Iffat Idris has been a Research Fellow at GSDRC since January 2016. She lived in Pakistan for many years and has extensive experience of working in the international development sector, notably with the UN System and World Bank. Her areas of focus include conflict analysis, extremism and modern slavery.
Current efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE) are often based on harmful gender stereotypes, which greatly undermine the effectiveness of those efforts.
What images come to mind when we think of women and violent extremism? – the Yazidi women trafficked and abused as sex slaves by ISIS, the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, and in earlier years, the Taliban beheading a woman in a burqa on a football pitch.
These are the images commonly portrayed in the media. What’s notable is that they all present women as victims of violent extremism. Certainly, women have been deliberately targeted and abused on a massive scale by extremist groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.
But such images don’t present the full picture.
Women are capable of supporting and even perpetrating violence
In reality, women can play a far more diverse role in relation to violent extremism – including as proponents and perpetrators.
Women can be recruiters for extremist groups; they can raise funds; they can carry out support tasks – transporting weapons, cooking and providing medical treatment for combatants; and they can carry out attacks such as suicide bombings. Women have played and are playing all these roles.
In 2017, the Global Extremism Monitor registered 100 distinct suicide attacks conducted by 181 female militants, amounting to 11% of all incidents that year. In Nigeria, the most deadly incident in 2018 involved three women bombers who killed 20 people in a crowded marketplace. And it was a female LTTE suicide bomber who assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu. There is a long history of women actively participating in terrorist groups.
Even when women are recognised as perpetrators, this is assumed to be because of manipulation by recruiters or because they were forced to do so – notions which deny seeing women as independent agents, and subordinate and patronise them.
Another popular convention is to describe extremist women through their relationship to a man, e.g. the Chechen ‘Black Widows’ and the British ‘White Widow’ who masterminded the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya – again denying agency and patronising women. Or, as a last resort, such women are regarded as exceptional – ‘dangerous deviants from the natural order’.
….are misleading and counter-productive
Perceiving women in these ways, or only as passive victims of violent extremism, is harmful because it perpetuates negative gender stereotypes – of women as weak, helpless, chattel controlled by men, lacking agency and voice, less dangerous than men, incapable of carrying out acts of violence.
BUT it is also counter-productive because the failure to see women properly leads to knock-on shortcomings in policies and programmes to counter violent extremism (CVE). The gaps in understanding about gender dimensions – women’s roles and women’s motives (which could be very different to men) – translate into major gaps in CVE efforts, which render these inefficient and ineffective. Exclusion of women also means missing out on a vital resource (their knowledge, skills and position) to support CVE.
Need for a gendered approach to CVE
A gendered approach to CVE entails acknowledging the diversity of women’s roles, understanding their motives and goals, and carrying out interventions that involve women as active partners – both in design and implementation.
So how can women help counter violent extremism?
The ‘traditional’ role assigned to women in this regard stems from them being someone’s mother, sister or wife – women can use their influence over male family members to deter them from violent extremism. They can also spot early signs of radicalisation and present counter-narratives to extremist ideology.
Women have unique access and skills
In conservative societies it can be hard – particularly for men – to access women and girls at risk of radicalisation. But women can reach them. A programme in Morocco deploys women religious scholars across the country to counter radical interpretations of Islam, finding them ‘better able to reach community members than their male counterparts because of their social ties and ability to build trust’.
Women can also support security actors, e.g. by flagging concerns about growing radicalisation in their communities. Consulting women on CVE policies and programmes can ensure that all aspects are addressed, including identifying security concerns, the needs of communities, the likely effects of interventions, and strengthening accountability.
It’s also important that women are represented in security agencies. This enhances trust in the security forces – women are more likely, for example, to deter human rights abuses and de-escalate tension – leading to a more collaborative environment. Women in the community are more likely to talk to female security personnel. The latter can be more effective in collecting vital information about security threats in contexts where religious-cultural norms restrict men’s access to certain groups. Also, women law enforcement personnel are able to conduct searches of female fighters in ways that men might not – making it harder for extremists to evade screening.
A note of caution
Women can make critical contributions to CVE efforts, but it’s important not to make assumptions: women might not want to speak out against extremism or they might not have clout within their families (especially in patriarchal societies). Avoid gender stereotypes!
It’s also vital to ensure the protection of women, and – critically – not to make gender equality simply a tool for CVE. This could do untold damage.
In the week that we mark International Women’s Day, let’s plan CVE efforts based on an accurate, nuanced picture of women and their roles, rather than lazy and dangerous gender stereotypes. Let’s see women properly.
 Bigio, J. & Vogelstein, R. (2019), Women and Terrorism: Hidden Threats, Forgotten Partners, Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), p. 1. https://cdn.cfr.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/Discussion_Paper_Bigio_Vogelstein_Terrorism_OR.pdf Bigio & Vogelstein, 2019: 4.
 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
 Bigio & Vogelstein, 2019: 6.
 Bigio & Vogelstein, 2019: 9.