Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses
Author: Hilary Matfess
Publisher: Yale University Press, USA
Saturday morning, July 11th, 2015, a male Boko Haram supporter disguised himself as a respectable lady in a burqa. He made his way to «Le Grand Marché» in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena and detonated himself. Fifteen random people were killed, and 80 were injured.
I am in N’Djamena when I read Matfess’ book about Boko Haram and the role of women in the group. There are no visible signs of the suicide bomber at the city’s large market. Everything is going on as usual. The security measures in Chad have been effective: ten of the men behind the suicide bombing were summarily sentenced to death and executed on August 28th, 2015. Since then, Chad has used the fight against Boko Haram as a justification to increase its military presence and continuously monitor the residents of N’Djamena.
Hilary Matfess, a young doctoral student at Yale (US), has interviewed a number of women living in protected camps in Northern Nigeria for the past three years after being liberated from Boko Haram by the Nigerian military. However, several of the girls voluntarily joined Boko Haram as it was the only way to escape their homes. One out of every five households in Northern Nigeria consists of nine or more people. Bride price is a common tradition, but young men rarely have enough cattle or money to pay for a bride. It is usually rich, old, and polygamous men who take young girls as wives. Girls who voluntarily join Boko Haram often cite the fear of such «forced marriages» as the main reason for joining the group. Boko Haram has established its own funds to directly pay the bride price to the girls, allowing them to marry someone closer to their own age.
Moreover, education for girls is important to the group, albeit with a focus on Quranic studies, they still receive basic education in reading and writing. Boko Haram prohibits girls and women from working in agriculture. One of the reasons for this is that it is considered physically demanding work, and another is to keep girls at home, inside the courtyard, covered, and not wandering among people (i.e., men). Some girls told Matfess that this made their daily lives much easier as they could focus on household chores, childbirth, and child-rearing without exhausting themselves from working in the fields all day. Contrary to the Western perception of Boko Haram as a terrorist group consisting of female oppressors, Matfess argues 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 is not so different from life outside Boko Haram for a 16-year-old girl in Northern Nigeria.»
The book is overall very informative. For instance, the chapter dedicated to the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram from a school in Chibok on April 14th, 2014. This event recently became tragically relevant when 110 students from the girls’ school in Dapchi, 300 kilometres north of Chibok, were kidnapped on February 19th. The chapter recounts how bringbackourgirls became the most-used hashtag on Twitter, with 2.3 million tweets in four weeks. It also reveals how Boko Haram gained broad, worldwide attention and negotiating power. Some of the girls managed to escape, the Nigerian military freed some with significant assistance from Chadian troops, and Boko Haram released some in exchange for the release of their imprisoned leaders. Fascinating and disheartening is also the story of the ten released Boko Haram girls who received scholarships to study in the United States. The girls experienced that the schools in the US only used them as «poster girls» in their quest for fundraising. They felt as exploited in college in the US as they were in the hands of Boko Haram.
Matfess challenges the Western image of Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation that kidnaps women to use them as sex slaves, breeding machines, or domestic helpers. She provides a nuanced understanding by contextualising the images and comparing them to the position of women in Northern Nigeria in general. Four out of five girls of school age in the three northernmost states are illiterate, only four percent have completed junior high school, one in two is married before turning 16, marital rape is not considered rape, and one in five believes that men have a moral right to beat their wives if they misbehave. It is in this landscape that Boko Haram operates. Interestingly, the author concludes that Boko Haram has an ideology and policies that are «relatively female-friendly.»
However, the book falters when the author elaborates on her own and the West’s outrage at the dismal situation of girls and women in Northern Nigeria. The book’s last three chapters consist of «what we have learned» and «the way forward.» It becomes trite to read about gender-based aid projects, demands for increased education for girls, and safer school routes. With references to Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which deals with empowering women in the West, the book ends with the voice of a morally outraged American feminist speaking on behalf of all girls in Northern Nigeria. It’s a pity because Matfess does a good job of nuancing our perception of Boko Haram in the book’s first half.