Engaging Gender, Peace, and Security through the Lens of Terrorism: The Case of Boko Haram

Engaging Gender, Peace, and Security through the Lens of Terrorism: The Case of Boko Haram

The use of women’s bodies as “weapons of war” in conflict situations is well documented. We are informed it occurs because women are seen as part of the “spoils of war,” that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) perpetuates social control through fear, and that it is practiced for a host of opportunistic reasons.1 The literature also emboldens us to see women as actors in conflict situations, moving beyond the narrative that portrays them as peaceful beings and mere victims of conflict.

Evolving security concerns have globally and continentally provided an entry point to discussing gender, peace, and security, mainly by focusing on SGBV in conflict situations. If we look at these issues through the lens of terrorism, what new insights emerge?

Terrorism and Women

In January 2015, the African Union (AU) decided to assist Nigeria in dealing with Boko Haram, whose targeting of women forms a major component of its insurgency tactics. The group’s capture of teenage girls in Chibok in April 2014 provided an opportunity to discern the motivations, practices, and impact of such terrorist attacks, their gendered nature, and whether our current gender instruments and mechanisms are robust enough to deal with them.

The place of women within extremist movements varies; they are kidnapped, raped, traded among fighters, forced into marriages, and they account for a great many casualties.2 Yet many also join terrorist groups as active planners and perpetrators, drawn by the same things that attract men: “adventure, inequality, alienation, and the pull of the cause.”3 Terrorists play on the gender stereotypes of the society to their own strategic advantage: women, who tend to generate less suspicion, can conceal explosives and are subject to less strict security measures.4

Boko Haram and the Missing Girls of Chibok

When Boko Haram captured over 200 girls in Chibok a year ago, the kidnapping caused a global outcry. Yet the group had been doing this for a long time, and women were being abducted in many other parts of Africa.

Boko Haram was established in 2002 in response to dire historical socioeconomic conditions in northeastern Nigeria,5 yet only became active in 2009. Its ideology is centered on opposition to Western culture and creating a system based on Salafism, an orthodox Islamic model.6

Boko Haram’s tactics evolved from targeted killings of village heads and informants, to provoking the military by attacking its personnel, to targeting media houses, journalists, and burning public schools. Kidnapping, however, seems to be among the group’s main tactics since 2012.7 Seen as newsworthy, kidnapping appears to be promotional as it is a means to raise money through ransom and do tradeoffs with the state. What is important to note about the kidnapping of the girls in Chibok, however, is that it exposed the weakness of the Nigerian state in protecting its citizens.8

Women’s and girls’ bodies have become a battlefield for both Boko Haram and the government. The government detained over one hundred Boko Haram families, mostly women and children, possibly to force the group to the negotiation table, and the Joint Task Force has been accused of raping and abusing women and girls.9

Although the abuse of women and girls is not unique to them, religion-based terrorist groups such as Boko Haram seem compelled to justify it through reference to tradition, reinforcing unequal and oppressive gendered relations by denying women access to education and modernity and returning them to the domestic sphere. At the same time, they both disrupt and use to their advantage stereotypes of gender relations—men as protectors, women as victims—by using women as suicide bombers in the hope they are less likely than men to be detected.

Instruments for Women, Peace, and Security (WPS)

The UN’s advocacy for women’s rights in conferences in Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995 and subsequent resolutions are all markers of progress in terms of greater awareness of the discourse and principles of international law regarding SGBV. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace, and security is particularly acclaimed for its attempt to address the disproportionate impact of armed conflict on women and its advocacy of women’s participation in peace and security structures and processes. Subsequent resolutions that have buttressed UNSCR 1325 include 1820, 1888, 1889 and 1960.

While these resolutions represent great milestones for WPS, conflicts such as that in northeastern Nigeria force one to question their effectiveness. Nigeria has acceded to them and is among the few countries with a national action plan in place to ensure implementation. Yet violence against women and children continues there unabated.

The problem is that these resolutions are not prioritized at the national level. Their emphasis on victimhood neglects a focus on those women who willingly join these movements, and their focus on participation is limited to state security services, excluding nonstate actors based on the assumption that state services are better able to protect women. Moreover, these resolutions largely ignore terrorism.

Furthermore, it has been variously pointed out that what is tolerated in peace and in the private sphere configures what takes place in conflict.10 The violence that pervades the everyday experiences of women in these societies is therefore not difficult to imagine. Our resolutions on gender, peace, and security must therefore be responsive to gender-based inequalities and violence not only in conflict, but in times of peace and post-conflict.

Conclusion

We need to deepen our understanding of the conditions that give rise to terrorism, to learn without stereotypes or prejudgment how terrorists represent themselves and their causes, and to ascertain the roles women play in terrorist organizations, beyond those of the sex slave and the suicide bomber. The glimpse into Boko Haram’s strategies shows the gendered contradictions at play and the need to nuance our analyses by teasing out the relationships between gender and religion, gender and ethnic or geographic identity, gender and race, and so on. The desire to provide easy instrumentalist answers of employing more women in counterterrorism programs will not resolve the challenges.

As we reflect on fifteen years of the implementation of UNSCR 1325, we also need to be aware of both its strengths and limitations. While useful for raising awareness on the need to protect women during conflict and enabling them to participate in the provision of security by state structures, it is dependent on the willingness of governments for implementation—which they have not prioritized before. UNSCR 1325 does not address gender power relations or violence in its totality, but abstracts them to a particular situation: women in conflict. Finally, it does not address the ways in which gender is being subverted and reinforced by extremist and/or fundamentalist organizations and women’s agency in these situations.

  1. Laura Smith-Spark, “How Did Rape Become a Weapon of War?” BBC News, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4078677.stm, accessed March 6, 2015.
  2. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Radhika Coomaraswamy, “Women are the Best Weapons in the War Against Terrorism,” Foreign Policy (2015), last accessed on March 6, 2015 at http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/10/women-are-the-best-weapon-in-the-war-against-terrorism/.
  3. Jane Huckerbey, “When Women become Terrorists,” The New York Times, January 21, 2015.
  4. Lindsay O’Rourke, “What is special about female suicide terrorism,” Security Studies Vol 18 (2009).
  5. Abimbola O. Adesoji, “Between Maitatsine and Boko Haram: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Response of the Nigerian State,” Africa Today 57 (2011): 98–119.
  6. Hakeem Onapajo and Ufo Okeke Uzodike, “Boko Haram Terrorism in Nigeria: Man, the State, and the International System,” African Security Review 21 (2012): 24–39.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Atta Barkindo, Benjamin Gudaku, and Caroline Wesley, "Our Bodies, Their Battleground Boko Haram and Gender-Based Violence against Christian Women and Children in North-Eastern Nigeria since 1999," Open Doors International, Netherlands (2013).
  9. Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson, "Women, Gender and the evolving tactics of Boko Haram," Journal of Terrorism Research 5, 1 (2014): 46-57.
  10. Carolyn Nordstrom, "Girls Behind the (Front) Lines,” Peace Review 8 (1996): 403–9.
About the Author

Cheryl Hendricks is a professor and head of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. She previously worked at the Institute for Security Studies first as program head for the Southern Africa Human Security Programme and then as senior research fellow in the Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division. She holds a PhD in government and international relations from the University of South Carolina and a Masters in southern African studies from the University of York, England. Her substantive knowledge areas include gender, peace, and security; security sector reform/security sector governance; and peacebuilding and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as Regional Security Architecture. Rachel Sittoni is a fellow at the African Leadership Centre’s (ALC) Fellowship Programme for African Scholars. She holds an MSc in security, leadership, and society from King’s College London and has a background in political science from the University of Nairobi. Before joining the fellowship, Rachel was a programs and research assistant at the ALC. Her research interests include women in governance, peace, and security; conflict early warning in Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa; and security sector reform in Africa.

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