Submitted by Fernando Aguiar on Thu, 07/27/2017 - 14:10

We have seen before that gender plays a big role in conflicts. In these contexts, societies assign fixed roles differentiated by gender, with men as the primary fighters and women as the main carers of the old, young and vulnerable. We have also seen that nearly every society has conflict in its social repertoire and that gendered war roles have broad social ramifications and are heavily influenced by pre-existing gender norms. In Nigeria, more specifically in the northeastern region of the country, this dynamic is no different.

The Conflict in Northeastern Nigeria:  a Region in Crisis

Since 2015, the Nigerian Government has mobilized a stronger military campaign against Boko Haram, one of the many armed groups that have destabilized the country’s North East, and which has continuously launched deadly attacks on civilians and security forces, while creating deep roots in certain local communities[1]. The group propagates its extreme narratives with the aim to recruit more people. As a result, more than 2 million people have been displaced, of which about 30 % is young[2].

Overall, this violent conflict between the armed group and the Nigerian security forces has killed nearly 17,000 people since 2009, devastated thousands of communities, and slowed the economy to considerable levels[3]. With State budgets overwhelmed, particularly as oil revenues drop, the struggle continues as local and national institutions are unable to provide services to the influx of people affected by the conflict.

In this context, men and women have been affected differently. While the former have excessively been killed, women are a staggering majority among the estimated 2 million IDPs in the North East region. Many bear the stigma as formal wives or fighters and face challenges to reintegrate back into their communities. Others are survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (GBV), which also carries out negative stereotypes and denigrating consequences.

In this sense, the region’s strong patriarchal values and cultural norms, which are codified by law, have limited women’s status to a domestic role, while reinforcing male dominance. This lack of gender parity and high rates of poverty has contributed to a disparate socio-economic status for women, in favor of a male domination over the political and religious spheres.

The Gender Dynamics of Boko Haram’s Tactics

Even as the fight continues, there are a diverse set of effects that have evolved over time and which have directly impacted men and women differently. Responding to these changes, the radical group has been paying particular attention to women and using gender roles as a way to enhance their operational effectiveness. The armed group’s main ideology, for instance, casts men in hyper-masculine combat roles, which makes male recruits hold a sense of security in their gender norms. Moreover, by ‘awarding’ wives to male combatants, the group attracted more recruits and increased their human capacity. In addition to that, because women were not considered to be a threat (women = peaceful; men = violent), the group placed their female combatants in strategic venues, such as in governmental-controlled areas to perpetuate their attacks more easily[4].

Gender dynamics therefore is heavily present in the Nigeria’s warring context, including in violent extremism, and women’s roles in processes of radicalization are connected to a wider context of gender roles in the country, especially in the North East’s patriarchal societies. As the research conducted by the National Stability and Reconciliation Program (NSRP) points out, the role women play in radicalization processes are strongly determined by their male companions[5]. As highlighted by the program:

The diversity of the Islamic groups in northern Nigeria determines the gender roles by each sect and their interpretation of Islamic injunctions.

In this sense, the region’s strong patriarchal values and cultural norms, which are codified by law, have limited women’s status to a domestic role, while reinforcing male dominance. This lack of gender parity and high rates of poverty has contributed to a disparate socio-economic status for women, in favor of a male domination over the political and religious spheres.

Taking opportunity of the challenges posed by patriarchy, especially the constraints faced by women, Boko Haram’s appeal to women increased, with a mixture of coercions and incentives. As many experts convey, the importance of women in the jihadist group stems from how gender roles are perceived in Nigeria. As observed by the International Crisis Group,

As wives, they enhance social status and provide sexual or domestic services (sometimes forced), thereby becoming valuable incentives for potential male recruits. Their adherence, willing or forced, to the movement’s version of Islam can also contribute to the spreading of its ideology among other women, but possibly also young men[6].

Targeting women in certain communities, therefore, increased the group’s supporters and enhanced their actions on the ground. The phenomenon of female suicide bombers, for instance, has become an emblem of the insurgency’s tactics in using gender stereotypes to achieve their goals, increasing considerably in the second half of 2014[7].  Most recently, women suicide bombers targeted a market and refugee camps in Northeast Nigeria, killing 27 and wounding 82 more[8]. In addition to that, there have been a number of incidents where men were disguised as women in order to avoid arrests and to perform attacks.

As argued by Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria:

Boko Haram has played on the common perception of women as nonviolent to effortlessly mainstream women into their operations, using them to gather intelligence, as recruiters, and promoters of radical ideologies to indoctrinate abductees and other converts in Boko Haram enclaves[9].

It is not fully clear, however, why these women and men join violent extremist groups in the context of Nigeria, and the reasons between both sexes appear to be similar, including local grievances, underdevelopment and dissatisfaction towards the central authority. According to the Afrobarometer data, there seems to be no significant difference between women and men when it comes to violent extremism, which implies that there are no relevant gender differences in the motivating factors[10].

This recent trend of the recruitment of women into the security sector is a clear illustration of how gender dynamics play a role in violent extremism, especially by fuelling extremist groups’ strategies.

 

However, as highlighted by other experts in the field, patriarchy and gender do play a role in violent extremism in Nigeria. As Kemi Okenyodo observes in the case of women, ‘because [they] are expected to be dependent on men for their livelihoods, male relatives’ involvement in radical groups automatically includes their participation as well.They are forced or expected to be part of radical groups[11].

Another study conducted in the UK with female combatants belonging to Hizb Ut-Tahir, a radical Islamic organization, reveals that many women integrated extremist groups as a way to resist patriarchal values asserted in their society. For many of them, their new roles contributed to their self-esteem and empowerment[12].  It worth highlighting that both organizations cannot be compared, due to their different geographical and historical context as well as other meaningful particularities. But what is important to note is that the fact that motivating aspects that might contribute for women to join these organizations are sometimes similar. As the women interviewed in the UK stated, their motives were partly hinged on their desire to resist patriarchy. The same aspect was evidenced in Nigeria.Therefore, in environments where there is a strong culturally stereotyped notions of gender norms, women sometimes comply, reinforce or challenge these norms by integrating extremism groups or countering their spreading.

In this regard, the new shift in Boko Haram’s strategies, which profits from rigid gender norms, has also compelled the counter-insurgency force, Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) to adapt their tactics and include ‘a gender responsive shift’[13].  As a result, women have also been integrated in the group’s operations and check-points, detecting Boko Haram members, and acting as bait. Similarly, the Nigeria Police has included women as part of their counterterrorism efforts, widening the space of women in the security sector.

This recent trend of the recruitment of women into the security sector is a clear illustration of how gender dynamics play a role in violent extremism, especially by fuelling extremist groups’ strategies. As highlighted by experts like Cunningham, this fact mirrors a pattern seen in the adaptive reaction of terrorist groups in times when there is a high pressure on men, seen until now as the only violent figures[14].

In the North East of Nigeria, due to the strong patriarchal values it holds any measure to countering violent extremism requires a greater attention to gender relations, while also empowering and integrating women in the security sector. Altogether, the historical, cultural and social context should be strongly taken into consideration and more research is deemed necessary, especially how extremist groups are further affecting women and men based on their static gender roles, and using this as a strategy to accomplish their goals.