Why some women fought back against Boko Haram atrocities

The Islamist group has killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2.3 million people since 2009

The world reacted with shock and horror when 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.

Some of the girls managed to escape, others were rescued by military forces, but many were coerced into serving the group’s terrorist agenda, some acting as suicide bombers.

Political scientist Andy Knight
Political scientist Andy Knight says Boko Haram indoctrinates women and children as suicide bombers because it gives the group a “surprise factor” against the state. (Photo: John Ulan)

While the mass abduction in the small Nigerian town of Chibok garnered international headlines, it was by no means the only incident of kidnapping by Boko Haram, according to University of Alberta sociologist Temitope Oriola.

He estimates the Nigerian military rescued more than 28,000 people from captivity between January 2015 and February 2018, most of them women and children.

Once declared the world’s deadliest terrorist organization, Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2.3 million people from their homes since 2009. By 2014 it controlled 50,000 square km of territory, and was responsible that year for more deaths than ISIS.

To understand the complex social and political forces at work in the country, Oriola interviewed dozens of former female kidnap victims during the summer of 2019 at a rehabilitation camp in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State. The length of their captivity with the group ranged from six months to more than four years.

At the heart of Oriola’s research, in partnership with U of A political scientist Andy Knight, lies one central question: What enabled some of the women to resist their captors, often with violence, despite intense programs of indoctrination?

“The level of agency demonstrated over and over again is just remarkable,” said Oriola. “A lot of these women in Boko Haram camps were engaged in resistance against their captors,” he said, often taking advantage of gender roles they’d been assigned as cooks and domestics.

The reasons for resistance are varied. Some chafed at excessively brutal treatment, including witnessing the stoning and beheadings of fellow captives. Others found courage in camaraderie; others still saw the religious hypocrisy of major players in the group, who were far from “pious or religiously upright,” said Oriola.

Temitope Oriola
Temitope Oriola (Photo: John Ulan)

“Those with a clear understanding of Islam were likely to view Boko Haram as a fraud,” he said. “They juxtaposed Boko Haram’s teachings and ideology with what they had learned about religion.”

Not surprisingly, many capitulated, even preferring their captivity to the so-called “freedom” of a sexually oppressive state, said Oriola, adding there are stories of women rescued by the military who would run back to Boko Haram after a few months because they felt they had a better life there.

Some joined the group in the place because of state oppression, perhaps because family members had been killed by Nigerian forces. And there were those who curried favour with their captors by participating in the victimization of other captives.

“There were captives who became wives to high-ranking Boko Haram members, and had female captives serve them,” he said. “That was highly valued, as they were spared the egregious treatment of the camp.”

But some found the temerity to fight back.

“We interviewed multiple women who, by their own admission, had participated in exterminating Boko Haram terrorists at their camp,” said Oriola.

One common method, by which they exterminated “multiple individuals,” was to grind glass into powder, feeding it with food to their captors, said Oriola.

“One 19-year-old woman said she had participated in killing seven men – the numbers were fairly staggering.”

In one case where a group of women was found to be involved in such an assassination, four were killed by camp leaders.

Since its inception, Boko Haram has gained notoriety for deploying hundreds of young women and children as suicide bombers. The youngest suicide bomber on record is believed to have been just seven-years-old.

Oriola’s co-investigator on the project, political scientist Andy Knight (author of Female Suicide Bombings), said women are recruited for their “surprise factor” – a way for a relatively small terrorist organization to counter “the overwhelming power of the state.”

“Women are assumed to be nurturers, givers of life and non-violent,” said Knight, so it catches the state off guard when women are used as “instruments of death, rather than instruments of new life.”

Of the dozens of women Oriola interviewed, only four had been indoctrinated to carry out suicide bombings and found a way out. One had volunteered for a mission without any intention of following through, knowing it would provide an escape route.

“She knew she would be let out at some point if she volunteered to do so,” said Oriola. “She went straight to the military authorities once her handlers had stepped back.”

For those who do manage to escape or who are rescued, Nigeria has set up rehabilitation camps to provide support and counselling so women can be “reintegrated into society and own or rent a place of their own,” said Oriola, but the program has largely failed.

Some camps operate in good faith, but far more common is what he calls “criminogenic patterns” in the management of the camps, “where resources meant for the women have been diverted.”

“Surrounding all of this, of course, is a society that undermines the dignity and value of women,” he said. “That is not Boko Haram’s doing. They are merely weaponizing the common treatment of women.”

Oriola and Knight will begin publishing their findings sometime this year, once they have translated and analyzed the interviews.

They hope their research will shed valuable light on resisting indoctrination.

“Our broader concern was the policy implications of what countries like Canada, Nigeria and others concerned with terrorism can glean from the refusal of those indoctrinated to carry out terrorist activities.”

| By Geoff McMaster for Troy Media

This article first appeared in Folio, published by the University of Alberta. Folio is a Troy Mediainterviews, boko haram Editorial Content Provider Partner.


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