Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses
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.»
«Life inside Boko haram isn’t so different from life outside boko haram for a 16-year-old girl in northern NIGERIA.»
Overall, the book is highly readable. Take the chapter devoted to the 276 girls Boko Haram kidnapped from a school in the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014. That event recently gained tragic actuality when 110 girls from the girls’ school in Daochi – 30 miles north of Chibok – were kidnapped on 19 February earlier this year. The chapter relates how #BringBackOurGirls became the most used hashtag in the history of Twitter with 2.3 million tweets in four weeks. But it also details how Boko Haram received widespread attention around the world and increased negotiating power. Some of the girls managed to escape, some were freed by the Nigerian military with the aid of Chadian troops, and some were released by Boko Haram in exchange for some of its imprisoned leaders. Fascinating and also depressing is the story of the ten freed Boko Haram girls who received student scholarships in the US, only to discover that the American schools used them as «poster girls» in their quest for wealthy donors. They felt as abused at US colleges as they had been in the hands of Boko Haram.
Matfess challenges the West’s image of Boko Haram – a terrorist organisation that kidnaps women to use them as sex slaves, birth machines or handmaids. She adds nuance to our perception by contextualising the images, holding them up against the condition of women in northern Nigeria generally: Four out of five girls of school age in the three northernmost states are illiterate; only four per cent have completed secondary school; one in two are married before the age of 16; marital rape isn’t considered rape; one in five thinks men have a moral right to beat their wife/wives if they don’t behave. This is the landscape in which Boko Haram operates. And the author interestingly concludes that Boko Haram has an ideology and a political stance that is «relatively female-friendly».
The book’s weakness is its final part, when the author expands on her own and the West’s outrage over the terrible plight of girls and women in northern Nigeria. The final three chapters outline the lessons learned and the road ahead. The descriptions of gender-based aid projects, demands for increased education for girls and safer routes to school come across as banal. By referring to Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which deals with empowering Western women, the book’s concluding remarks become those of a morally outraged American feminist speaking on behalf of all girls in northern Nigeria. That is a pity, for Matfess does a good job of painting a more nuanced picture of Boko Haram in the book’s first half.