Women and the War on Boko Haram

Wives, Weapons, Witnesses

Hilary Matfess


A powerful account of one of the most notorious rebel groups in the world and its impact on the women of Nigeria.

For over a decade, Boko Haram has waged a campaign of terror across northeastern Nigeria. In 2014, the kidnapping of 276 girls in Chibok shocked the world, giving rise to the #BringBackOurGirls movement. Yet Boko Haram’s campaign of violence against women and girls goes far beyond the Chibok abductions. From its inception, the group has systematically exploited women to advance its aims. Perhaps more disturbing still, some Nigerian women have chosen to become active supporters of the group, even sacrificing their lives as suicide bombers. These events cannot be understood without first acknowledging the long-running marginalisation of women in Nigerian society.

Having conducted extensive fieldwork throughout the region, Hilary Matfess provides a vivid and thought-provoking account of Boko Haram’s impact on the lives of Nigerian women, as well as the wider social and political context that fuels the group’s violence.

Author Bio

Hilary Matfess is a research analyst based in Washington, DC, and a contributor to the Nigeria Social Violence Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Her work has been featured in the African Studies Review, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, and The Washington Post, among many others.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. Understanding Boko Haram
  • 2. Precursors to the Insurgency and the Sharia Debates
  • 3. Being a Girl in Nigeria and the Gender Politics of Boko Haram
  • 4. Girls as Symbols: The Chibok Abductions and the Silent Majority
  • 5. Women at War: Wives and Weapons in the Insurgency
  • 6. Rescued to What? Displacement, Vulnerability, and the Dark side of ‘Heroism’
  • 7. The Way Forward
  • 8. Lessons Learned


‘Boko Haram's violence against women has often been met with incredulous outrage. Matfess cuts through our assumptions to reveal a much more compelling and surprising picture. A fantastic book that I would not hesitate to recommend.’
Andrew Walker, author of 'Eat the Heart of the Infidel'

‘For the first time, women are treated as actors as well as victims within the story of the Boko Haram insurgency. This is a masterpiece which stands to become a classic in the study of militant radicalism.’
Amidu Olalekan Sanni, Lagos State University

‘The author’s intensive fieldwork reveals previously unseen layers of complexity. Matfess is right to conclude the fate of Nigeria is tied to the fate of its women, and her book is an important contribution to that discussion.’
Valerie Hudson, Texas A&M University

'This is a significant book on Boko Haram, analysing the role of women and girls in the insurgency in north-east Nigeria, and the gendered impacts of the enormous humanitarian crisis which the conflict has produced.'
Adam Higazi, University of Amsterdam

‘An original, innovative, and much-needed addition to the growing literatures on both women and conflict in Africa and the Boko Haram insurgency.’
Brandon Kendhammer, Ohio University

‘Provides an important corrective to the general reporting on women associated with Boko Haram. As Matfess persuasively argues, improving the position of women and increasing gender equality in north-eastern Nigeria will surely support efforts to bring peace to the region.’
Elisha Renne, University of Michigan (Emerita)

‘Sharply and sympathetically written. Matfess turns the tables on the notion of women as helpless victims of terror. No doubt, the book’s core argument will raise hackles, but few would disagree that Matfess has laid out a case which demands serious debate.’
Ebenezer Obadare, University of Kansas

'A strongly argued book … impossible to ignore.'
Africa at LSE

'Those who are trying to find a solution to the civil strife ought to read this book, as should those who are interested in conflict analysis and resolution, as well as post-conflict reconstruction researchers … very insightful.'
Human Rights Quarterly

'A comprehensive and nuanced discussion of the myriad factors that influence women’s engagement with one of the foremost extremist organisations of the day.'
Global Discourse

'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.'
The Book Owl

'Many readers, Matfess admits, will find this interpretation discomforting, even unbelievable. Understanding gender politics and empowering women, however, are key to solving not just violence in Nigeria but also to stabilizing other post-conflict African and world societies. An important book deserving a wide audience.'


Publication Date: 15 November 2017
288 pages

Product ISBNs: Paperback: 9781786991454
Hardback: 9781786991461
eBook ePub: 9781786991485
eBook PDF: 9781786991478
eBook Kindle: 9781786991492

Appears in

Why is peer review so important?

Learn more about the various types of peer review, why it’s so important, what the social and political considerations of peer review are and how we use it at Zed Books.