Nigeria’s schoolgirl rebellion

In the borderlands of Nigeria, school attendance for girls is as much an act of war against Boko Haram as picking up a gun.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

Boko Haram’s brutal campaign to eliminate all non-Islamic education for girls in Nigeria has had an interesting side effect. It has led to a remarkable surge in non-Islamic education for girls in Nigeria.

This is, on one hand, a result of unimaginable courage, as staff writer Ryan Brown beautifully shows in her cover story this week. In the borderlands of Nigeria, school attendance for girls is as much an act of war against Boko Haram as picking up a gun. After all, violence against Boko Haram simply forces it to slither into new locales and assume new forms. Education directly targets the foundations of ignorance and intolerance upon which Boko Haram is founded. The girls who are attending school know the risks. They have often seen the dangers of Boko Haram firsthand. But they are undaunted. “So just by doing this, we are all fighting them,” says one student. 

But this new thirst for education for girls in that part of Nigeria also goes beyond the girls themselves. One mother in Ryan’s story never went to school herself and never saw the value of an education for her daughters. But after Boko Haram attacked her village, her outlook changed. “Lack of education is the disease that caused [Boko Haram] in the first place,” she says.

Her revelation is the seed of something mighty and world-changing. As her initial ambivalence to education shows, milder forms of the idea behind Boko Haram have been percolating in Nigerian society for generations. Historically, most people haven’t put much value in educating girls. What Boko Haram did was show, in the most graphic way possible, where that line of thinking ultimately leads. It was a worst-case scenario – a view of women as little more than property, an embrace of horrific violence to maintain an unjust social order. It woke up many Nigerians.

That so often happens. Malevolent and immoral behavior is tolerated so long as it doesn’t stick its head out too far. We justify it, ignore it, or learn to live with it. But when Boko Haram shows the unattenuated form of those behaviors, it leads to a strong and effective backlash. In Syria and Iraq, the unspeakable acts of Islamic State were proportional to the speed of the terror group’s collapse.

In corresponding with me about her story, Ryan wrote, “I always find it striking the way that war warps people’s sense of what’s possible – at times in positive ways as well as negative ones.” The question is: How do we find a sense of possibility in times of peace – when regressive behaviors are more hidden and more accepted?

The best answer might come from the pink-hijab-wearing Nigerian girls. Now that they are enrolled in a school farther from the threat of Boko Haram, their war has become more mental. Each day, they choose to rebel against the claim that they can be intimidated, dehumanized, or robbed of the promise of their lives. That rebellion is not against Boko Haram alone, nor must it be confined to times of war. It is the seed of possibility for change in every time and place.

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