Women in a Post Boko Haram Reality - IfeOluwa Nihinlola

Panelists: Fati Abubakar, Andrew Walker, Chitra Nagarajan

Moderator: Kadaria Ahmed

The predominant narrative about women who live in states under Boko Haram’s terror often portrays them as vulnerable, as victims of the terror group’s callousness. But, like every narrative, the story of women in a post Boko Haram reality is complex, more so than that which is heard in mainstream media.

In the panel at the Ake Book and arts festival moderated by Kadaria Ahmed, Chitra Nagarajan, a human rights activist working in the Borno, Fati Abubakar, a photographer, and Andrew Walker author of ‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel’: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram, spoke about these nuances that are often missed or ignored.

Chitra opened the conversation with how the men in the crisis, who are often targeted by the terrorists and the military, are often not spoken about. She spoke of the absence of men, for instance in IDP camps. “As a result of the men not being there, women are having to increasingly take on roles that they wouldn’t before,” she said.

Kadaria Ahmed pointed out the absence of women in Andrew Walker’s book, ‘Eat the Hear of the Infidel’ which he said was a result of his own inability to carry out the research that would have been necessary to write about them without making blanket statements. Andrew spoke of how, “at the very beginning of the move from the radical salafi doctrines that had been previously circulating, it was often the women who were most vocal and driving those things in village settings.”

Fati Abubakar expanded on this further, saying, sometimes, because of the way the women have no choice but to either go with their husbands or return home to hostility, they just had to join when their husbands went with the terror group. “I think it’s a power trip,” she said of the drive of some other women.

She also spoke of how, for some of the women who became empowered with the Boko Haram ideology, it was a way to satisfy their ego. It also was freedom for others who, in the Boko Haram ideology, had the choice of divorcing their husbands and regaining some power by joining the group.

Andrew drew out the intersections between “gender, ethnicity, power, land, colonialist power” and said, “inside this Venn diagram is where Boko Haram really is.” He used the people of Gowza to illustrate this dynamics.

Following the thread of complexity, Chitra also spoke of how a lot of the women have an awareness of their agency, in contrast to the manner they’re usually portrayed as just victims. She pointed out how the group, at its onset, had a lot of support from the people, especially women who saw it, at the time, as an opportunity to break free.

Fati Abubakar spoke of the lack of emphasis on the change in roles of the women to being more breadwinners post Boko Haram. She also talked about how there are educated and empowered women in the North East of the country who, in spite of their low numbers, shouldn’t be ignored for a flat narrative of “depressed, traumatised women in the north.” She said, “Independence is independence regardless of education.”

Chitra, while speaking of the ways the crisis has made the women take on more decision-making roles in their communities, also cautioned about the backlash that would come with that change when the conflict ends (when the bullets stop firing) as men return to their villages. This, she pointed out, has precedence in the post-war realities of communities in other African countries.

The perspectives on women have changed, Fati Abubakar insisted: men are now more open to their women going out to work and provide. But she also pointed out how the men could become emasculated by this increasing power of women.

The women would not be content with reduced roles after the crisis subsides, Chitra explained. The conflict arising from these changes and men needing to protect their own power would probably lead to increasing domestic violence against women. This, she said, is what we have to start planning for now.

IfeOluwa Nihinlola edits and writes essays and short stories. He blogs at ifenihinlola.wordpress.com.