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Women’s Agency and the Prevention of Violent Extremism

Corporate News


14 Mar 2019

In early 2019, stories of two young women – Shamima Begum from the UK and Hoda Muthana from the US – have reignited the debate about the approach States should take regarding radicalised young women who are now wanting to return home. Media rhetoric has been particularly polarising: Are these women ‘victims’ to be welcomed back and supported? Or are they ‘villains’ whose citizenship should be revoked? These women, and others like them, are commonly referred to in the media as ‘ISIS brides’ or ‘Jihadi brides’. Such terminology says a lot about western society’s understanding (or, rather, lack thereof) of how women participate in violent extremism. Reaching a better understanding that moves away from stereotypes and sensationalist headlines is important, as it greatly affects how gender is incorporated into policymaking and programming for the prevention of violent extremism (PVE).

The 18th Informal ASEM Seminar on Human Rights was held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, from 5-8 November 2018. The theme of the seminar was “Human Rights and the Prevention of Violent Extremism” and was attended by government representatives and civil society members of the 51 ASEM Partner countries.

The Seminar saw a strong emphasis on women’s involvement, rights, and security within the sphere of violent extremism and its prevention. Over 30 seminar participants took part in a working group on this topic

In the forthcoming Seminar Report it is noted that participants “agreed that effective policies to counter violent extremism must include considerations of women’s role in the prevention of, and participation in, violent extremism.

Nuanced understanding of women’s participation in radical groups is something that has traditionally been rather limited in public debate. Azadeh Moaveni, senior gender analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote in a 26 February 2019 opinion piece for The Guardian that the tabloid sensationalism of “jihadi brides” minimises discussion of women’s agency and “obscures our understanding of all the ways, meaningful, oblique and direct, that women lent their power and numbers to ISIS.” This characterisation of women, as merely “wed” to male estremists, rather than, to use Moaveni’s words,actively “operationally affiliated”, was someting that the seminar participants sought to redress. Seminar participants argued for a recharacterization of women as “both victims and as agents of violent radicalisation”: “It is now increasingly evident that women are playing a variety of roles in promoting violent extremism, including as propagandists, recruiters, fundraisers, educators, and suicide bombers. Recent cases of female suicide bombers, in particular, as well as evidence for a growing number of females leaving home to join violent extremist groups, did much to dispel the notion that violence is a male business, with women only entering the picture as victims in need of protection.”

This characterisation pushes back on the idea that these women are less involved in violent extremist groups than their respective ‘grooms’, so to speak. Breaking down the assumptions surrounding women’s involvement in violent extremist groups has ramifications for all states with counter-radicalisation and deradicalisation policies: “Raising awareness about women’s involvement in violent extremism and improving understanding of the motivators behind women’s decisions to join it, is certainly important and effective from a prevention perspective.”

In her 18 July 2017 op-ed in the New York Times, Nava Nuraniyah emphasised the need to more clearly understand the factors contributing to women’s radicalisation. In particular, Nuraniyah examines the radicalisation of Indonesia women who are working across East Asia as nannies and maids and how they may be motivated to join extremist groups. Nuraniyah writes that these women join extremist groups as “a form of emancipation — from pasts they sometimes regret, from the hardships of exile, from subservience to men”.

Just as extremist groups manipulate gender stereotypes “in the recruitment and mobilisation of women and men to violent extremism”, prevention strategies need to use gender constructively to “[address] the roots of violent extremism in its political, economic and social dimensions.”

To this end, many positive developments can be noted. For example, the May 2018 European Parliament report on the return of foreign fighters to EU soil breaks with traditional assumptions by emphasising that “many men play a number of supporting roles with no direct involvement in combat”, and that, “rather than merely being ‘victims’ of organisations like IS, some female departees are central to the recruitment and propaganda activities”. The United Nations has also published documents and briefing notes designed to support Asia-Pacific countries in developing National Action Plans for PVE that accurately take gender into account.

While participants of the Seminar stressed the need for gender-specific strategies in PVE, they also cautioned against employing such strategies that might accidentally reinforce assumptions about women. One example of this, highlighted by Seminar participants, is the risk of overemphasising “women’s role as mothers” in shaping the values of their family and spotting early signs of radicalisation in their children.

The harm of such overemphasis is that it again narrows the understanding of women as actors; if policymakers only see women in their traditional capacity as mothers in a family setting, then sufficient consideration of women’s other roles, “such as women as political and religious leaders, organisers and mobilisers, media representatives, advocates, etc.” is neglected. In this way, there are similar problems in characterising women as ‘brides’ as there are in characterising women as merely ‘mothers’.

The idea of debunking the myths and reaching a better understanding of women’s agency and participation in violent extremism was a persistent theme across the working group and overall Seminar discussions. Not only does this better understanding provide an opportunity for more effective policymaking for prevention, but it also gives insights into how States can create better policy for dealing with citizen’s post-radicalisation, as in the cases of Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana.

About the author

Rebecca FRANKUM comes to the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) from New Zealand, where she is currently finishing her Masters in European Union Studies. Rebecca is particularly interested in researching and writing about human rights, media and democracy, and the Asia-Pacific region.

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