Changing her son’s nappy, a wry smile flickered across Aisha’s face as she recalled the power she wielded as the wife of a leading Boko Haram commander, living in the jihadists’ forest stronghold in northeast Nigeria. “I had many slaves – they did everything for me,” the 25-year-old said, explaining how women and girls kidnapped by the Islamist militants washed, cooked and babysat for her during the three years she spent in their base in the vast Sambisa forest.
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“Even the men respected me because I was Mamman Nur’s wife. They could not look me in the eye,” Aisha said in a state safe house in Maiduguri, where she has lived for almost a year since being captured by the Nigerian army in a raid in Sambisa.
Aisha is among around 70 women and children undergoing a deradicalisation programme – led by psychologists and Islamic teachers – designed to challenge the teachings they received and beliefs they adopted while under the control of Boko Haram.
Thousands of girls and women have been abducted by the group since it began its insurgency in 2009 – most notably the more than 200 Chibok girls snatched from their school in April 2014 – with many used as cooks, sex slaves, and even suicide bombers.
Yet some of these women, like Aisha, gained respect, influence and standing within Boko Haram, which has waged a bloody campaign to create an Islamic state in the northeast.
Seduced by this power, and relieved to escape the domestic drudgery of their everyday lives, these women can prove tougher than men to deradicalise and reintegrate into their communities, according to the Neem Foundation, which runs the programme.
With more women likely to be freed from Boko Haram or widowed as Nigeria’s military strives to defeat the militants, experts say insults, rejection and even violence towards them as they return to their communities could hinder efforts to repair the social fabric of a region splintered by Boko Haram.
“There is a possibility of violence (when these women go home) because they were married to Boko Haram militants,” Fatima Akilu, the head of Neem, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“There is still a lot of anger and resentment from communities that have been traumatised for years, and subjected to atrocities by the group,” she added.
While other women huddled around the communal television in the safe house in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, 22-year-old Halima recalled the ‘beautiful home’ built by her Boko Haram husband in the Sambisa, and the easy life she enjoyed.
Trucks arrived regularly with food and clothes, a hospital staffed with doctors and nurses tended to the ill, and Halima was given her own room in the house she shared with her husband.
“Anything I requested, I got,” said Halima, sitting under a tree in the yard and lazily picking her toenails.
Life in the Sambisa for women like Halima was a far cry from the deep-rooted patriarchy in the mainly Muslim northeast, where rates of child marriage, literacy among girls, and women in positions of power are far worse than in the rest of Nigeria.
The escape from reality, and taste of freedom and autonomy afforded to the wives of Boko Haram militants, highlights the challenge facing Neem to deradicalise the women.
Many are not ready to relinquish their newfound power. Despite being kidnapped by Boko Haram when they attacked her town of Banki four years ago, Aisha was not forced to marry Nur, the suspected mastermind of a suicide bomb attack on U.N. headquarters in Abuja in 2011 that killed 23 people.
Aisha was courted for months and showered with gifts by Nur, who has a $160,000 state bounty on his head, before agreeing to become his fourth wife. When she told Nur to divorce his second wife – because she did not like her – he did so right away. After arriving at the safe house, Aisha complained about being separated from Nur, and asked the staff how they would feel if they were suddenly deprived after years of regular sex.
“That’s when she threatened that she would soon rape one of the male staff,” said one of the support staff. “For almost two weeks, the men didn’t come to work … they were all afraid.”
The aim of Neem’s programme is to change the mindset of the women and girls, make them think more rationally, and challenge the beliefs instilled in them over several years by Boko Haram.
Neem employs psychologists who treat trauma and provide counselling, while Islamic teachers discuss religious and ideological beliefs, and challenge interpretations of the Koran.
The women and girls in the safe house were subjected to nine straight hours of Koranic teaching a day by Boko Haram during their time in captivity in the Sambisa forest, Akilu said.
“You can treat a person’s emotional state … but if you don’t change the way they think and just release them into society, you perpetrate a vicious cycle,” said Akilu, who used to run a state deradicalisation program for Boko Haram members.
Akilu said she had seen huge improvements over the past nine months in the women and girls in the safe house, with most now believing that the actions of their former husbands were wrong.
“I laugh at what he (Nur) was saying,” said Aisha. “I now realise that he is not doing the right thing.” However, with the nine-month-long deradicalisation programme drawing to a close, the staff at Neem were anxious about how the women and girls would be received upon their return home.
Female former Boko Haram captives, and their children born to the militants, often face mistrust and persecution from their communities, who fear they will radicalise others or carry out violence, said the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).
But Aisha is not worried about rejection or stigma. Her only fear is returning to an ordinary life – one without power. “Only when you get married to a rich man, or a man of authority, can you get that kind of power,” she said. “But if I am single yet have plenty of money of my own, I will be fine.”