Wafa al-Rushaid, independent writer based in Saudi Arabia
Have we really explored the full potential of the woman’s role in counter-radicalization and disengagement? Have we given the soft power a fair chance? These are some of the questions that continue to be grappled with nineteen years after 9/11.
Saudi Arabia, A Personal Experience
Living among women was not easy for me, and living in a man’s world was not easy neither. Retarding the advance of women’s rights and social freedoms in Saudi Arabia has been a strategic target of extremist groups for many decades. The ability for a Saudi woman to move freely, engage in public life, access all sorts of education and employment, express herself without fear of repercussion, and live as an equal citizen, has been jeopardized and downgraded because of religious and social radicals. This whole experience shaped and formed a lot of women around me, made them more determined to work for change, more determined to make a difference in our own families by building minds to fight radicalism and extremism. This took years of our lives, but we were lucky; others were kept down and abused by ignorance.
This raises the questions: Why do women suffer so much? Is it just a backlash to their demands for change? Can women play a role in challenging the fundamentals that lead to this extremism?
The last four years of my life have been a life-changing experience: I was re-born again, was re-introduced to my own land, this time with dignity, pride, and (most important) freedom. A series of reforms and changes enacted by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) to advance the rights of women, despite the tough resistance of a conservative country, have changed the country. The changes have taken place on a number of levels, fighting the extremism and radicalism that have been embedded in many minds for many years. For the very first time, women are being asked to join the internal security forces in the fight against radicalism and extremism, and this exactly where we should start—at the core.
Inclusive Security, An Understudied topic
Having said the above, one then has to consider the practicalities of including women in the internal security force, which immediately brings one up against the fact that the role of women in promulgating and countering violent extremism (CVE) work is unfortunately an understudied topic—worldwide, not only in Saudi Arabia. Although this is a critical contemporary security issue, especially in the Middle East, with myriad lessons to teach across many fields of study and practice, not enough has been done in collecting data and analyses.
Thus, to even begin making this necessary reform it is necessary first to build the evidence base about women’s role in fighting radicalism, to help delineate in which roles women can be expected to offer the most effective assistance.
Soft Power vs. Hard Power
Unfortunately, many states have long prioritized “hard” power approaches to fighting radicalization and extremism, forgetting or avoiding or never knowing the limitations in fighting groups that would rather kill themselves than surrender. Recently calls for more “soft” or non-coercive approaches have been surfacing after military acts alone proved to be less effective and even counterproductive in some cases. Hard power can lead to situations where there is simply more violence, and states can lose credibility—while increasing sympathy for the extremists among local populations or on the more international level.
The evidence is suggestive that women have a unique role to play in this effort, a role different to men. A study by the Institute for Inclusive Security argues, based on interviews with women in thirty countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, women are often the first to stand up to terrorism “since they are among the first targets of fundamentalism, which restricts their rights and frequently leads to increases in domestic violence before it translates into open armed conflict.” What is says simply is that women more than men can be affected by violent extremism—and may be more willing activists in preventing it.
PAIMAN Trust in Pakistan today, is a great example in embracing reintegration efforts that include vocational and psychological training programs led by women and mothers. A Yemeni focus group study suggested that given the right legal, psychological, and emotional support, women could have a significant role to play in creating dialogue about violent extremism and terrorism prior to their children joining a terrorist organization. Dialogues with women’s groups and experts from South Asia highlighted important roles they play in government, in civil society and in communities, in challenging extremism and advocating for improved governance, rights and development.
Where Do We Go From Here?
What I do mean by women having a role in creating peace? Raising a child is traditionally regarded as the core of a woman’s success or failure in a society, and in a certain sense this applies to CVE work. The saying goes, “When you train a woman, you train an entire society”. Women make up half the population and they are the mothers of the other half, an influence from the cradle to the grave. As such, without access to education, and without participation in politics, law-enforcement, and other state agencies, there can be no progress on the gender gap—or much else.
Female leadership as a source of peace of justice is unfortunately an un-beaten path in modern politics. The gender injustices and inequalities embedded in minds and societal relations are ruthless. The lack of communication on this matter is a long-term threat to the world development and stability, and if we don’t hold an open mind in creating strategies to counter violent extremism and promote women’s participation, leadership, and empowerment we will not see peace any time soon in this world.
Engaging the talents of women at all levels in the fight against intolerance and extremism—in the security sector, criminal justice system, social programs, counter-ideology initiatives and within civil society—is vital to fostering bottom-up changes, in families, communities, and public spaces, that create resilience against radicalization, preventing the problems of violent extremism and acts of terrorism ever arising.
I have myself seen, in my own surrounding living in Saudi Arabia, a country that long suffered from radicalism and extremism, religious and social, the effect that women can have. The lesson that creating societies were women are free and have dignity protects us all should be taken on more fully in global counter-extremism.
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.