Boko Haram and Gendered Victimhood Narratives
It is crucial for Countering Violent Extremism practitioners and policy makers to go beyond the narrative of women’s victimhood and stress the importance of also looking at those who have joined willingly, their agency, their roles and experiences in these groups.
In 2014, a one-day march in Nigeria’s capital Abuja to protest the kidnapping of approximately 276 Nigerian schoolgirls quickly turned into a social media firestorm, better known by the Twitter hashtag BringBackOurGirls. From supermodels to the pope, celebrities all over the world rallied around the cause generating two million tweets in the space of a month, including the now famous picture of Michelle Obama holding a sign with the hashtag.
This bottom-up initiative, and later global movement, was intended to put pressure on the Nigerian government to confront Boko Haram and the terror it inflicts on the civilian population. While kidnapping is a common practice by insurgency groups or criminal gangs in Nigeria, the social media campaign put the issue at the forefront of international news. It has been argued that without this international spotlight, the government might have been slow to act and that, in itself, could be considered a win for the #BringBackOurGirls movement.
However, as the campaign grew, it reinforced the prominent dichotomous narrative of male oppressors versus female victims. While thousands of women and girls have been targeted, kidnapped, forcibly conscripted to Boko Haram and strong-armed into suicide missions, little media coverage has paid attention to those women who have joined the group voluntarily, and in doing so, disregarding women’s power and choice. The women of Boko Haram have indeed been described as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and victims, but not as individuals with agency. These preconceived notions are in turn exploited by extremist groups such as Boko Haram.
Women are individuals with agency and many join extremist groups voluntarily. Jamille Biglio and Rachel Vogelstein, in their discussion paper “Women and Terrorism: Hidden Threats, Forgotten Partners” dive into accounts of women who joined Boko Haram of their own free will. They found that, similarly to men, women’s reasons for joining were wide-ranging and personal. Some women joined out of ideological commitment or social ties. Other women, that had originally been taken forcefully, refused to leave the group when they had the chance to because they had become sympathetic to the group after exposure to ideology and/or access to power and particular resources, such as a Koranic education, non-existent in their local communities.
This side of the story is too often left out, as women who have joined extremist movements are predominantly portrayed by the media as passive, manipulated victims, rather than active participants. At the core of this loss of agency is the idealised notion of women and femininity in which women are considered incapable of committing acts of terror.
These long standing and entrenched biases are then exploited by violent groups. In her book “Women in Modern Terrorism”, Jessica Davis looks at how and why girls and women are employed by Boko Haram. She contends that this is not due to a lack of manpower but mainly because female suicide bombers attract more media attention than when the same acts are committed by men. Davis then notes that the media coverage of these attacks primarily focuses on the victimization of those women. This creates a cyclical dynamic between violent groups and media coverage that feeds off and reinforces each other as well as perpetuates inaccurate representations of women’s roles and female agency.
The case of the Chibok schoolgirls and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign do not paint the whole picture. The argument is not to dismiss or downplay the suffering of the thousands of women and men, girls and boys, who have been kidnapped for ransom, spoils of war, or suicide missions. Rather, it is about going beyond the narrative of women’s victimhood and stressing the importance of also looking at those who have joined willingly, their agency, their roles and experiences in these groups. This is crucial for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) practitioners and policy makers, as it will provide a more accurate representation of the group, its dynamic, practices and long-term ambitions. It is also important for the media to avoid co-creating a vicious circle by perpetuating the myth that women are not as violent as men, which is then exploited by violent groups for attention and propaganda, adding fuel to the media firestorm.