Hilary Matfess talks about Women and the War on Boko Haram

Boko Haram, Hilary Matfess. Women and the War on Boko Haram, book review

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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Women and the War on Boko Haram by Hilary Matfess
ISBN: 9781786991461
Published by Zed Books on October 15th 2017
Genres: African, Education, Higher, Peace, Political Science, World
Buy on Amazon US | The Book Depository | Barnes & Noble | Buy on Amazon UK

To many, the term Boko Haram will have sprung into consciousness with a major news item of April 15, 2014. This was when 276 female students were abducted from their secondary school in the town of Chibok in Nigeria. Responsibility was claimed by Boko Haram, an extremist Islamic terrorist organization based in northern Nigeria.

The TV images presented a fearsome picture. On one side were Kalashnikov-waving terrorists. On the other side was the righteous indignation and the lofty promises of the Nigerian government. President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to stamp out Boko Haram once and for all and restore law and order to his country.

But things are never that simple

In a thoroughly researched and well-presented book, Hilary Matfess goes back in time to unearth the origins of Boko Haram and trace its evolution. In doing so she reveals the grim truth. It takes two to make a fight. The blame can never be laid solely on one side.

Peaceful beginnings to Boko Haram

She begins in 2002 when Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf ran a dissident but peaceful religious community. She explains how its leaders and followers became increasingly angry that Nigeria was being run by an elite and powerful leadership. By men – and solely men – who lacked religious piety. Who used criminal means to get rich at the expense of the economically disadvantaged. Who lived in the most opulent houses.

And from such an apparently innocuous beginning, violence rose and escalated horrendously.

Escalation upon escalation

Demonstrations by the sect were put down; often by heavy-handed tactics, judicial violence and illegal detention. The sect retaliated with increasing violence. The authorities responded in like. Matfess explains how in 2009 the Nigerian police and army raided the Boko Haram headquarters, killing 700, including Yusuf. They thought they had defeated the sect. But it simply re-emerged under new, more aggressive leadership. The killing spree of Boko Haram had started in earnest.

The Chibok girls

Boko Haram turned to abductions to complement their manpower. A state of emergency was declared in 2013. The Chibok girls were abducted the following year. Female suicide bombers began to be used.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian government was in turn burning villages to the ground, leaving thousands of displaced people unsure whom they were fleeing from. In her interviews, Matfess discovered that some civilians even sought the protection of Boko Haram. The sect continued to kidnap. Matfees says that the Chibok girls were merely the tip of the abduction iceberg. In 2015, an estimated 2000 women had been kidnapped by the sect.

In September 2016 she reports that it was confirmed by the Nigerian military that some of their officers had sold arms and ammunition to Boko Haram.

In the middle: the women

Tragically, in the middle of all this conflict are the women of Nigeria. Matfess conducted extensive interviews with scores of them. Some had been kidnapped by Boko Haram. Others had been detained by the government because they were wives of Boko Haram soldiers. Others were the target of sexual abuse from both sides. Every one of them had a tale to tell.

While never condoning the abductions, Matfess points out that “insurgent abuse against women is ultimately an extension of the patterns of neglect and abuse that women have suffered for decades.”

She backs up this claim with statistics. In 2015, Nigeria was ranked 152 out of 188 countries in the Gender Equality Index. She discusses the reasons why and the implications, e.g. in low literacy levels, poor or non-existent education possibilities, child marriage, and domestic abuse. The chapter “Being a Girl in Nigeria” is particularly harrowing.

Gender equality and empowerment

At the heart of the concluding chapters is the author’s emphasis on the need for gender equality and gender empowerment. She firmly believes that advancing women’s status in society would be an effective way to prevent conflict. In her view, “coupled with research on the importance of female inclusion for social stability and durable peace, it becomes clear that Nigeria’s future must be female if it is to be peaceful.”

Recommended reading

I found Women and the War on Boko Haram to be a compelling book. I recommend it for anyone wanting to avoid a knee-jerk response to news items and to this particular humanitarian crisis. Her extensive fieldwork has given her a unique position to give an honest account that takes into consideration both sides of this war. She makes a strong case for gender empowerment and its role in the peace process. The ultimate hope would be that this becomes not merely a good book but an important book. A watershed that could lead to change.

But has the author’s research left her pessimistic about the future of Nigeria, or optimistic? Let’s ask her …

Interview with Hilary Matfess

Hilary Matfess author of Women War and Boko Haram

What drew you to research this topic in the first place – especially when there are so many “safer” topics and environments you could have chosen to research?

I’d been working with the Nigeria Social Violence Research Project for a while before I was able to go to Nigeria. When I was finally there, I was struck by the resilience of the women that I spoke to. I became really interested in conveying the nuances of women’s experiences in the north east. After the Chibok abductions captured the world’s attention, I felt even more compelled to shed light on the experiences of women that the media hadn’t covered.

 You presumably worked with translators. How confident were you that they were merely translating, and not giving you their own interpretations?

I’ve been really lucky to work with great translators who also believed in the project. I tried to make it really clear that I wanted a word by word translation, not a summary or rewording, of the interviewees’ answers and I feel pretty confident that’s what I got.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in your fieldwork?

I think that there’s not enough discussion about the possibility of secondary traumatic stress. A number of aid workers I spoke to recognized that they were at risk of STS, but felt guilty seeking care that was available to them, but not to those that they’re working to help. While I don’t think that I’ve had clinical STS, there’s certainly an emotional and psychological toll associated with discussing trauma, sexual assault, and war with victims.

How conscious are you of drawing conclusions based on your own Western standards and expectations? For example, the definition of child marriage or domestic abuse might differ between the US and Nigeria.

That’s certainly something that I’ve grappled with; there’s a great ethnographic tradition of wrestling with how one’s identity influences your relationship with your subject and it’s something that I continue to engage with in the course of my work. For those interested in the subject, Holly Porter’s work on rape and sexual assault (from her field work in Uganda) does a great job of unpacking the possibility of a gap between Western and local interpretations.

Do you see any hint of change within the current Nigerian government regarding gender empowerment?

Unfortunately, not really. There are a lot of NGOs and activists and individual politicians who are working to advance women’s rights, but I don’t see much in the way of systemic change underway.

You suggest some ways to improve the position of women in northern Nigeria. Is there one particular “low hanging fruit” that you think might be addressed fairly quickly?

Fully funding the humanitarian budget (and implementing humanitarian programs according to gendered best practices), providing psycho-social support, and ensuring access to education seem to me to be the most pressing issues. I also think that community sensitization to reduce the stigma that women and girls associated with the sect is a pressing and under-appreciated need.

Thank you Hilary

Hilary Matfess #BokoHaram



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11 responses to “Hilary Matfess talks about Women and the War on Boko Haram

    • Denzil

      Generally I send them the questions by email and they write out their replies. Glad you found the review interesting.

  1. paulandruss

    The origins of war are never simple. The only simple thing is the question ‘Who will suffer!’ Oh Goodie! That’s an easy one! The innocent of course! Strong and fair minded review Denzil

    • Denzil

      And how many thousands of years have we known this? Sometimes I feel we are going backwards, not forwards. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Paul. Hope you have a successful year.

      • paulandruss

        And how many thousands of years have we known this? And that is so depressing isn’t it! Will we ever learn and do they (the powers that be) really care?

  2. Looks like a powerful read. I loved your line, “She makes a strong case for gender empowerment and its role in the peace process.” I’ve read a related quote Lakshmi Puri, Assistant Secretary for the UN’s General Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, that violence against women is the “most pervasive and least prosecuted violations” and the “greatest threat to lasting peace.” This is now on my TBR list. Thanks, and nice to meet you.

    • Denzil

      Nice to meet you too Heidi. And thanks for your comment. Yes, the author points out that in some African countries, where women have been empowered and welcomed into the decision-making process, those countries are in general enjoying a higher level of peace than male-dominated countries. It makes sense.

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