The Cost of Overlooking Gender in CVE Efforts

Elise McKeever Feminist Foreign Policy Cost of Overlooking Gender in CVE Efforts

In their 2017 Topic Guide, Countering Violent Extremism, Mareike Schomerus and Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy concluded that ‘[t]he gender dimensions of violent extremism remain neglected in both research and practice.’ This gap in analysis has led to oversights in every aspect of countering violent extremism (CVE) from prevention, to the role of security services, to prosecution. There has been increased interest in the gendered-nature of CVE in recent years exemplified, for instance, in UN resolution 1325 (2000), which firmly stated the need to analyse conflict through a gendered lens. Such findings have overwhelmingly focused on women as either victims or potential forces of de-radicalisation within their communities. Reports published by The United States Institute of Peace (2015), the UN and the Council on Foreign Relations (2016) all acknowledge the importance of mainstreaming women in all aspects of CVE, as well as the fact that despite popular rhetoric, women, just as men, can - and have - become violent extremists. However, these works still predominantly frame women as inherent allies to CVE, due to their relationship as mothers and wives to men - particularly men who are at risk of radicalization. When women are considered to be potential violent extremists themselves, the rhetoric often emphasises the grooming and emotional instability that leads to such radicalization. This article will examine the shortfalls of such narrow accounts of women in the fight against Islamic extremism.

Some analysts, encouraged by orientalist Western narratives, narrowly portray Islamic women as oppressed by their faith, devoid of agency.  While agency and family roles are not clear cut, generally,  many Islamic women have a unique influence regarding the environment, education, and ideology that future generations grow up with. The Global Counter-Terrorism Forum has stated that ‘[w]omen and girl’s participation is key to the inclusive community engagement and trust-building needed for CVE’. These programmes reflect an understanding of the influence women frequently hold within their homes and communities, and how this can spread tolerance and peace. In Morocco, women are being successfully trained as peaceful and tolerant religious leaders. Meanwhile, programmes such as Mother Schools and Mothers MOVE! work across Ireland, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Yemen to train women to spot signs of, and subsequently address, extremism within their own families.

It is also widely argued that women are potential allies in CVE because they ‘are well-positioned to detect early signs of radicalization because their rights and physical integrity are often the first targets of extremists’; women’s rights and liberties are disproportionately targeted by extremist ideology. Even women that ostensibly joined such extremist organisations of their own volition overwhelmingly tend to have experienced trauma in their lives and were thus particularly vulnerable to grooming. This observation has been confirmed by multiple studies. For example, a 2006 study of extremist women by Tel Aviv University found, that ‘all individuals within the sample had […] symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder’. Such a finding, though tragic, should be unsurprising given the harsh and abusive conditions under which women under the control of Islamic extremists are forced to live, including sexual slavery. In light of these findings, it is clear that there is an urgent need to improve the level of support women experiencing trauma receive. As such, women should receive the appropriate services, free of charge, to enable them to resist turning to cynicism, isolation, or hatred during times of hardship. We know that in countries where there is relative gender equality, cohesion, and socio-economic stability, violent extremism (VE) is less common; despite this, changes made to Prevent in the UK in 2011, which called for social cohesion and women’s groups to be treated as separate to CVE programmes, have led to reduced funding for overseas programmes that directly counter grassroots level factors, such as trauma and a lack of faith in national authorities, which can lead people to VE.  

Nevertheless, Tel Aviv University also concluded that none of the women appeared to have been ‘coerced, drugged, or otherwise enticed into these acts’, which suggests that while the women joining extremist organisations are often vulnerable, they are not necessarily lacking agency. There are, it must be recognised, a number of rational reasons for extremist groups to appeal to women. Beverly Milton-Edwards explains that women are seen as ‘the wombs of the next caliphate generation’. This means that where it is assumed that women lack respect and agency within extremist communities, their ability to birth and raise soldiers can be an exceptionally powerful force. In addition, within terrorist organisations, women have been identified as having the strongest connections and largest communication roles and thus may be the key to tracking, monitoring, and understanding the movements of VE organisations.

Far from having purely symbolic and communicative value, women actively partake in violence too. Paradoxically, Islamic extremism can provide women an alternative from their roles as mothers and wives and give them an outlet for their social, political, and personal grievances. In Raqqa, women police others by beating, whipping, and arresting those who do not obey Daesh’s law. Extremist groups, therefore, need not always force women into their ranks - through threats of rape, death, beatings, and marriage proposals as is widely reported - because they offer a form of liberation, power and authority that women are often unable to locate elsewhere.

That said, women, akin to men, have strong ideological convictions and female extremists cannot be assumed to simply have a misplaced urge for power. Between 2000 and 2012, 46 women carried out 26 suicide bombings in Russia, including those who were well-educated and had flourishing careers; not exactly the stereotypically oppressed, agency-lacking females that popular CVE rhetoric would lead us to believe.

The problem with seeing women as the automatic victims of VE - and the automatic allies of CVE efforts - is not that it produces findings that are explicitly false, but that it leaves alternative realities undetected.

In 2001 Ahlam Tamimi facilitated the Sbarro restaurant bombing which killed 15 and injured approximately 130 more. Tamimi has vowed to commit more attacks and is on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Again, this is not a woman who feels she has been tricked into VE or committed the act in a fleeting moment of emotional distress. Likewise, de-radicalisation centre in Bordeaux reported this year that women constitute as many as half of those they are counselling. Dr. Bina Patel has similarly pointed out that ‘women actually outperform men in terms of mission success’ in terror attacks, an alarming fact when one discovers that the number of female terrorists in Britain alone tripled between 2012 and 2017.

Thus, the problem with seeing women as the automatic victims of VE - and the automatic allies of CVE efforts - is not that it produces findings that are explicitly false, but that it leaves alternative realities undetected. It rests upon the false assumption that women are innately peaceful, innocent, and lacking in agency. Inevitably, this leads to misunderstandings and underestimations of the influences, motivations, and threats posed by violent extremism. The failure to recognise that there is no clear profile for an extremist, nor are there limits to women’s involvement in extremism, leaves CVE efforts vulnerable to fatal errors. 

At the same time, women’s support in CVE cannot be taken for granted. To persuade more Muslim women to be the active allies of CVE efforts, UK foreign policy, and that of other Western countries, must first prove itself the ally of all Muslim women – failure to do so directly risks increasing the numbers of perpetrators of mass violence. To do this, analyses into the gendered impact of previous and current CVE policies and programmes must be thoroughly conducted. 

Nuance must be included in such analysis, because there is simply no automatic categorisation of one's role to play in VE due to gender. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that despite holding deeply misogynistic beliefs, Daesh are increasingly appealing and making violent extremism accessible to women. While there is no clear cut demographic pattern regarding VE, it is those on the margins of society that are most likely to be tempted by such organisations. We already know that Muslim women are at least doubly, if not triply, marginalised on the grounds of race, religion, and gender. The cost of attempting to counter violent extremism, while half the world’s experiences of it are under-analysed and misunderstood, is therefore far greater than we may think.


Elise McKeever is a recent graduate of English Literature from Queen Mary University of London.


Annie Gergi