Growing up, Emem Thomas’s strong body was not the kind that was commonly admired in the city of Uyo, southern Nigeria.
The snarky remarks shook her confidence and natural affability, but one day she claimed her niche and founded the Dragon Squad Limited, a team of strong women bouncers who are shattering stereotypes.
“I love what I see dragons do in movies,” the 37-year-old says. “They are also a symbol of power and protection.”
In business since 2018, Thomas only employs women with a certain body build, creating a safe space for strong, plus-size women to excel in a traditionally male-dominated field.
The 43 Dragons have worked security at about 2,000 events including house parties, funerals, political rallies and club nights.
“People expect us to be in the kitchen or probably doing makeup and other feminine roles, but joining this squad has really enlightened me,” said Peace Vigorous, the youngest of the crew at 23 years old.
Thomas leads her Dragons through gruelling fitness sessions – the women have acquired skills, strength and, most importantly for Thomas, confidence.
“Most of them… were always shy. They couldn’t talk,” she said, noting that she too used to be introverted because of her weight.
But her newfound confidence has transformed her social and family life with her two children. She no longer considers herself an introvert or shies away from events.
Public behaviour such as standing in front of a crowd and giving orders can be particularly challenging for women used to avoiding the public eye.
“Face the crowd and be yourself,” Thomas tells them when they falter. “You are supposed to be seen and known.”
“I see no reason why women (should not be) given a chance,” she says. She believes female bouncers “have a way of taking off danger” by listening to troublemakers and victims in a way that most men do not have patience for.
But not all is smooth sailing for the Dragons, In addition to walkie-talkies, boots and dark glasses, the bouncers carry pepper spray.
The risk of being molested on the job is “always something we have in mind”, said Thomas, as is the likelihood of “men looking down on us”.
Gender violence is rife in Nigeria, which has one of the world’s highest rates of sexual assault. Armed groups in the north are renowned for kidnapping girls and women and trafficking them into sex work and forced labour.
For Thomas, change comes with “breaking the barrier” to show what women bring to all sectors of society.