So long as women’s voices are relegated to the backseat behind men’s voices, the conference will suffer from a lack of diverse perspectives about a conflict that needs more — not less — respect for women’s solutions. This is a “manference” — not a conference.


This week Nadia Murad, a Yezidi woman, and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese medical doctor, won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end sexual violence. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has also targeted women — even young girls — specifically because of their gender. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed the Chibok schoolgirls were his “slaves” and even bragged that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) copied him when it sexually enslaved Yezidi women in Iraq several months later.

Not only have women been targeted for genocide by Boko Haram (yes, rape is an ‘act of genocide’), but their voices have often been marginalised when it comes to finding solutions to the insurgency — or at least put behind men’s voices. From November 13 to 15, 2018, Bayero University Kano is hosting an “International Conference on Boko Haram”, but the conference is marginalising women’s voices. According to the agenda, there is one “keynote presenter” and seven “lead presenters.” Their genders are as follows:

1. Male
2. Male
3. Male
4. Male
5. Male
6. Male
7. Male
8. Male

Couldn’t a woman be the “keynote presenter”, or a “lead presenter”? Have the organisers not tuned into the inspirational humanitarian work that women have carried out in Borno State, including those who sacrificed their lives? Have the organisers not noticed the women who have been reporting on counter-insurgency operations at the frontlines from Gudumbali to the Mandara Mountains? Have the organisers not read books, academic publications and reports about the insurgency written by women or solicited theological interpretations from women’s perspectives? Would women’s voices not also uniquely explain why some women voluntarily join Boko Haram, even committing ‘suicide’ bombings in greater numbers than men?

Any organisation or individual…working to combat Boko Haram and extremism deserves the benefit of the doubt. Academic research demonstrates that even Islamist intellectuals and organisations, like International Institute of Islamic Thought, which are rooted in Muslim Brotherhood philosophy, have a role a play in countering extremist challengers…


So long as women’s voices are relegated to the backseat behind men’s voices, the conference will suffer from a lack of diverse perspectives about a conflict that needs more — not less — respect for women’s solutions. This is a “manference” — not a conference.

The agenda description does get some things right. It notes, for example, that Boko Haram has become a “global terrorist network”. The group was, after all, designated a “province” of ISIS in 2015, after the group previously received funding, arms, and training from al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate. The agenda is also correct that Boko Haram has caused “intra-Muslim discord, interfaith mistrust, [and] social insecurity”. Moreover, the agenda is correct that “writings on Boko Haram” have been “surrounded by speculations, assumptions, [and] disjointed facts.”

Yet, one of the conference’s “lead presenters” claimed in a 2015 book that “some Christian elements” have been carrying out attacks “in the name of Boko Haram.” He, however, cited anti-Christian diatribes on online chat forums to justify the claim. That type of irresponsible speculation and accusatory language towards Christians, unfortunately, has contributed to conspiracy theories about Boko Haram. It has also led other academics to falsely claim Christians are “being paid by” Boko Haram to launch attacks. In the interest of inter-faith harmony and respect towards other religions, the “lead presenter” should be expected to perform at a higher, evidence-based standard, especially considering the conference’s stated objectives (and to retract the previous claim).

The agenda also states that Boko Haram began in 2002 as a “not-very-serious movement of zealous young men.” Yet the original “Yobe Taliban” in 2002, which is now known as Boko Haram, had its roots in Islamist and Salafist currents in Nigeria dating to the 1980s (and there were also young women among the Yobe Taliban). The Yobe Taliban’s two leaders were Muhammed Yusuf and Muhammed Ali of Yobe and Borno, respectively. Muhammed Yusuf was a disciple of one of the most prominent Salafi clerics in Nigeria, Shaykh Jaafar Mahmoud Adam (R.A). Muhammed Ali was radicalised by Salafi literature in Saudi Arabia and traveled to Sudan to meet with al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, in the mid-1990s. In sum, the Yobe Taliban was a very serious movement of men (and women) built on Salafism, jihadism and the takfiri (excommunication) ideology that spread in Nigeria prior to 2002.

Some of the latest scholarship from academic institutions around the world has critically re-evaluated the scholarship of Gumi and his progeny, including their counter-productive revival of takfir in Nigeria, and how their ideology may have contributed to jihadism in Nigeria today. The conference must not shy away from these critiques either.


Another of the conference’s American “lead presenters” asserted in a 2017 book that Muhammed Yusuf “smuggled jihadist thought into a Salafi community that had originally been oriented toward non-jihadist Salafism.” However, newer research from the University of Cape Town-based Centre for Contemporary Islam in 2018 arrives at a contrary conclusion. According to a report by the Centre, three of the “lead presenters”, including the one mentioned above (Alexander Thurston), are part of a group that “minimizes the global roots of the [Boko Haram] phenomenon.” Their analysis “exonerates” religious “elites” in the Salafi community who introduced jihadist thought into Nigeria well before Muhammed Yusuf preached about Salafism in 2002. The Centre for Contemporary Islam also has skin in the game — situated in South Africa, it assesses Boko Haram in the “African Muslim context” and states it is “concerned about the effects of the tumour of takfiri theologies in undermining the body of the Global South.”

The International Institute of Islamic Thought, whose main office is in Virginia in the United States, is a collaborator with Bayero University Kano in organising the upcoming conference. It has a checkered history when it comes to extremism in its own ranks. But it is hoped that the organisers will still respect diversity, not only in gender representation but also academic viewpoints. The conference presenters should, for example, be sure to engage and even challenge aspects of the theology of the Islamist and Salafist predecessors to the Yobe Taliban, such as Shaykh Jaafar Mahmoud Adam (R.A) and Abubakar Gumi (R.A.), the latter of whom argued that men should “allow” women to vote in elections, so that Muslim men can come to power. Some of the latest scholarship from academic institutions around the world has critically re-evaluated the scholarship of Gumi and his progeny, including their counter-productive revival of takfir in Nigeria, and how their ideology may have contributed to jihadism in Nigeria today. The conference must not shy away from these critiques either.

Any organisation or individual — whether from Nigeria, South Africa, or the United States — working to combat Boko Haram and extremism deserves the benefit of the doubt. Academic research demonstrates that even Islamist intellectuals and organisations, like International Institute of Islamic Thought, which are rooted in Muslim Brotherhood philosophy, have a role a play in countering extremist challengers (although they should not be “misunderstood as liberals” themselves). But as a first step, I suggest we should not wait until after this “manference” to raise the aforementioned issues about lack of diversity and representation to the organisers. Let’s do it beforehand.

Do you think the “International Conference on Boko Haram” should include women in the roles of “keynote presenter” and “lead presenters”? If your answer is yes, then I say me too.

Jacob Zenn is an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University. His Twitter handle is @Bokowatch.