During the past three years, Hilary Matfess has interviewed a number of women who have been freed from Boko Haram captivity in northern Nigeria. She challenges the reader to take a more nuanced view of the group.
On Saturday morning on July 11, 2015, a male Boko Haram member disguised himself as a respectable-looking woman in a burka. He made his way to «Le Grand Marché» in Chad’s capital N’Djamena before blowing himself up – killing 15 people and wounding 80.
I am in N’Djamena as I’m reading Matfess’ book on Boko Haram and the role women play within the organisation. At the city’s big market the suicide bomber has left no visible traces. Things proceed normally. The security measures put into effect in Chad have worked: Ten of the men responsible for the bombing were summarily sentenced to death and shot on August 28, 2015. Chad has subsequently used the fight against Boko Haram as the justification for increasing the military’s presence and for continuously controlling the capital’s inhabitants.
Over the past three years Hilary Matfess – a young PhD student at the University of Yale – has interviewed a number of women living in protected camps in northern Nigeria after having been liberated from Boko Haram captivity by the Nigerian army. Many of the girls, however, state that they joined Boko Haram voluntarily: It was their only means of getting away from home. One out of five households in northern Nigeria consist of nine people or more. Bride-buying remains a common tradition, but young men rarely have enough cattle or money to pay for the bride. In most cases, the young girls are married off to wealthy, elderly, polygamous men.
Girls who join Boko Haram of their own volition often cite their fears of such «forced marriages» as the main reason for volunteering. Boko Haram has established earmarked funds to pay the bridal price directly to the girls, which means that they can get a husband closer to their own age. Moreover, educating girls is an important priority for the group – they admittedly focus on Quran studies, but the girls nevertheless receive basic training in reading and writing. Boko Haram bans girls and women from working in agriculture. One of the reasons behind the ban is that the work is too demanding, another is that girls should stay at home, within the confines of the courtyard, be covered up and not wander among people (that is, among men). Some of the girls told Matfess that this made their everyday lives much simpler: They could focus their attention on housework, childbirths and childrearing without having to exhaust themselves in the heat of the fields all day. In contrast to the Western perception of Boko Haram as a terrorist group composed of oppressors of women, Matfess claims that «life inside Boko Haram is not so different from life outside Boko Haram for a 16-year-old girl in northern Nigeria.»
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