northern part of the country where 65% of children are married before their 18th birthday. Contrary to popular belief, and as one Islamic leader clarified, child

no-child-marriage_2marriage is not a religious practice. It is a traditional practice; one that violates the message of the Koran which grants rights to women and girls. Despite laws in the country that protect the rights of children, child marriage continues to persist due to dichotomies between culture and law and lack of policy implementation structures. To address this issue, a national campaign has been launched with support from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Canadian government, UNICEF and other non-profit organizations. The campaign will be implemented through the office of the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development. A National Strategy to End Child Marriage in Nigeria 2016-2021 has been published and a Technical Working Group comprised of 30 members from national non-profits and civil society organizations has been established to institutionalize the campaign, create a holistic strategy, and build awareness on child marriage. While this is a step in the right direction, it is going to be a tough battle to uproot the century-old cultural beliefs and norms that promote child marriage. Another hurdle will be addressing and/or reprimanding Nigerian political and traditional leaders who have married child brides.

The practice of child marriage has brought a lot of misery to many girls and women in Nigeria. At the launch event, adolescent victims of child marriage shared their personal testimonies. One girl stated that she was married off at the age of nine while she was in Primary 3 and had not even commenced menstruation. She eventually got pregnant for her husband, was in labor for three days after which the baby was brought out dead. She got infected in the process due to complications and developed obstetric fistula. In this condition, her husband divorced her and sent her back to live with her mother.

Ending child marriage will open doors of opportunities and progress for girls across the country who have been denied their childhood, access to education, and a productive life. As one speaker noted, “today is a day of joy for every girl in Nigeria.” The goal of the campaign is to reduce child marriage by 40% by 2021, with a vision of zero child marriage in Nigeria by 2030. Now, the world watches to see how Nigeria will keep its commitment to girls.

A community leader speaks out against child marriage at the Launch of the Campaign to End Child Marriage in Nigeria

A community leader speaks out against child marriage at the Launch of the Campaign to End Child Marriage in Nigeria.

Thanksgiving in Nigeria

Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Nigeria. Though, many churches across the country celebrate Thanksgiving Sundays – special days when people dress up in their best and most colorful outfits and bring exceptional thanksgiving offerings (money) to church. So, what did I do on November 24? Thanks to my globally-minded friends, I was able to commemorate the US holiday in Nigeria.


Participants at the “Sparkle Effect Masterclass”

I spent the day attending the final sessions of the WIN (Women’s International Networking) conference in Abuja. This was the first time the event was being held in Africa, and it brought together women from around the world to discuss the theme of women “Leading the Way.” (I will share more about the conference in my fourth ICWA newsletter).


In the evening, I participated in a three hour “Sparkle Effect Masterclass,” a workshop designed to help women make their voices heard through social media platforms. Two Nigerian women facilitated the workshop: the reigning “African Queen of Livestreaming” on the social media platform called Periscope and a Confidence & Peak Performance Coach. The workshop ended with a dinner, which I considered my Thanksgiving dinner. We feasted on delicious Nigerian delicacies, which included fried rice, jollof rice, salad, roasted fish, fried chicken and plantains (as pictured on the right).  No Turkey was hurt.

I am thankful for my health, my family, my ICWA community, and for new friends and community in Nigeria.

Change for the Sake of Change


“Istana Negara” is Indonesia’s version of the White House (of Cards). (Photograph accessed at

“Every reshuffle brings about better results.” Thus spoke Indonesia’s Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, who may very well find himself being shuffled out of his position in three years’ time. For now, though, he has come up trumps, having just overseen the replacement of twelve (of thirty-six) ministers and the secretary of Indonesia’s Working Cabinet.

If every reshuffle brings about better results, Indonesia’s future is in good hands: President Jokowi and Kalla have reinvented their cabinet twice in less than two years. Nine months after the initial swearing-in ceremony in October 2014, five ministers and the secretary were lost in the shuffle, and now, twenty-one months into their first term, there’s a bunch more swearing (in) going on.

There is ample precedent for this in Indonesia. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) reshuffled his cabinet five times[1] in his two-term, ten-year stint as the first directly elected representative of Indonesia’s people. (Coincidentally, Kalla was his vice president as well.) But Jokowi-Kalla have doubled the pace of change, leaving us to wonder why things need to be shaken up so frequently, and to what extent this annual reshuffling is disrupting the machinations of the State. Sure, every reshuffle brings about better results…but for whom?

Playing His Cards Right

“The spirit of the Working Cabinet reshuffle is to strengthen the government’s work performance, in which all Cabinet members can work in a team that is solid and unified,” President Jokowi explained. Strength does seem to be what he is after, though perhaps not only for the cabinet. Three changes in particular warrant consideration.

First, a three-way trade was made. In order for SBY’s Finance Minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, to resign her position as Managing Director of the World Bank and return to her former position, Bambang Brodjonegoro had to move over to Minister of National Development Planning, which necessitated that Sofyan Djalil uproot and replant himself as Minister of Land and Spatial Planning. Sri Mulyani was ranked by Forbes magazine as the 38th-most powerful woman in the world, and she is quite popular among Indonesians, so this change has been chalked up as a win by most of my Indonesian friends.

People have looked less favorably, however, upon the appointment of Wiranto as Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs. In 1999, he oversaw the military incursion into the area now known as East Timor. As detailed by ICWA Fellow Curt Gabrielson (CG-1), two decades of occupation by Indonesia’s military resulted in the death of over 800,000 people on that island, half of which is still controlled by Indonesia. The United Nations and human rights groups contend that more than 2,000 East Timorese were killed and 500,000 more were forced into displacement under Wiranto’s watchful eye.[2] Indonesia’s own Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) considered Wiranto’s appointment to this position back in 2014 to be “problematic,” but the “spirit of the Working Coalition” is not as concerned with the spirits of the East Timorese these days. There are grave implications to the notion that Wiranto is again helping “strengthen the government’s work performance,” as ha has a tendency to overplay his hand.

Surprisingly, the skeletons in Wiranto’s closet have gone mostly unmentioned amid the outcry over the appointment of Archandra Tahar as Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources. His sin? After twenty days on the job, it was discovered that the former president of American company Petroneering, who left behind a six-figure salary to serve his country, holds an American passport.[3] A vocal contingent of Indonesians made no bones about their belief that his citizenship status should disqualify him from serving, which makes the silence about Wiranto’s human rights record that much more deafening. (Ignasius Jonan was selected as Minister instead, and Tahar was named as his Vice Minister. Curiously enough, this did not prove problematic.) It bears noting that only ten months prior, President Jokowi had encouraged the adoption of dual citizenship.[4] Had he played that differently, this whole kerfuffle might have been rendered moot.


Fresh recruits just sworn in to Jokowi-Kalla’s third cabinet. (Photograph by Fabian Januaris Kuwado).

As my focus is on education, I’ll briefly note one other change that came as a surprise to many, and which I intend to expound upon in my next Newsletter.

After only twenty months on the job, Anies Baswedan was abruptly reshuffled out of his position as Minister of Education and Culture in July of this year. Just after being sworn in, the man who Forbes magazine listed as one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals published thirty-four specific short-, medium-, and long-range goals[5] for Indonesian education. Twenty months is not enough time to achieve thirty-four goals, but most would agree that progress was evident.

According to Ali Munhanif, the head of the Center for Public Policy Studies at the National Islamic University of Jakarta, Baswedan’s removal was necessary because his “vision deviated slightly from the vision and the mission of the President.” Conversely, Baswedan’s replacement, Muhadjir Effendy, told reporters he “has no ministerial mission or vision,” because “there is only the vision and mission of the President.”[6]

If President Jokowi stacked the deck by intentionally selecting an educational minister who would take no initiative and simply do as told, this would amount to a hypercentralization of political power, in which a single person – Jokowi himself – will set education policy for 250 million people. And it sure doesn’t seem like he’d have much trouble forcing Effendy’s hand.


Muhadjir Effendy is Indonesia’s new Minister of Education and Culture. (Photograph by M. Yasin of Koran Jakarta)

Since rising to his new position, the new minister has only exacerbated these concerns. On the day he was sworn in, Effendy said in an interview that he had never imagined he might become a minister until the day before. In that same interview, he recounted that he originally wanted to be a middle school teacher, but had been rejected; headlines the next day read, “Muhadjir becomes Minister of Education even though he failed to become a teacher.”[7]  It is not hard to believe that he really doesn’t have any mission or vision whatsoever. Was this, along with Effendy’s affiliation with Muhammadiyah (one of Indonesia’s two largest Islamic groups), what President Jokowi was seeking? For the sake of Indonesian education, I wish he’d lay his cards on the table.

In truth, that newspaper headline was a bit misleading – Effendy actually passed the test, but was not selected because he had no previous teaching experience. A graduate of one of Indonesia’s most renowned teacher preparation programs at the National University of Malang. Effendy returned to academia after this setback, obtained his Master’s degree in Public Administration from another of Indonesia’s highest-ranked universities, Gadjah Mada, then continued on to a doctoral program at Airlangga University. Only after obtaining his Ph.D. in Military Sociology did he get his first teaching job – as a professor back at his undergraduate university. Over the next few years, while teaching pre-service teachers at the University of Malang, he also lectured at another nearby university. It was this side job that has paved the path to his ministerial position – in 2000, he became the Rector of Muhammadiyah University of Malang, plugging him in to one of the most extensive politico-religious networks in the country. Still, for all of these accolades, he was relatively unknown as of July 25th, 2016. To date, Muhadjir Effendy remains something of a wild card.