The Female Body As A Weapon Of Terror: Boko Haram’s Feminization Of Suicide Bombing

A historical timeline of Boko Haram (now known as the Islamic State West Africa) by the BBC states that the terrorist organization began its military operations in 2009. This military offensive was asserted through a sequence of attacks targeting police stations and government buildings. Its continued military aggression led to the United States declaring the group a Terrorist Organization in 2013. An interview of escaped Boko Haram captives by the Guardian on May 5, 2017 revealed the group’s use of captured girls as suicide bombers.

During the interview, “Nadia,” one of the escapees, divulged the gruesome details of her time as a Boko Haram captive. In her account of the happenings surrounding the day of her escape, she stated that she awoke “to find her body strapped with explosives after being drugged” the previous night. It is her belief that this was done to get rid of her after she refused to be married to one of the group’s commanders. Nadia and two other girls were put on motorbikes by the commander’s men, who then left the girls in Gamboro, a town in Borno State, with the intention of having the girls find a large crowd where they would proceed to detonate the explosives attached to them. Fearing for their lives, the girls approached a checkpoint run by the Civilian Joint Taskforce (CJTF), a paramilitary group fighting Boko Haram in North-East Nigeria, where they lifted their veils, showing the men manning the checkpoint the bombs they had been forced to carry. The military was then called to remove the bombs from their bodies.

According to a UNICEF report, Boko Haram has used 27 young girls to carry out suicide bomb attacks in the first three months of 2017. The report further states that 114 children have been used in suicide attacks since 2014, 80% of whom were girls. It is reported that girls as young as seven years old have been used in these attacks. According to the Long War Journal, Boko Haram’s first execution of this form of aggression was during an attack on June  8, 2014 near the military barracks in Gombe, which left one police officer dead after a woman on a motorcycle blew herself up.

The use of women and girls in such attacks by terrorist organizations is not a contemporary issue in humanitarian and international security crisis. Sinem Cengiz of ArabNews states that Sana’a Mehaidli, an 18-year-old member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, was the first ever female suicide bomber. On April 9, 1985, during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, Sana’a explosives, which were attached to her, detonated and “[blew] up a truck full of explosives next to an Israeli convoy” in the process. At the time, employing women, who were perceived as vulnerable individuals in constant need of society’s protection, as agents of terrorism came as a great shock to the international community. Since then female suicide bombers have become an increasingly common phenomenon in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North and West Africa.

As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stated in her speech to the American Bar Association in 1985, “Terrorists depend upon the oxygen of publicity and their acts are often staged for a public audience with the intent of amplifying the effect of that fear.” Nothing is more pivotal to the achievement of the propagation of fear than the use of women, particularly young girls, as suicide bombers. The categorization of women as the weaker sex attaches a societal revulsion to anything that would cause them harm. Their use as suicide bombers, therefore, yields monumental shock value, which works to the advantage of the terrorist organizations.

There are various reasons why terrorist organizations use women as suicide bombers. Some of the rationales given are as follows: in most of these societies women are not seen as being as valuable as men, they are classed as second-tier citizens and are therefore easily expendable; women are searched less stringently and can hide explosives better under their traditional garments such as the burqa and the abaya; finally, using female suicide bombers garners more media attention.

As a counter-measure, on December 18, 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, along with other heads of state and the government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), called for a ban on all dress codes that tend to hide people’s identity. This is a measure that has been frowned upon by the Muslim community in Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. A ruling by the Lagos Court of Appeal in July 2016 termed the banning of Hijabs in government schools as a violation of the rights of Muslim girls.

Fr. John Sawicki, a Political Science scholar, posits that women who voluntarily choose to be suicide bombers do so for reasons such as demonstrating dedication to the cause, as their performance of such a violent act may have riveting effects on male fighters; achieving important gains for their family, as the theatrics that come with the suicide attack and the public funeral that follows can elevate the status of the woman’s family in her community; gaining celebrity since suicide bomb attacks are recorded, memorialized and posted on the internet as recruiting tools, these attacks are believed to appeal to individuals wishing to escape their lives of notoriety, and battling against the humiliation of the target’s oppression by using suicide bombing as a way of striking against combatants or troops that have invaded their villages or countries.

Studies have supported the claim that more often than not female suicide bombers are not willing participants. Terrorist organizations employ a myriad of tactics such as rape, familial pressure and threats of force to coerce women and girls into suicide bombing. ArabNews reports that in 2009 an Iraqi woman named Samira Ahmed Jassim was arrested for recruiting female suicide bombers by having them raped and persuading them that martyrdom was the only way that they could escape the shame. She is believed to have been responsible for the rape of 80 young Iraqi women and the death of 28.

Though there is no novelty in Boko Haram’s actions regarding threats to international security, their increased use of female suicide bombers leaves us with much to worry about. As a society, we must also ask ourselves what role we have played in the exposure of young women and girls to such atrocities and, in finding our answers, prevent their continued use as agents of terrorism in the future.