The Contradictions of Boko Haram

Boko Haram capitalized on the problems women face in Northern Nigeria to attract some of them willingly, while violently forcing others into bondage.

Refugee from Borno State in Niger, 2014. Photo: UNHCR.

The abduction of 276 schoolgirls at Chibok in April 2014 may have struck outsiders as a horrific new turn in the war in Nigeria’s north, but women in northeastern Nigeria have long faced systematic oppression, leading many to seek refuge with Boko Haram. Its promise of education, material support, protection, ironically, and respectful treatment of women as outlined in the Qur’an has garnered support even from abductees, a revelation that may surprise many readers of a new book.

Women and the War on Boko Haram, by political scientist Hilary Matfess, offers a different perspective on the war, exploring this contradiction and other revelations from women themselves. Matfess’s goal is to “convey the myriad ways in which women have shaped the development and course of the Boko Haram insurgency” itself, as well as the efforts by the Nigerian government and international community to wage “war” on the group (as the title suggests). Matfess, clearly speaking to those who have not appreciated the many dimensions of Nigerian women’s experiences, concludes “the international community must revise its shallow conceptualization of women” (224).

Probably many readers of Africa is a Country do not see themselves as embracing a shallow view of the war. We have questioned the media coverage and the West’s approach (or lack thereof) to Boko Haram and the ways in which both the group and humanitarians have used the female victims. I am one of those skeptics, based on my own experience researching religion and social dynamics in Northern Nigeria. Residing in Kano’s old city, I experienced shari’a implementation as a confusing and ambivalent experience. Many women, Christian and Muslim, held some hope that shari’a, though condemned by the West, might provide an antidote to corruption. I also questioned the Western media’s heroic narrative of Nigerian government anti-terrorism efforts, which have produced enormous suffering for women and men in northeastern Nigeria.

So readers like me will be gratified that Matfess undertook this research but not necessarily surprised by it. Along with high-placed political authorities, humanitarian workers, and NGO staffers, she interviewed more than 50 women who were internally displaced and living in informal settlements and purpose-built camps and 30 male and female vigilantes who fought alongside the Nigerian government forces. She combines these interviews with gray literature on Boko Haram to highlight a number of issues that are critical for understanding the particular problems of women in Northern Nigeria and the ways in which Boko Haram capitalized on them to attract willing women while forcing others into their fold by violence. The lack of educational opportunities for women, the high cost of marriage, the rate of divorce that disadvantages women in polygynous Muslim households, and the poverty that has produced horrifically high rates of malnutrition, maternal and child morality and morbidity have all conditioned rural Northern Nigerians’ lives. Matfess shows how Boko Haram’s founder Muhammad Yusuf advocated for Qur’anic education for girls, reform of marriage customs, and proper care of families, albeit by patriarchal male heads of households. Matfess also shows that the control by parents over children in matters of marriage has driven scores of young women and men to Boko Haram, where they, paradoxically, may have more choice over their partnerships.

While Matfess has put her finger on these overlooked but vitally important factors in the gendered development of Boko Haram that can only be revealed from the inside out, rather than the outside in, she slips at times into a presentist and Western gaze, all the while arguing that Boko Haram “is undeniably a product of its historical context” (44). For instance, she mentions but does not address the long history of dissent in this region that was part of powerful Islamic states (Borno and the Hausa city-states) for centuries. Using the work of Murray Last and others, she notes that the ideology of the Sokoto Caliphate founded in the nineteenth century bears important resemblances to Boko Haram, including the focus on women’s comportment and their treatment, but goes no deeper. This is not just the gripe of a historian. History shows jihadi women reformers who fought for the establishment of the Caliphate and would have given Matfess good material to discuss gendered class polarization two centuries ago as a possible root for poor Muslims’ antipathy towards elites. Elite Muslim women since then have had access to the trappings of Islamic respectability, which go beyond veiling and purdah, and include female Islamic education, the ability to perform the pilgrimage, and access to the material and ideological developments in the wider Muslim world. All we get on the background to women in Northern Nigeria is UN statistics.

Christian women in Northern Nigeria receive no attention as distinct from Muslim women in their experiences, aspirations, or prospects for recovery after abduction by Boko Haram. Women’s civil society organizations are characterized as underdeveloped, and there is no sense, beyond FOMWAN, that informal church or Islamic women’s groups might offer hope or that humanitarian work among women in Southern Nigeria, with long traditions of gender activism, has any bearing in the North. Matfess suggests that the South has been unaffected by Boko Haram, a claim that is debatable. Cross-regional and interreligious women’s organizations, however unknown to outsiders, have existed for many decades, organizing around issues like shari’a and the education of women on their rights.

I am also troubled by the conceptualization of masculinity in this book. The discussion of polygyny as an expression of male power is not incorrect but seems to take a prurient interest in Islamic sexuality. By contrast, there is little discussion of masculinity in the military or other institutional or ideological contexts. Many scholars argue that Christianity, too, has engendered patriarchy in Nigeria and other parts of the continent. There is a very short discussion of the “fragility of masculinity” (199) that certainly could have come earlier and been more robust, considering the research of many feminist historians suggesting that colonialism and postcolonial nationalisms have produced new practices of patriarchy that defy the notion of the onward march of progress. Certainly in Northern Nigeria the British were partly responsible for stymying girls’ education. The British protected the Northern Nigerian aristocracy against dissent and prevented major social changes, like women’s participation in public life. The West is embedded in Northern Nigerian gender politics, not only in the education that Boko Haram attacks.

Matfess makes excellent suggestions and observations in the latter half of the book about how to move forward, using examples from Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and other conflict-affected countries. Underlying her prescriptions for transitional justice measures, stigma reduction for Boko Haram’s rape survivors and former militants, and greater inclusion of women in politics, she notes the need to address to see women as ideological actors. Many joined Boko Haram, seeking “a sense of identity” (224). I am not sure that the international community, on whom Matfess places a great of responsibility, can or should fill this apparent void for Northern Nigerian women, but she has made an important intervention to address identity as a pressing issue of post-conflict humanitarianism.

On a final note, Matfess seems to accept international intervention in Nigeria uncritically, but the humanitarian complex is a beast of its own, generating corruption and competition. Maybe if a brigade of women, armed with techniques in trauma counseling and large sums of money for microfinancing, went in, we could change not only the conceptualization of women but also of international aid.

Further Reading