It has become a practiced pantomime, and all the players know their parts. Whether it’s the Taliban in Pakistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria or the newly born Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, the recipe for global outrage and attention is simple: it is digital, and it is female. Its production nearly always involves the visible persecution of women: a flogging, a shooting or a mass kidnapping, and the unleashing of the news into the vast and viral depths of the Internet. If the job has been well done, if the aesthetics of neo-medievalism—beards and masks, veils and visible terror—have been duly attended to, the result will be a global outcry.
Once upon a time, this global outcry was supposed to be a good thing, a precursor to change and the mechanism for allowing international and universal norms to trump local, oppressive and unjust ones. This naming- and-shaming mechanism originated in Kathryn Sikkink and Margaret Keck’s celebrated book Activists Beyond Borders, published in 1998. The world was flush with faith in the power of international civil society and transnational NGOs with a human-rights agenda. This was particularly so in the case of women’s rights; feminists gathering in international assemblies began to discuss the commonality of issues facing women. Landmark conferences took place in Nairobi in 1985 and Vienna in 1993, bolstering the emerging networks of women who wished to work together against local governments.
As Sikkink and Keck discussed, these transnational networks challenged the monopoly of information formerly held by states. By mobilizing their new international networks, feminists put pressure on individual governments to accede to international norms on issues like female genital mutilation and laws criminalizing sexual violence and harassment. Through the networks, there was naming; through the glare of international pressure, there was shaming. The glue keeping it all together was, as international-relations theorist Hedley Bull described it, the fact that nations “conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another.” Human rights, especially women’s rights, had been put on the international agenda, and a small number of NGO actors, via their international networks, had done the job. Implicit in the strategy was the idea that via this mechanism of naming and shaming, there would be a congruent change in the moral norms of the communities in which the victims lived. The pressure of global shaming would henceforth produce local transformations.
The idea was a good one, and for a time it seemed to work. In 2002, two northern Nigerian women, Amina Lawal and Safiya Hussaini, were sentenced to death by stoning under a local interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, in two different Nigerian states. Human-rights lawyers Hauwa Ibrahim and Dr. Ayesha Imam led a campaign that brought international attention to both cases. As per the advocacy mechanism discussed by Sikkink and Keck, mounting global pressure—generated through the use of transnational networks by Ibrahim and Imam, allowing them to take these cases to a worldwide audience—resulted in local and individual reprieve: both cases were overturned on appeal, and the women were freed. Similar successes were seen in Pakistan, where an international outcry resulted from the publicizing of a case involving a village council that ordered the gang rape of a woman. So intense was public pressure that the military-led government, headed by Pervez Musharraf, was forced to take on the issue of reforming Pakistan’s controversial Hudood Ordinances, whose loopholes permitted the prosecution of rape victims for the crimes of adultery and fornication.