Women have a long and colourful history of involvement in violent extremism, with roles ranging from active combatant to passive supporter. Similarly, violent extremist causes have ranged from secular nationalist movements to religiously motivated movements. As we well know, the current manifestation is Islamic State’s Salafist-jihadist campaign, based on an archaic, fundamentalist interpretation of religious doctrine. Despite this, women have been consistently portrayed as victims of violence, rather than perpetrators. While women are disproportionately affected by conflict and violence, it’s essential to examine both sides of the coin. In a Special Report released by ASPI today I explore women’s role as perpetrators and as preventers of violent extremism, with specific reference to the current threat posed by IS.
Unlike propaganda from previous conflicts, what IS is disseminating has framed the notion of jihad to transcend gender, ascribing specific—and equally important—roles to men and women. Women are positioned as integral to IS’s caliphate-building project in Syria and Iraq and have been persuaded to migrate to the region. However, the reality’s a far cry from the glamorised “five-star jihad” that has been propagated by the media. IS has used a convergence of propaganda, media attention and intellectual and theological ignorance to construct a hybrid role for the women of its caliphate.
The report argues the following:
Women aren’t a homogeneous entity; they play various roles—not just as jihadi brides—so their involvement in violent extremism shouldn’t be understood as one-dimensional or linear. The motivations of women to join or support violent extremist causes don’t differ dramatically from those of men. Women’s roles in violent extremism vary considerably across conflicts, and the current conflict in Iraq and Syria is a unique challenge because of the nature of women’s participation. Not only are they migrating to the Middle East, but their role as facilitators, supporters and recruiters on home soil is problematic for security agencies.
Authorities pay more attention to the roles women can play as perpetrators and preventers of terrorism, rather than mainly as victims of violence. Women are motivated by the same reasons as men to carry out violent and terrorist operations. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) policy and practice need to reflect the multifaceted roles women play in perpetrating and preventing violent extremism. Women are already actively engaged in community efforts to build strength and resilience, but those projects can’t always be acknowledged publicly by government. Initiatives that aren’t necessarily security-focused shouldn’t be disregarded; rather, they should be supported and promoted through community integration work.
The aims and objectives of CVE and preventing violent extremism (PVE) policy and practices need further clarification. PVE and CVE should be pursued separately so as not to conflate their objectives. Failing to do so has resulted in confusion over what, exactly, we’re trying to achieve.
CVE as a practice has lost much legitimacy in communities that it seeks to penetrate. It would benefit from an overhaul to rebuild lost trust between communities and authorities, and communication and transparency are the key. A cross-sector approach that incorporates expertise and knowledge from different public policy areas, such as education, health care, development and social services, would make for a more holistic and integrated approach to CVE.
To successfully counter the appeal of violent extremism to women, policy and practice need to reflect the varied push and pull factors in play, as well as the roles of women. I make six key policy recommendations to re-focus and improve government responses to countering and preventing violent extremism.
- CVE as a discipline needs to be ‘rebranded’, as it has lost much of its legitimacy within the communities that it hopes to penetrate.
- CVE intervention frameworks should separate PVE and CVE.
- Encourage interstate partnerships between women’s organisations.
- Evaluate CVE projects and retain skills.
- Equip families with relevant tools, knowledge and skills.
- Develop exit strategies for all future programs.
Women have multiple roles to play in PVE and CVE as mothers, mentors and community organisers. Those roles are vital and should be properly supported through sustainable initiatives such as engaging with women who are already organised in their communities and strengthening their support networks. Although former radicals have been successfully employed as mentors to deliver counter-narratives, it might be wise to instead leverage the positive experiences of women who have never turned to violent extremism. Such women are in the majority and would be able to provide greatly varied experiences and histories.
Through deconstructing the myths of the ‘female jihadi’ phenomenon, it is hoped that this research will help to inform the debate about how to better integrate women in different roles in preventing violent extremism. The different aspects of female involvement in violent extremism require appropriately diverse responses, which women must be a part of.