Women’s Diverse Roles in Perpetrating and Countering Violent Extremism

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Joana Cook

By terrorism scholar Joana Cook 

Women play diverse roles in violent extremism.  Understanding this is essential for an effective strategy against groups like ISIL.

Groups such as ISIL have made women an important tool in advancing their cause. Those seeking to defeat groups like ISIL have, too. Sadly, meaningful efforts to involve women against terrorism tend to be poorly integrated and languish in the shadows of military activity.

Women are often viewed as victims of terrorism and limited to stereotyped roles. Success in countering violent extremism (CVE) will be more likely when women are empowered as key actors on terms they define for themselves.

ISIL have increasingly engaged women in a variety of ways, reaching out to urge women to travel abroad and join their organization and wider ‘state’. ISIL have enslaved others deemed to be ‘spoils of war’ such as Yezidi women. Increasingly, governments and other organizations are noting that the empowerment of women is a key tool to counter violent extremism (CVE), as well as noting the disproportionate ways that terrorism and extremism may impact women. The roles women play in relation to perpetrating and countering extremism is diverse and complex, and requires important consideration by all concerned actors.

al Khansaa brigade fighters www.businessinsider.com

al Khansaa brigade fighters www.businessinsider.com

One of the most important aspects for countering terrorism and violent extremism involve understanding the roles that women are playing in them. Women have been both violent and passive actors in extremist and terrorist organizations. In fact, women often have many of the same motivations to join these organizations as men.

Because women have not always been the most violent actors, they are often overlooked in considerations of terrorist organizations. The roles women play may come in the form of logistical support, financing, recruitment, and combat roles (amongst others). These may change over time as opportunities and resources for terrorist groups constrict or expand.

These roles have spanned ethno-nationalist terrorist organizations, such as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Basque separatist movement in Spain, the PKK in Turkey or the IRA in Northern Ireland. Women tend to have higher membership in ethno-nationalist organizations. Miranda Alison notes, for example, that women made up around a third of the combat strength of the Tamil Tigers. Women have also been present in groups of various political, religious and ideological motivations throughout history. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find many groups that have not engaged women.

In groups like ISIL, women’s roles have largely been restricted to the domestic sphere and ‘culturally appropriate’ roles such as those of teachers or health care workers. Nonetheless, they have also taken on roles in all-female police units (the al-Khansaa Brigades) and there are some indications they may take on increasingly violent roles. An increasing number of women, noted to be around 18%, are now travelling to join the group. Their reasons include participating in the building of a state, travelling with/to a partner, fulfilling religious motivations, and satisfying a sense of adventure. With young girls who are travelling abroad, recruitment may reflect sexual grooming, where they are being lured abroad by men in the group.

While each category of women would have a different status in the group, both women who are seized as slaves, such as the Yezidi women, and women being urged abroad come marry fighters, also serve another purpose. Having women present helps keep fighters linked to the group. As Mia Bloom points out, having a wife, child and house makes it less likely that a fighter will leave a group. Having women available as slaves and wives also acts as an incentive for potential fighters to come join a group. Women play roles in recruiting other women, too, playing off of maternal or ‘big sister’ roles. Understanding these dynamic roles will help all actors effectively counter such organizations.

For governments, women have been increasingly identified as key to CVE initiatives. These are often viewed through their familial roles, such as that of mother or wife. Often noted is their ability to influence family members, see first hand the warning signs of rising extremism and acting as key supporters for de-radicalization processes. Women who have themselves been victims of terrorism, or have lost family members to extremist ideologies, can offer powerful counter-narratives aimed at preventing other individuals from engaging in violence.

An area that is not yet receiving enough attention is the important roles that female security practitioners, such as police, intelligence officers and border guards, for example, can play in CVE initiatives. With an increasing focus on community policing in CVE, women’s engagement should expand.

Women’s roles are dynamic and complex; their agency evolves in diverse ways. There is increasing evidence, for instance, that bottom-up and community-based solutions are among the most successful. These tend to be much more effective than a few spotlight roles at national levels – though these too can be useful for challenging widely perceived stereotypes. When women serve on their own turf as local police or officials or civil society actors, other women tend to get more engaged, too. This can create a virtuous cycle in communities toward discouraging enrolment in violent extremism, and also bring to the table more robust solutions which reflect the concerns and skill sets of the wider population. The combination of local and national roles could be very powerful.

Simply using women as a tool in CVE is not enough. Perfunctory roles risk creating a perception that women are advancing a cynical western or government agenda. This may create opposition toward women’s groups even among those sympathetic to CVE. Empowering women as key actors with voices and important perspectives in shaping CVE initiatives can limit this risk. Such engagement may reduce the tendency to subordinate everything to military targeting. This will likely enhance the effectiveness of CVE overall.

Joana Cook is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, Editor-in-Chief of Strife and a research affiliate with both the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) and Public Safety Canada (Kanishka). Her work focuses on women in violent extremism, countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism practices in the UK, Canada and Yemen. She has presented her research to senior security audiences in Canada, the UK and US.

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