Spotlight on CIVICA Researcher: Husseina Ahmed


Husseina Ahmed is a PhD researcher in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.

Her research is focused on examining the neglected aspects of the Boko-Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s North-East region. In particular, she explores the ways in which northern Nigerian women’s lived experiences of conflict and survival coincide with or diverge from the ways that they are constructed in scholarly and media coverage of the insurgency. 

Husseina wanted to highlight the invisibility of northern Nigerian women, tracing the erasure and misunderstanding of their voices and agency in the public sphere. Through her research, she explored the role that media plays during conflict reporting in representing, misrepresenting and enabling or impeding different forms of agency in the lives of northern Nigerian women. This helps to highlight how northern Nigerian women, who are victim-survivors of the insurgency, express agency within the context of violent conflict and displacement.

Husseina discussed her research with us and what conclusions she’s come to.

Why did you decide to pursue this research?

I arrived at my research topic as a result of an intersection of various factors: my identity as a northern Nigerian woman from the North-east, the invisibility of northern Nigerian women in scholarly research, my experiences and observations while conducting fieldwork in the North-east, and my scholarly interests in the politics of knowledge production, media, gender, and development.

Prior to starting my PhD, my role as a researcher for a government organisation in Nigeria involved frequent trips to different parts of the region. Through my interactions with women experiencing violent displacement and trying to rebuild their lives, I noticed discrepancies between the complexities of their lived realities and the media coverage of their experiences, as well as the narratives upon which intervention programs were built.

The dominant media discourses and narratives about women victim-survivors of the conflict, as I argue throughout my thesis, are almost always framed by simplistic and essentialist gender definitions, associating them with a perpetual state of victimhood and vulnerability. This reductionist label led me to conclude that there has been a lack of critical investigative reporting on the conflict. The current focus remains mainly on the ‘spectacular’ aspects of the conflict, ignoring its nuanced complexities to disastrous effect. Furthermore, global media attention to the insurgency, specifically Boko Haram’s tactic of kidnapping and using girls and women as forced brides and suicide bombers, has spurred global discussions and debates on the nature, role, and agency of northern Nigerian women. I have argued that these discourses are usually steeped in a dominant Western feminist framework, infused with orientalist and colonial perspectives that reinforce the image of ‘third-world women’ as lacking agency.

Can you tell us something interesting you’ve learned from your results?

One of the most interesting things that emerged from my research is the active participation of (some) women in the very systems (such as Purdah; which is a system where women live in complete or partial seclusion) that oppress them for the advantages it affords (or afforded) them in particular moments. This highlights the complexity of the status of women in society. Northern Nigerian women are not a homogenous category, as interests among women vary, and individual women are often pulled in contrary directions by their own experiences and choices. These contradictions highlight that women are sometimes complicit in structures and institutions that are still fundamental to defining gender norms in the region, but it also highlights the complexities inherent in gendered agency.

What conclusions has your research led you to?

The primary goal of the fieldwork was to understand how northern Nigerian women’s reflections on the impact of conflict complicate and extend scholarly views on gender, feminism, and agency:

  • Diverse responses: Northern Nigerian women have shown varied responses to their experiences of conflict and violent displacement, creating multiple subjectivities. These range from conforming to hegemonic representations to opposing them, often overlapping with identities defined by ethnicity, class, age, and religion.
  • Complexities of gendered agency: I argue that, as evidence of the complexity of their agency, northern Nigerian women sometimes embrace practices and structures that subordinate them, and this cannot be denied as agentic, just because they may not be seen as ‘progressive’ within dominant feminist frameworks. This highlights the complexities and contradictions of gendered agency.
  • Media Practices as agency: Displaced women’s media practices reflect their agency as audiences. They often reject media representations of their experiences, which are often misrepresented or sensationalised by global and local media. This refusal and contestation highlight their audience power.
  • Lack of critical coverage: Both media and development work overlook significant aspects of the insurgency, focusing on surface-level issues. This has also fuelled misleading tropes about the ‘cultural’ and ‘primitive’ (as opposed to political and modern) nature of this conflict, the fixity of gender and the absence of agency amongst women in northern Nigeria.
  • Community mobilisation as collective agency: Despite numerous challenges, women continuously mobilise and support each other, as seen in communal activities like adashe (a local savings scheme) and collective purchasing for ceremonies. These actions rebuild community fabric and demonstrate collective agency, helping them navigate the constraints of conflict and displacement.

Article credits: Dania Abu-Sharkh.

Photo credits: Husseina Ahmed.