Analyzing Boko Haram’s Use of Gender-Based Violence

In 2014, Nigeria-based terrorist organization Boko Haram orchestrated the kidnapping of 276 women and girls from a boarding school in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Though the group had been engaged in terrorist acts for over ten years, aiming “to overthrow the Nigerian state and impose strict Islamic Sharia law in the country,” this attack sparked outrage and brought more attention to the group and its aims than ever before.

As academic Brian Jenkins argues, “terrorists seize hostages to gain attention” for their goals and demands, and the Chibok attack certainly succeeded in doing so. However, the group has not yet successfully used this leverage to make any kind of agreement with the Nigerian government, and an international counterinsurgency effort has actually contributed to the group’s relative decline in power since their attack. Instead, the girls were made to be wives of fighters and used in propaganda videos; it appears as though Boko Haram was not truly motivated to change Nigeria’s governmental structure from secular to heavily fundamental, as they claim, but by the efficacy of gender-based violence in and of itself.

Other than education, the Chibok abductees had one thing in common: their gender. Evidence of the public’s perception of the attack lends credence to this factor’s importance as well. It is impossible to miss the pathos in the rhetoric of Michelle Obama and others in the “bring back our girls” campaign; likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry’s depiction of the Chibok abduction as “a massive human trafficking offense” genders the act, since women and girls are the vast majority of trafficking victims.

Scholars Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson analyzed Boko Haram’s use of gender-based violence in early 2014, before the Chibok abductions. They state that the group’s use of violence “transcends region, religion and ethnicity” and has targeted men and women of Muslim and Christian faith alike to construct and communicate gendered notions of power consistent with the group’s terrorist goals. For example, Muslim women were customarily spared while Christian women were not, and Christian women often faced physical or sexual abuse for not prescribing to fundamentalist rules regarding dress and conduct. This serves to “mark their difference from Muslim women, and strike at Christian men, by demonstrating their inability to protect ‘their’ women.” Both of these purposes, which are heavily rooted in conceptions of gender, are consistent with the group’s desire for social control and the means of intimidation.

Part of the utility of gender-based violence for Boko Haram is the use of women as agents of violence. Academic Karla J. Cunningham argues that “because women are not considered credible or likely perpetrators of terrorist violence, they can more easily carry out attacks” and thus are valuable assets to terrorist organizations. Earlier this year, a girl claiming to have been a Chibok schoolgirl abducted by Boko Haram surrendered before carrying out a suicide bombing in Cameroon. This points to one piece of evidence of another gendered motivation in the Chibok abduction: the intention to exploit divergent standards and expectations of aggression to advance intimidation strategies.

What is the utility of women as victims in Boko Haram’s goals? On a basic level, the role of women plays an important role in the group’s professed goals of establishing Islamic Sharia law and maintain social control. Academics Cheryl Hendrick and Rachel Sittoni comment that religious extremist groups like Boko Haram often attempt to “justify [the abuse of women and girls] through reference to tradition.” Boko Haram advocates for a form of Sharia law “with a strict control and restriction of women’s liberty” in addition to the elimination of Western cultural influences; thus, these girls’ abduction from Western education and their forced marriage represents a de facto way of incorporating women into the ideal Islamic society envisioned by Boko Haram.

Finally, Boko Haram seeks to achieve their goals for regime change and social control by exploiting gendered citizenship and reconstructing the role of women in society. Academic Nira Yuval-Davis writes that women as biological reproducers are often “given the social role of intergenerational transmitters” of cultural aspects of nationality. Since Boko Haram seeks to radically transform the Nigerian state and implement Sharia law, women as cultural reproducers are necessary agents of change.

Women have occupied this role of reproducers for several years prior to the Chibok attack, as many were subjected to forced marriage and sexual abuse resulting in pregnancy in Boko Haram camps. The Chibok abduction is a prime example of this tactic as well, since the girls were removed from the productive enterprise of education for the explicit purpose of occupying a reproductive role as Islamist leaders’ wives in Boko Haram’s society.

The central reason for the Chibok attack’s effectiveness was the way in which it used gendered notions of power, cultural reproduction and violence as a means of communicating and obtaining Boko Haram’s goals. To this day and despite increased counterinsurgency efforts by Nigeria and its allies including the U.S., hundreds of the girls and women who were taken from Chibok in 2014 are still missing. Responding to such an effective attack will require comprehension of Boko Haram beyond its goals, tactics and structure as a terrorist organization; an equally effective response necessitates a complementary basis in conceptions of gender and how it relates to violence and strategy.

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