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Female Suicide Bombers in Nigeria: How Did We Get Here?

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter:  @farooqkperogi We seem to hit new, undreamed-of lows every day in Nigeria. We have graduated f...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

We seem to hit new, undreamed-of lows every day in Nigeria. We have graduated from thinking that suicide bombing was outside the realm of possibility in Nigeria to accepting that some men can be seduced by the lure of 72 heavenly virgins to take their own and others’ lives. Now we’re confronted with the brand new scourge of female suicide bombers. How did we get here?

Let’s look at the chronology. On December 25, 2009 when news first got out that a Nigerian (who turned out to be one Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) attempted to explode a bomb concealed in his underwear while on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, Nigerians—whether they were Muslims or Christians, northerners or southerners— were unanimous in claiming, with cocksure certitude, that Abdulmutallab couldn’t possibly be a Nigerian. They said Nigerians cherish life too much to waste it in the service of an ideology, any ideology.

To a large extent, they were right. Up until December 25, 2009, there had been no record of any Nigerian involvement in any suicide murder (attempt) of any scale. In fact, suicides of any kind were rare in Nigeria—rarer, certainly, than in America and Europe.  That was why when it later emerged that Abdulmutallab was indeed a full-blooded Nigerian— and the scion of a prominent and illustrious Nigerian at that—a lot of people explained away his suicidal inclination by calling attention to the fact of his largely non-Nigerian upbringing: he went to a British secondary school in Lome, Togo, was radicalized in Britain when he studied for an engineering degree at the University College in London, and was indoctrinated with poisonous bouts of terroristic ideology by al-Qaida operatives when he studied Arabic at the San'a Institute for the Arabic Language in Sana'a, Yemen. 
A female suicide bomber
So Nigerians basically dismissed Abdulmutallab and his attempted suicide bombing (that would have killed nearly 300 people) as British and Yemeni problems. And then we tranquilized ourselves into a false sense of security and freedom from suicide mass murders—until, years later, Boko Haram jolted us back to reality with its bewilderingly unimaginable mass murders through suicide bombers.

Just when we’re about to come to terms with the reality of the existence of homicidally deluded and sexually repressed male Nigerian suicide bombers who’d kill for a chance to go on a permanent celestial flight to meet scores of wide-eyed, luscious, heavenly virgins, we’re hit by a scarier, more insidious, and less well-known quandary: female suicide bombers. (For the record, there is nowhere in the Qur’an that 72 virgins are mentioned—much less promised as rewards to “martyrs.”)

At the last count, at least 4 female suicide bombers have been reported to cause the murder of scores of people in Kano during the last week of July. 

What could possibly be the motivation for a woman, a Nigerian woman, to choose to be a suicide bomber? As far as I’m aware, there is no prurient, hedonistic heavenly reward for female “martyrs” in even the fringiest Islamic literature. (Although the Qur’an makes no mention of 72 virgins, some weak, questionable hadiths do. But I know of no hadith, however weak, that even advocates, much less give grounds for expectation of reward for, female “martyrdom”). So that is out of the question.

Feelings of deep hurt and hopelessness can actuate some people to feel that any place is better than this world and thus cause them to terminate their own and others’ lives. It’s difficult to relate this feeling to northern Nigerian females. Women in northern Nigeria are some of the most sheltered women in the world that I know. Even the poorest northern Nigerian parents give up everything to overprotect their female children. While male kids from poor homes can be thrown to the streets, often under the pretext of acquisition of Islamic education, to fend for themselves, female children, for the most part, are often featherbedded.  I simply can’t conceive of any reason why a woman of northern Nigerian origin would feel so hurt and so hopeless to the point of turning herself into a suicide bomber. Maybe I’m being naïve. 

But what do we know about female suicide bombers from other parts of the world that might give us a clue about the nascent female bombers in Nigeria? One of the most comprehensive accounts of female bombers that I’ve read is a 75-page US Army report titled “Female Suicide Bombers.” It was published in January 2011 and can be downloaded here ).  The report says, among other things, that women constitute only 15 percent of suicide bombers worldwide.  Of this 15 percent, 20 percent attacked  “specific individuals,” not a random mass of people, often because they are "grieving the loss of family members [and] seeking revenge against those they feel are responsible for the loss, unable to produce children, [and/or] dishonored through sexual indiscretion."  

Rutgers University professor Julie Rajan’s insightful 2011 book titled Women Suicide Bombers: Narratives of Silence also tells us that female suicide bombers are often less animated by political and ideological motives than their male counterparts. Based on these insights, is it safe to assume that the Kano female suicide bombers are the disenchanted widows of male suspects who had been killed in the spate of extra-judicial murders that Nigerian security forces occasionally carry out—such as the recent murder of defenseless and unarmed Shiite protesters in Zaria? It’s hard to tell.

Some Nigerian social media commentators also suggest that the female suicide bombers may be some of the Chibok girls who were abducted by Boko Haram several weeks ago. They say the girls may have been brainwashed, drugged, and unleashed to further Boko Haram’s terror campaign. This seems to me rather far-fetched, but you never know.

But how about the possibility that the so-called female suicide bombers might actually be male Boko Haram homicidal maniacs who masqueraded as women to deflect attention? After all, the suspect arrested in connection with the attempted assassination of General Muhammadu Buhari (I hope it’s not one of those made-up “suspects”) was attired in traditional female clothes. Had he succeeded and died in the process, he would have been added to the list of female suicide mass murderers. 
Nigerian police say this man dressed as a woman is a suspect in the assassination attempt on General Buhari

That’s why I support the (Nigerian) Human Rights Writers’ Association (HURIWA)’s suggestion that the Nigerian government carry out a DNA test of the dead female suicide bombers in Kano to determine their exact identities. 

Whatever happens, we have entered a frightening new phase in the fight against terrorism in Nigeria.

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