What makes a woman re­turn to Boko Haram?

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Azadeh Moaveni,

Zahra and Amina seem like lucky sur­vivors of the scourge of north­east­ern Nige­ria, the ji­hadist move­ment known as Boko Haram. Both were wives of fight­ers. Zahra es­caped by agree­ing to det­o­nate an ex­plo­sive vest that the mil­i­tants strapped to her. After walk­ing miles to her in­tended tar­get, a gov­ern­ment check­point, she turned her­self over to sol­diers. Amina fled with her three chil­dren after her hus­band was killed in bat­tle.

To­day, both women live in a camp for sur­vivors of the con­flict in the north­east­ern city of Maiduguri. When I met them on a re­cent re­search trip to the city, the last thing I ex­pected to hear was that they wanted to re­join the in­sur­gents. Con­ven­tional think­ing and se­cu­rity poli­cies that aim to dis­suade women from ex­trem­ist groups tend to fo­cus on ide­ol­ogy, pre­sum­ing that only brain­wash­ing could com­pel them to vol­un­tar­ily join rad­i­cal, vi­o­lent mili­tias. But here in the north­east, some women have largely been com­pelled to af­fil­i­ate with Boko Haram by so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions. Per­versely, the group of­fers them respite from in­se­cu­rity and the lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties af­forded them in a deeply pa­tri­ar­chal so­ci­ety riven by poor gover­nance.

Zahra and Amina say that when they were with the mil­i­tants, life was harsh and un­cer­tain, but they had enough to eat. As vol­un­tary wives of fight­ers, they were pro­tected from sex­ual pre­da­tion. They at­tended re­li­gion classes, the first for­mal school­ing many had ever re­ceived, and their chil­dren went to school, learn­ing lit­er­acy and re­li­gion. There were courts where women could re­port abu­sive hus­bands. In con­trast, in their now eman­ci­pated lives in the camp, they of­ten go hun­gry. There is lit­tle chance to work to buy more food, and short­ages have con­trib­uted to sex­ual ex­ploita­tion by the se­cu­rity forces who guard them. “Most Boko Haram women re­gret com­ing here, be­cause life is just so hard,” says Amina.

These two women are just one small part of a mas­sive hu­man­i­tar­ian and se­cu­rity cri­sis that has been un­fold­ing across the Lake Chad basin – the area where Nige­ria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon meet – since 2014. Over­shad­owed by the con­flicts in Syria and

Ye­men, the scale of hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter in the re­gion is nev­er­the­less vast: more than 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple dis­placed, 5 mil­lion in need of food and shel­ter, and half a mil­lion chil­dren at famine lev­els of mal­nour­ish­ment.

While the Boko Haram in­sur­gency may not di­rectly af­fect the west – it doesn’t con­trib­ute to mi­gra­tion flows and the mil­i­tants are not in­volved in at­tacks in Europe – the ex­pe­ri­ences of Boko Haram women carry wide im­pli­ca­tions for our un­der­stand­ing of why peo­ple join such move­ments. While the group, like many oth­ers that self-iden­tify as “ji­hadist”, de­ploys ide­o­log­i­cal rhetoric to pro­mote its po­lit­i­cal goals, it is the de­prived and frac­tious con­text in which it op­er­ates that best ex­plains its ap­peal – es­pe­cially to women.

Zahra and Amina, like many women in the north­east, joined the mil­i­tants by choice. They left by choice, too – un­will­ing to marry other fight­ers ap­pointed by the group after their own hus­bands had died. Their sto­ries chal­lenge the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive around Boko Haram, shaped by the global out­cry over the Chi­bok school­girls’ kid­nap­ping, which holds that women only join by force, and that, sim­i­larly, only those who were ab­ducted can be re­garded as gen­uine vic­tims. Re­turn­ing from Nige­ria, I met a group of Swiss women who reg­u­larly spend their hol­i­days do­ing free­lance vol­un­teer work with fe­male vic­tims of Boko Haram. “We only help the ones who were kid­napped,” one point­edly told me.

But the cir­cum­stances that pro­pel women such as Zahra and Amina into and out of Boko Haram show the lim­its of the neat cat­e­gories of vic­tim and per­pe­tra­tor. In the early days of the in­sur­gency, many women found the move­ment ap­peal­ing be­cause it of­fered al­ter­na­tives to the pa­tri­archy en­dorsed by their con­ser­va­tive fam­i­lies. The group’s lead­ers sup­ported lower dowries, which meant more young women could choose hus­bands from among their peers, rather than the grey­ing, fi­nan­cially se­cure men they would be tra­di­tion­ally com­pelled to marry. And while the mil­i­tants were only able to pro­vide for them so gen­er­ously by loot­ing and pil­lag­ing, some women felt the Nige­rian state’s cor­rup­tion jus­ti­fied these abuses. Life in the for­est felt freer and more dig­ni­fied than liv­ing in the dust of an in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons’ camp, de­pen­dent on in­ter­na­tional aid groups for a meal a day.

Even now, Zahra’s and Amina’s think­ing about the group – their be­lief that re­turn­ing to the mil­i­tants would im­prove their lives – is mostly a cal­cu­lus of im­me­di­ate sur­vival. Dalori II, the camp where they live, like most in the city, is chron­i­cally short on food, and across satel­lite camps in the re­gion groups such as Amnesty In­ter­na­tional have doc­u­mented an epi­demic of rape and sex­ual ex­ploita­tion. Some progress has been made to cur­tail these abuses, and hu­man­i­tar­ian groups have tried to ad­just food dis­tri­bu­tion prac­tices to blunt the po­ten­tial for abuse, but this has only changed the dy­namic of the ex­ploita­tion. “You have to be­come a har­lot to stay in the camps,” says Amina.

While end­ing the in­sur­gency and coun­ter­ing the mil­i­tants’ ap­peal is ob­vi­ously vi­tal, it is also es­sen­tial to recog­nise what pre­cisely has guided women to join the mil­i­tants. This has wider im­pli­ca­tions for the whole of the north­east, not just dis­placed women in the camps, but all women, who are try­ing to cope with con­di­tions so im­pov­er­ished and lim­it­ing that, some­times, join­ing a mil­i­tant group ap­pears to of­fer a way out.

Zahra’s and Amina’s names have been changed

Zahra and Amina say that, with the mil­i­tants, life was harsh and un­cer­tain, but at least they had enough to eat


A camp in Maiduguri, Nige­ria, sim­i­lar to the one hous­ing Zahra and Amina Azadeh Moaveni is se­nior gen­der an­a­lyst for the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group and a for­mer Mid­dle East cor­re­spon­dent for Time mag­a­zine

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