In 2015 the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2242 mandated the consideration of not just women, but gender, as a cross-cutting theme in counter-terrorism and preventing/ countering violent extremism (P/CVE) practices. It was the Daesh call to women worldwide to join its Caliphate, a call which thousands took up, that finally demonstrated to policymakers the fundamental significance of women to terrorism, and the urgent material need to include gender-specific measures to counter this.
Why is the 8th March, International Women’s Day important? By now, it is something of a given that thinking about women matters in issues of radicalisation, terrorism and extremism. In 2015 the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2242 mandated the consideration of not just women, but gender, as a cross-cutting theme in counter-terrorism and preventing/ countering violent extremism (P/CVE) practices. Scholars working on gender had long emphasised the role of women in groups including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or al-Qaeda for years. Yet still, consideration of gender appeared marginal within CT policies and discussion. It was the Daesh call to women worldwide to join its Caliphate, a call which thousands took up, that finally demonstrated to policy-makers the fundamental significance of women to terrorism, and the urgent material need to include gender-specific measures to counter this.
Policy and research needs to understand women’s involvement in extreme groups, particularly patriarchal and misogynist movements such as the alt right. And it needs to include their voices in designing counter- and de-radicalisation programming. But seeing gender in violent extremism and countering violent extremism is much more than simply recognising the role of women, as Emily Winterbotham, Katherine Brown and I evidence and argue in a new book Countering Violent Extremism: Making Gender Matter. The book is the result of research in Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK from 2015-6 on the gender dynamics of far right and Islamist extremism, and countering it. Some 250 people from grassroots communities contributed their views to this work.
In this book we make four arguments. The first is that gender is about power, and that means consideration of men and masculinities, as well as women. Gender dynamics shape and structure violent extremist organisations and movements, from the roles both men and women can legitimately take, violent or not, to the value systems they adopt, and the messages they propagate. Gender dynamics impact for instance the locations of recruitment for men and women, societal expectations on them; gender dynamics intersect with dynamics of class, race and faith to produce particular attitudes and behaviours which extreme groups can manipulate.
The second argument is that different ideological challenges require different responses. This is crucially important as new challenges emerge, including in recent years, the rise of the violent right wing extremists (VRWE) – an umbrella term describing what is a range of values, white supremacist, anti-Islam, neo-Nazi, for instance. It is tempting for policy makers and practitioners to transpose existing gendered P/CVE responses to new threats, particularly as the importance of masculinities has become more obvious. Misogyny is the explicit ideological backbone of new movements, including the ‘involuntary celibate’ incel group, the alt-right or the Proud Boys. Some have drawn parallels between the gender norms of Islamist and radical right movements. Yet our research demonstrated that these gendered ideologies differ in their relationships to wider norms in western societies. What is more, the logics of P/CVE practices – who is partnered, in which areas, and which communities, faith or place - countering Islamist radicalisation do not hold for far right groups. This is evident when considering gendered P/CVE practices, which have frequently worked with mothers’ groups, in order to ‘empower’ and assimilate them.
Third, we argue that gender monitoring & evaluation is key. Since UNSCR 2242 it has become difficult to ignore gender in policy documents, funding calls or discussion of P/CVE. Yet there is less evidence about which gendered programmes work, or why. This is vitally important, particularly as the risks of gendered counter-terrorism practices are increasingly highlighted by gender scholars. Policy engaging both ‘women’ and gender can produce harms, or become ‘tick-box’. If the inclusion of gender is to continue - and it must - and to widen to engage men, evidence on how to avoid harms is vital.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, gendered P/CVE responses need to genuinely listen and respond to the communities they seek to engage. Our research documented the experiences of communities who wanted to challenge radicalisation, but were tired of the ways in which gendered policy stigmatised particular - mainly Muslim - women, challenged valued gendered cultural practices and demonised men. They were tired of being asked for their opinions by governments or researchers without seeing change. We need to recognise that communities cannot be the objects of P/CVE practices and that ‘partnering’ must mean genuinely recognising the ways in which communities have expertise and knowledge on the factors shaping extremism.
International Women’s Day is a once a year event. But gendered considerations must be part of our thinking and working practices in CT and P/CVE all year round, and they must be the responsibility of men and women working in this space alike. If we are to challenge violent extremism, and support communities in this endeavour, gender matters. And this goes beyond thinking about women alone.
Dr. Elizabeth Pearson is a Lecturer specialising in gender, extremism, and how to counter extremism at the University of Swansea.