Why the Chibok girls are a reminder radicalization doesn’t discriminate between genders

Some of the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in 2014 do not want to return home. Are some of them radicalized? Simon Palamar looks at what that means and why such a discussion is often avoided. 

By: /
October 27, 2016
Chibok girls
Some of the 21 Chibok schoolgirls released by Boko Haram are pictured during their visit to meet President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Nigeria October 19, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Earlier this month Boko Haram – the notorious militant group that has waged war against Nigeria’s government and civilians for seven years, killing some 20,000 people and displacing millions – released 21 hostages. These 21 girls were from a larger group of 276 that Boko Haram abducted from the northeastern town of Chibok in the spring of 2014.

Despite the minor victory for the Nigerian government in having these girls released, it now faces the daunting task of negotiating the release of another 83 girls. In doing so, it is faced with a unique challenge: around 100 of the girls do not want to leave Boko Haram. This raises the question: why do the girls want to stay?

Given the group’s well-deserved reputation for brutality, this is very perplexing. After all, Boko Haram kidnapped these young women, forcing some into marriage with its soldiers and others to become suicide bombers. With all this in mind, why then would a young girl opt to keep living in deplorable conditions, separated from her family, under the rule of violent thugs? 

The fear of being ostracized – the shame of being known as a “Boko bride” – certainly explains some of it. Chibok is, after all, a predominantly Christian town with a conservative culture in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria. Reintegrating into Christian Nigerian society might simply be too hard. 

Another uncomfortable yet more probable explanation is that some of these girls were radicalized during their time in captivity. 

The term “radicalized” is loaded. It tends to connote the idea that someone is brainwashed, that they are an unwitting victim of propaganda and that they then robotically “fall into” their new set of beliefs with little hope of being swayed otherwise. In the case of the Chibok girls, talking about radicalization and the idea that they have been corrupted by Boko Haram points to a major blind spot common to both Western and African societies: we still have a difficult time imagining that women would be willing or eager to join terrorist and militant groups and support or perpetrate acts of violence.

To paraphrase what one prominent East African scholar and policymaker once told me, “The people I work with cannot even imagine a female terrorist." And of course, you cannot stop that which you think does not exist. While modern terrorism is only a few decades old, women have been involved in it nearly that whole time.

In 1969, Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, made history as perhaps the first woman to ever hijack an airplane. Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers used women in combat roles. The early 2000s brought us the shahidkas (or Black Widows) of Chechnya: women who went on suicide missions against Russian civilians and armed forces. In 2002, Wafa Idris became the first (but not last) female Palestinian suicide bomber. Women have also joined guerilla and armed rebel movements around the world, often for similar reasons as men, such as economic, religious or ethnic grievances.

While women certainly engage in terrorism and participate in guerilla wars in smaller numbers than men, women are still more than capable of taking up arms and committing violence for political reasons. 

If we know that women join terrorist groups, we must then progress to asking, 'why?' The reasons are varied. Some, like Canadian Umm Haritha, joined ISIS in Syria because of a desire to live an “authentic” Muslim life. Others, like American Shannon Maureen Conley, wished to join ISIS because she was outraged at the slaughter of Muslims all over the world. Other girls and women have joined militant and terrorist groups for love, adventure, or to take up arms for a cause that they believe in and political goals that their preferred terrorist or militant groups support (such as the women who fight for Hezbollah). The range of reasons is as varied as the individual women, and in essence, they join these groups for many of the same reasons that boys and men do. Radical beliefs and action do not discriminate between men and women.

While some of the Chibok girls who want to stay with Boko Haram probably have been “radicalized” in the sense that they’ve been conditioned to support the group, some probably have made a conscious decision to stay, whether for personal reasons or because they have grown to sympathize with Boko Haram’s worldview.

We have no problem concluding that boys and young men might rationally decide to join a terror group. Girls and women can make that same choice, and they often do. While we are slowly waking up to this reality, moments like the release of these 21 schoolgirls provide an important reminder that in the struggle against radical militant movements and terrorist groups, we need to bury old gendered notions about men and women. 

Women choose to become terrorists, guerrillas and radicals. Ignoring that reality not only risks intelligence and catastrophic law enforcement failures, but also means that we are fundamentally failing to understand how terrorism and radical political violence have metastasized and become part of our world.