A new study finds that the Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group Boko Haram has begun to recruit women as well as men. Though not allowed the same liberty to engage in jihad as men are, the desperate poverty many Muslim women find themselves in make the Boko Haram lifestyle and attractive alternative.
The study, published by the International Crisis Group (ICG), finds that Boko Haram offered some Muslim women “financial empowerment” if they married a jihadist and did not protest to a life under strict Sharia law.
The Islamic State affiliate also emphasizes the need for women to study the Quran and learn to read and write Arabic. “With patriarchy, poverty, corruption, early marriage and illiteracy long thwarting their life chances, some women saw an opportunity in Boko Haram to advance their freedoms or reduce their hardship,” the report reads. “Many valued the religious and moral anchoring.”
The report cites numerous examples of men handing over their daughters to the terrorist group voluntarily, as well as interviews in which wives of jihadis said they lived more comfortably with the money their husband raked in from terrorism.
“The sect values Quranic education for women so they can take part in the religious community and obey its rules,” the ICG report adds. “Some women joined because they found this attractive and were eager to ‘acquire knowledge, to memorise the Quran and to learn about Islam more deeply … [all] unique opportunities.’”
“For some women trapped in domestic life, Boko Haram offers an escape,” Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director for the ICG, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the report. Depagne credited “a huge abyss of desperation among women… and a failure of society in the northeast” for the fact that many women in the region have decided to join Boko Haram or have considered it a viable alternative to their current quality of life.
Women displaced by Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks are even more at risk for joining the group, as the government has failed to provide them with a viable alternative to the Boko Haram lifestyle.
A report published in September found that Nigerian soldiers often raped women and girls in the country’s biggest camp for Boko Haram refugees. Those who did not rape would force women into a sexual relationship by trading food for sex. Others still would enamor refugee girls will romantic stories, only to abandon them once they became pregnant. In November, Abuja responded to the allegations by placing female guards in the most sensitive posts of Borno’s refugee camps.
Women liberated from Boko Haram after spending time as captives face unique challenges to reintegrating into their communities, as well. “Some women, believed to have joined Boko Haram voluntarily, are seen as deserving of the brutal treatment they received. Some communities shun them, worried about the contagion of radicalization in their midst,” the Associated Press reported in April.
Many of these women are shunned due to fears that they may be brainwashed and plotting a suicide bombing, as Boko Haram has made liberal use of women and girls in this way. They struggle to find ways to make money, and starting a family with a husband outside of Boko Haram is nearly impossible.
Compounding the problem is the fact that Boko Haram openly forces their captives into brainwashing Quranic courses, including many girls who are too young to understand what is happening to them as they are radicalized. The threat that communities in northern Nigeria face is real.
In contrast, Boko Haram prizes women and young girls as psychological weapons against civilians, suicide bombers few would have identified as a threat before Boko Haram made a habit of using them in this way. Women are also often responsible for keeping fighters fed and looking over others, particularly children, whom the terrorist organization has abducted.
These attitudes are also a product of the fundamentalist tint that Islam has developed in northern Nigeria. The report notes that Salafist ideology is increasingly popular in states like Borno, where Boko Haram was founded, and Muslims there have rejected proposed bills against child marriage and other behaviors imposed by Sharia.
Reuters notes that women who choose to join Boko Haram are often more difficult to de-radicalize than their male counterparts, largely because their decision to join the group was a product of how limited their experiences in northern Nigerian Muslim society were before joining the group. “For those women who chose to join Boko Haram, the power and freedom afforded to them means they are far more difficult than men to de-radicalise and reintegrate into their communities, according to Nigerian psychologist Fatima Akilu,” Reuters reports.