What role should women play in policies to counter violent extremism?

The September 11th attacks on New York City changed the world, and changed how the ‘West’ spoke about terror and radicalisation.

For Dr Katherine Brown, the ripples were felt in the communities of Muslim women with whom she worked with across the globe, in Egypt, in Malaysia, and in the UK. Her research at the time looked at how these communities developed rights within Islamic discourses and how they liaised with civil rights organisations and secular organisations.

“After 9/11, the range and scope of what people were interested in talking to me about was fundamentally shifted. Women’s rights in the context of what religious organisations and religious communities wanted became less about the interaction between the secular world and the religious world, and much more about the interaction between terrorists organisations and the state, and where women’s organisations kind of got stuck between the two. My research interests really followed what we were hearing from those communities.”

The new landscape of counter-radicalisation dominating state relations with Muslim communities brought challenges. The same communities began to build up suspicion, and fear, of the outsider. Conversations that once flowed with openness and detail were punctuated by a sense of distrust about the role of a researcher, and indeed who Dr Brown might be working for.

Here, the prior contacts and established network became key. Through previous work, there were people within the communities who knew that having an academic take an interest in their stories would provide them with power and an opportunity for their voices to be heard. Indeed, they also knew Dr Brown’s track record and rather critical view of the status quo.

That frustration with ill-suited policy aligned well with Dr Brown’s next move. With the changing nature of the field – and a number of communities becoming ‘over-researched’ - her focus moved to what governments do, rather than what religious communities do in response to governments. And with that came a desire to further champion the voices of misunderstood communities to better inform future policy.

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Shifting sands

With a renewed focus on counter-extremism and counter-radicalisation, it made sense that a raft of new policies would follow. Unfortunately, these were rooted in century old beliefs about religions, gender and radicalisation itself. Such a narrow view meant that programmes were created, at great expense, that were woefully unfit for purpose – helping neither states or the communities.

“I do have sympathy for policy makers. In might not make me very popular, but the theories and thinking around radicalisation are not coherent. You have competing models, a really limited evidence base, and huge amounts of argument and debate within the research community. Some of the theories that have been put forward are so complicated that they’re virtually unusable.”

With such an unsettled field, policy makers are forced to find a model that ‘seems right’ and in accord with their own frame of reference. More often than not, they come from a counter-terrorism world and as such, they select theories that prioritise state security above all else.

“There is a logic behind that, because they are under so much pressure to be seen to be doing something. Can you imagine a government that doesn’t respond? There’s no way that a government doesn’t respond [to a terrorist threat]. Whenever something hits the headlines, there is always going to be a new policy response.”

The consequence, however, is a set of programmes that use sweeping, and contradictory, definitions that marginalise communities and remove any nuanced understanding of the complexities involved.

Indeed, despite the mixed empirical and academic base, and regardless of the nature of the government and regardless of the nature of the population (whether it was a Muslim-majority country or if Muslims were a minority population), there is an almost standardised understanding of what radicalisation is and how governments can respond to it.

The epistemic community of practitioners and governments have almost totally bought in to these standardised ideas.

“This is partly because of international organisations who have their own language and their own desire to push that language forward – so governments pick them up. For example, when the UN put out a plan to combat violent extremism, you see that same language replicated across all countries.”

This replication of language, and ideas, has helped cement some troubling ideas in relation to gender.

A new world needs new ideas

It is a problem well explained by the role of women in Islamic State.

“What we would consider to be ‘left-wing’ type organisations tend to see a female membership of around 20%, and you find women in leadership positions as well. In organisations of a more conservative nature, women’s participation is often around 10%. Islamic State, however, managed to recruit somewhere in the region of 15-18%.”

There are theories as to why this might have happened. The role of social media and promotion was important. The limitations of travel have largely disappeared. But perhaps most tellingly, the Islamic State group were able to marry a twisted, utopian ideology to their cause, one that appealed to men and women alike.

“They were deliberately targeting women and were able to say to them, ‘we understand your problems and we have a solution to them’. They made that awe-inspiring, they sold a big revolutionary project where you’ll have a stake in the future and a future in which the world is built differently. That’s quite appealing, if you are feeling dissatisfied.”

There is another significant different between Islamic State and other notorious groups in recent history. This group do not just want to change the government, they want to be the government. They want to build a state, a caliphate, and to do that you need more than fighters, you need a whole community, ergo they have been more active in recruiting women.

This is quite a departure from the role of women depicted in much of the literature. The rather simplistic view of the manner in which people are radicalised, particularly women, not only fails to fit the Islamic State model, but often ends up leading to contradictory policies.

The problems of a narrow focus

On the one hand, Dr Brown explains, we are being told that Muslim women, as mothers, are going to be the people who are going to prevent the next generation from becoming radicalised. This is premised on the assumption that women, particularly in Muslim households, have a position of power within the home and therefore are in the best place to know their sons.

At the same time as that, we are being told that Muslim women are oppressed because the patriarchy within the communities insists that they have no power in the home, no power over marriage, and no agency.

These are two completely contradictory streams of logic that run through counter extremism programmes. They are in the same documents as both justification for the programmes and in outlining how they are going to run.

“The two don’t actually work together. Furthermore, even if you say that ‘we’re going to empower Muslim women so that they can do this’, then what you’re actually doing is knowingly putting them in a position of risk. By participating in them the women are no longer trusted, but seen as spies in their own homes and this further removes power. What this says is that states are putting broader security concerns of the security of women who would be involved. And of course, it assumes that teenage boys listen to their mothers.”

An emerging challenge in the field is the laser-like focus on the idea of women being groomed or seduced online, something that was prominent in the discourse around Islamic State recruitment.

While research points to women being more likely to be recruited online than face-to-face, the focus on grooming overlooks the reasons that women are looking for alternatives in the first place. In removing the idea of agency, it prevents a discussion about the politics, the wider social issues and structural considerations that encourage a small percentage of women to look for alternatives.

It is a growing problem, despite the UN requiring governments to look at the gender impact of all policies.

The problem lies in how this obligation is carried out. In the UK, for example, it is quite a narrow assessment, sometimes even limited to just one line in the policy document.

“The other risk of this requirement is that they do talk about gender, but without the human rights and women’s rights issues underpinning it. So for example, there has been a lot of discussion around forced marriage and around female genital mutilation (FGM) – linking that to women’s empowerment – linking that to women’s leadership – and then linking that leadership to ‘oh, we can use that to counter terrorism’.”

“I would argue that women’s empowerment, tackling FGM, and addressing domestic violence – these are all good things in and of themselves and you don’t need to link them to the counter-terrorism world.”

“For me, the way we push it forward, is to encourage governments to think around how they can create more gender-aware policies, but with that human rights underpinning. Because without that, everything then becomes securitised in a very instrumental way, in a way that may not lead to positives for men and women in any community.”

Looking to the future

There is hope on the horizon, in the shape of upcoming projects. Commissioned by UN Women, a team of researchers including Dr Brown have been asked to produce best practice guidelines for gendering counter violence and extremism. These guidelines will be aimed both at those working for the UN and their agencies, and at the country level, thus enabling the practitioners there to advise governments and practitioners in the field.

It presents an opportunity to challenge the existing policies and practices that scupper attempts to improve outcomes, and tie in the many disciplines involved. There is, however, one field of academic study that has been hesitant about coming to the fore.

“One of my current bugbears is that, in all of this academic discussion around radicalisation, ironically the field of religious studies has been remarkably silent, as if they don’t want to get involved and acknowledge any association between religion and radicalisation. Yet in the policy world there is a lot of language about the role of religion.”

The fear is that if such fields fail to engage, it will create a void in which extremists or other voices can set the tone for how the relationship between religion and radicalisation is understood and, as a result, the role of gender in both.

The chasm between the lived realities of communities impacted by policy, and the perception that comes from brief, narrow mentions of gender in the policy documents is a very real concern.

By ‘gendering’ the debate around violent religious politics, and taking it beyond the counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation programmes by governments and involving interdisciplinary research, projects such as the UN Women project are hoping to retheorise our future approach.

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