Review: Boko Haram Huntress (Al-Jazeera)

Can we have a figure of the warrior, the hunter, the hero in the feminine, who is not also always incited to an apology for her perceived masculinity? Are we so unwilling to imagine the figure of the warrior, the hunter, the hero in the female form except where she emerges and exists in the marginal, as ‘pseudo-male’, always in some dialogic exchange with a phantasied feminine potential that ‘lurks’ within? And is there really no register for the female warrior, hunter, hero that is not hinged to the binary terms of ‘pseudo-male’ or ‘traditionally’[1] female?

These are the questions that take up airtime in my mind after watching Al-Jazeera’s ‘Witness’ documentary ‘Aisha: Boko Haram Huntress’ published 12th April. A kind of cropped biopic, the documentary by British-Nigerian filmmaker Rosie Collyer, follows the story of Aisha Bakari Gombi, one of the few women enlisted by the Nigerian army to ‘hunt’ Boko Haram fighters and free kidnapped women and children. It is both a specular and, indeed, spectacular story of a hijab-clad black woman saving the world, one ‘Islamist terrorist’[2] at a time.

We are first introduced to Aisha in conversation with fellow hunters somewhere in the arid lands of the Sambisa Forest in North Eastern Nigeria. Towering at what we are told is 6 feet tall, she embodies and exudes power and prowess, the rifle casually slung over her shoulder a mere accessory to the potential for danger personified wholly at the site of her body. It is rare to find the kinds of images we get here of not just strong, but powerful black Muslim women. Hers is an important story that needs telling and re-telling ad infinitum – not simply for the work that it does to deliver us a real-life Nakia or General Okoye,[3] but importantly too for what it does to centre the narrative of the local in a war that has been too often (and conveniently) co-opted by ‘the global.’

Yet I cannot help but wonder, or rather question, the gendered (and racialised) terms to which this story appeals such that, at the end of the twenty-five minutes of film, I am impelled to celebrate not the fact that Aisha might have gone on to capture Bula Yaga (the regional Boko Haram leader who is both the arc of the story and Aisha’s pursuit), but that she went on, finally, to conceive a child – alas a (primordial) reminder of her unquestionable woman-ness.

Of course, I am not suggesting here that being a warrior, hunter, hero precludes – or should preclude – her from pursuing motherhood and ‘family life’, or that the two are somehow mutually exclusive (representations of the heroine across time and space and popular culture indeed attest otherwise). What I am trying to problematise instead is the representation of her story here (as hunter) as welded to a narrative of ‘defective’ femininity – qua her upbringing ‘as a boy’ in a girl among brothers; her claim to have ‘inherited’ hunting from her father (as opposed to ‘choosing’ it); and her inability to conceive and bear children (that resulted in the termination of her first marriage). It is this latter narrative that functions to create a bitter subtext of her role as hunter as incidental to the fact that she was raised as ‘pseudo-male,’ a subject position concretised by her inability to have children. That the depiction of Aisha in these terms of lack inversely makes pernicious appeals to the racialised stereotype of black women’s ‘hyper-fertility’ in order to produce her as ‘defective’ woman, however, is certainly not incidental.

While it is true that we are explicitly reminded throughout the documentary of Aisha’s woman-ness through the accounts of various men (her husband, local news presenters, her commanders) who are quick to invoke tropes of subservience and repression that would otherwise structure ‘normal’ women’s lives, it is Aisha’s incitement to a gendered discourse of imaging the female-as-maternal body – as giver, not taker, of life – that garners my suspicion of the work of the documentary. The story is inflected by the paradox of her woman-ness, where on the one hand, although she laments being childless, she finds herself still able to sympathise with the pain of women who were forced to leave children behind in escaping Boko Haram (through a presumably inherent ‘maternal instinct’):

‘The bond between a mother and child is strong, and although I don’t have children of my own, I can imagine how painful it must have been for that woman not to be able to rescue all of her children.’

Whilst on the other hand, she is constructed as quasi-male by the fact that she is a hunter:

‘They see me as a woman and they try to gain my sympathy. That is why they approach me thinking I will understand. But they do not know that I am a woman with a man’s heart.’

But why can’t she be both woman and hunter, without at once having to make appeals to the ‘masculine’ ideal to establish herself as hunter, whilst also apologising for her ‘defective’ woman-ness through longing for the maternal ideal in order to establish herself as, still, essentially woman?

The fact that these appeals appear through Aisha’s own voice in the documentary further point not only to the gendered dichotomy of destroyer/fighter/killer versus creator/healer/nurturer (pervasive to popular constructions of the hero and heroine respectively), but more importantly to the gendered and racialised performativity by which she is imaged and her subjectivity constructed.

Collyer informs us in the text supplementing the documentary that Aisha is not fairly compensated for her work, both financially and in terms of the resources she requires to do the work. Yet we never actually hear of this in the documentary. We also get to see other women hunters who work with Aisha, but their voices too never surface in the documentary. I cannot help but wonder whether, by the very fact of her visibility as a woman, she can only ever be interpellated into discourses that are prefaced by, and occur at, the site of her body (and all the naturalising assumptions that go along with that). Thinking back to the initial questions that spurred my musings here, perhaps we really are that unwilling to imagine the figure of the ‘queen hunter’ except in a phantasy of apologetic excess…



[1] By traditional I mean the female performative that engenders an essentialising nature to ‘feminine’ comportment.

[2] While I am no apologist for the horrendous actions of Boko Haram, I use scare quotes here to invoke a more nuanced and historicised reading that accounts for the histories of colonisation, geopolitics and economics of the context in which this story emerges.

[3] Fictional female warriors of Wakanda, who rescue young Nigerian women kidnapped by Boko Haram in the opening scene of the film Black Panther (2018).

Sumaiya studies Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. She currently works with The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) in a research support role, and has previously worked on research projects with refugee-background and Aboriginal women across Victoria. She works, studies and lives in Narrm/Melbourne.

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