Counterterrorism measures and practices are increasingly infringing on people’s freedom and rights, as police are being given expanded powers to crack down on suspected terrorists. In recent years, there have been significant human rights infringements in countries around the world, under the banner of counterterrorism measures. Some countries have sent people suspected of terrorism back to their home countries where they could be killed, while other countries have set up “black sites” where prisoners are subjected to torture.
Last year, Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, identified a troubling pattern: as countries expand their counterterrorism policies, they are increasingly infringing upon the human rights of their citizens. Against this backdrop, women — already a vulnerable group — often bear the brunt of these policies. Again, Aoláin highlighted the increasing infringements in a report released to the General Assembly earlier this year, pointing out the need to safeguard women’s rights.
Muslim women, in particular, have faced multiple instances of discrimination. For example, Muslim women wearing hijab in Western countries often experience verbal forms of abuse resulting in a fear of appearing to be Muslim. Additionally, they are disproportionately targeted in Islamophobic hate crimes. In the Netherlands, 90% of hate crimes against Muslims are carried out against women, and 81% in France. By not taking a firm stance against such abuses and crimes, states are essentially encouraging anti-Muslim and xenophobic sentiment in society, which often creates political tension which can turn into violence.
Impact On The Home
Counterterrorism measures have also impacted home life and children’s education. For example, if the state places restrictions on a mother’s freedom of movement, this impacts her ability to take her children to school. It can also affect her mental health, making it difficult for her to help her children with their homework. Aoláin’s report also points out that security crackdowns on these households are often done in very disruptive and humiliating ways, in the early morning hours, exposing women and children to needless psychological trauma.
Moreover, as states increasingly punish the woman if a male family member is a suspected terrorist, this creates a perception in society that the woman is complicit — which is not necessarily the case. As a result, women face further marginalization by society who view entire communities as “suspect”. As institutions and businesses are reluctant to hire these women, they are effectively shut out of the job market — further weakening their ability to stand up to radicalization.
The role of the family has increasingly become central to the debate on counterterrorism and researchers have asserted that empowering women is an effective way to curb radicalization in youth. If mothers were able to counter extreme beliefs within the family, youngsters would more readily reject radical thoughts. Mothers, in particular, play a key role in either preventing or encouraging radicalization in their children. Mothers are usually the first ones to recognize that their children are displaying worrying behaviors such as anger and anxiety. Similarly, if women experience discrimination and segregation from the state and society, they are less inclined to prevent radicalization.
Empowering women and allowing them to participate in security decision-making processes, makes them more resilient and capable of standing up to the patriarch of the family. They can also encourage their children to be more engaged and integrated in society. Infringements on Muslim rights due to counterterrorism policies have a negative impact on their communities and give rise to resentment and alienation. These policies are often counterproductive as they create fertile ground for terrorist groups to recruit Muslims who feel like they do not belong to Western societies.
When counterterrorism regulation expands its scope and becomes aggressive and intrusive in family life, women have historically been affected the worst. States are increasingly infringing on freedom of expression, movement, privacy and religion, as well as the right to a fair trial, under the premise of “national security” and women and children are being disproportionally hurt.
The security sector has not sufficiently taken their perspective into account and more must be done to include them in counterterrorism strategies, including appointing them into leading positions within these establishments. This would ensure a more effective and inclusive strategy that would be more respectful of the role and rights of women. Additionally, by equipping women with the right tools, this could open up a new and underexplored frontier in the war on terror.
Going forward, there must be respect for international humanitarian law, especially regarding safeguarding women’s rights. The United Nations Counterterrorism Committee Executive Directorate must adopt a clear definition of gender mainstreaming in their work that would go hand in hand with IHL and women must be empowered and incorporated into institutions — especially those related to counterterrorism policies that have been traditionally dominated by men. These measures will surely benefit children and families and help marginalized communities build trust with the society in which they live. If this is done, this will help prevent the early stages of radicalization in future generations. Respect for human rights must be central in the war on terror and states have a key role to play in advocating for women and ensuring their rights are protected.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.