Boko Halal: A Counter-Narrative to Boko Haram

I was born and grew up in Diffa, a small city in southeastern Niger, West Africa, in the early 1960s and 1970s. On Feb. 7, 2015, Boko Haram attacked my hometown. Family and friends scattered. Some fled to Niamey, Niger’s capital city, almost 1,000 miles west. They have been told they can return, but continued attacks made this unwise.

If I had been born some 40 years later and some 100 miles to the south, I might have been taken by Boko Haram in their infamous kidnappings in Nigeria’s border state. I might have been sold as a slave, married off in my early teens, or had a bomb strapped to my chest for a suicide mission — although the distinction among these fates is nominal.

When I was growing up, my parents wrestled with traditional and cultural pressures that said girls should marry in their early teen years, rather than studying. I was the eldest daughter. My mother contacted my uncle, who was studying public administration in Ottawa, Canada, to share the family’s concerns. I was lucky; my uncle returned to Niger with his degree, and I, at age 12, went to live with his family in Zinder, over 250 miles west of Diffa, to pursue my education. That is part of the reasons you are reading my story today.

Niger’s government, with the support of multilateral organizations, has done much to advance girls’ schooling. Yet, much more remains to be done in a nation where the literacy rate for young adult women is half that of young men, and the overall illiteracy rate is still high. I am very privileged and grateful for the opportunities I have had to pursue my education due to Niger’s policy of universal primary education as well as Great Britain and U.S.’s support for my post-secondary study. As a doctoral student at Kent State University, I focused on girls’ schooling and gender gap in educational outcomes in Niger for my dissertation. I could have picked any topic, but this one was dear to me. It felt good to do something and give back.

But in examining some hard realities, I am led to say scholarship is not enough. My mother was chair of the regional chapter of Women’s Association of Diffa for at least two decades. Before she passed in 2011, I told her about my intention and passion to found an NGO to aid the women’s group she led. Although she did not live to see this far-reaching effect of her decision to support my education by sending me to live with my uncle, our organization has now been granted formal not-for-profit standing after four years of collaborative effort with faculty and staff at Niagara University. The mission of the Global Network for Niger is “to empower girls and women of Niger for a sustainable future” in a Sahelian environment.

Why is Boko Haram in Diffa? First, the city is within walking distance of the Nigerian border to the south — about as far away as Niagara Falls, N.Y., is from Niagara Falls, Ontario, right across the gorge.

Boko Haram has used suicide bombing attacks across northern Nigeria. People from these areas have fled to the region of Diffa, especially to its state capital. Since November 2014, the city’s population of nearly 50,000 has more than doubled; hence, the urgency to create refugee camps across the state. Many families, including my own, have taken relatives and strangers as refugees into their homes.

Boko Haram, now allied with the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS), exploits an extremist perspective of Islam, bolstered by traditional and rural perspectives that girls are to be married as children. The belief is a reaction against the post-colonial legacy of Western education in Africa. The word “Boko” in the Hausa language means “Western education”; and “Haram” in Arabic means illegal, prohibited. The phrase means Western education is unlawful, illegal, prohibited.

What is the real end game? Oil? Probably. Diffa is located strategically in an oil-rich area of Niger. The loosely organized coalition of fundamentalists presents themselves as purifiers of religion and culture. They can recruit childsoldiers with thinly disguised bribes, including cash and girls, in the expectation of controlling a lucrative natural resource. If the girls’ parents object, they are expendable.

The president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, has declared that nobody attacks Niger with impunity. The FDS Army of Niger, backed by the special forces of France, Canada, and the U.S., successfully repelled Boko Haram back into Nigeria, secured the bridge, and are now investigating. Over 160 recruits are undergoing interrogation. Five people in my community are dead; at least 15 are wounded. Sporadic attacks continue further east in communities bordering both Nigeria and Chad. The official number has not yet been disclosed.

“Boko Halal” is my counter-narrative to this ongoing threat. “Halal” (in Arabic) means legal, lawful, and permissible, just the opposite of “Haram.” The objectives of my counter-narrative include identifying and supporting programs and actions that advance girls’ education and female literacy, protect the dignity of refugees, and contribute to an interfaith dialogue.

There are so many reasons I am impelled to establish this counter-narrative: Human dignity must be preserved; the constitution of Niger proclaims that my country is a secular, democratic, and social republic; I am an educator; it is a right for all children to be educated, girls as well as boys. I can remember that many of my peers were not able to pursue their education as I was. As their hatred extends to other faiths, my immediate family is Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. I care for and respect them all.