Nima Khorrami, a Research Associate at The Arctic Institute
Although there are a number of salient structural, ideological, organizational, and operational differences between, and across, extremist movements and groups, they all seem to share an important similarity: there are fewer women in their ranks than men, albeit with some notable exceptions where there are all-female terrorist groups.
Given that this is so, it is reasonable to ask if the reverse is true—whether female empowerment can, or ought to be, considered as an effective counter-radicalization tactic, available to states and international and regional organizations.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
One interesting dynamic within far-Right movements is that their discourses on gender, the role of women, and gender equality are subordinated to their negative views of Muslims. As such, women’s roles and rights are rarely discussed and/or mentioned on their own, and appear instead in a comparative rhetorical framework against Islamic theology and societies. Put simply, gender discourse is for the far-Right part of the way it differentiates itself from Islamic extremism.
Behind this public discourse, however, there are abundant similarities, in practice and organizational structure, between far-Right groups and their Islamist counterparts. As has been pointed out, “traditional gender roles largely dominate dynamics among far-Right movements and actors”. Even in rhetoric, once it is unpacked, the far-Right’s view of women is clear. First, women are to be protected and cared for, implying they are incapable of caring for themselves, a view not so different from that of the Islamists. Second, the far-Right converges with Islamists in a striking way by framing gender equality norms as part of a globalist liberal agenda pushed by Western countries.
Given the extent to which their views and discourses on women and their social agency mirror one another, it is not unreasonable to claim that their views are in fact complementary to one another, and that they feed on each other.
A recurring observation within the feminist literature is that women tend to experience and hence understand socio-political and economic issues differently compared to men. This difference itself is associated with a number of factors, including their role and place within their wider society, societal norms and values with regard to female agency, and the wider issue of gender equality, as well as their bodily experiences of social life.
Playing off from these observations, one could claim that women, either as victims, perpetrators, or law-enforcement officials, tend to experience and understand violence, terrorism and extremism in vastly dissimilar ways to their male counterparts. For instance, it is commonly acknowledged that women are usually amongst the first victims of increases in communal violence or instability, and that in general women have the most to lose in such situations. As a result, it is fair to suggest that they tend to resist violent and exclusionary practices out of self-interest. Such an assumption gains more credibility given that women are less prone to extremist groups even in relatively gender equal societies such as Sweden.
Another probable explanation behind their lack of interest is the cultural setting in which they find themselves. When compared to their European and North American contemporaries, a smaller percentage of Muslim women are actively involved in extremist groups. Given the dominance of more liberal attitudes towards female socio-economic roles in the West, a greater number of them sign up for radical far-Right groups on a voluntarily basis. In the Muslim world, by contrast, conservative cultural norms tend to limit and/or restrict women’s movement and freedom of choice. Politics, in particular, is the preserved space for men. As such, it ought not to be surprising that both terrorist organizations and Islamist parties have a small percentage of female members.
More Empowered Women, Less Radicalized Population
To claim that female empowerment and gender equality can prevent violent extremism should not be surprising. After all, United Nations’ own Preventing Violent Extremism Plan of Action states that gender equality must be a key component of a “balanced and well-structured VERLT [Violent Extremism/Radicalization Leading to Terrorism] prevention” strategy.
Because they experience and understand violence and extremism differently than men, their involvement would add a new perspective on the best method of counter radicalization and indeed deradicalization. As such policies and strategic communication contents will become more relevant to the experiences of both men and women which only increase the success rate of counter radicalization efforts. Moreover, as more women join radical groups and/or actively support such causes, more women must be involved in the design and implementation of preventative and corrective measures. In this way, devised strategies become gender sensitive; that is, they will be relevant to, and conscious of, gender dimensions of radicalization.
In addition, increased recruitment of women in the security and police forces would benefit counter radicalization efforts in a number of ways. First, especially in societies where cultural and religious traditions restrict males access to communities or places, having female officers or agents would equate to increased access to information on actors, groups, and indeed perceptions. In such settings, moreover, states can respond faster to attacks or tip-offs; they can dispatch their well trained and capable female forces whose access will not be contested or resisted due to cultural/religious sensitivities.
Since one of the common causes of radicalization is unresolved past grievances and/or perceived injustices, finally, the ability to detect signs of mobilization based on those grievances/injustices would significantly increase chances for not only counter radicalization but also prevention of attacks. To this end, various studies have found that women are exceptionally well-placed to detect such signs thanks to their “central roles in families and communities”. Another common sings of impending radicalization of a community or society is the imposition of sudden or gradual restrictions on women rights. Self-evidently, women themselves will be the first to notice such development.
Female empowerment is critical in this context because awareness does not automatically lead to reaction and countering. For women to be able to act on their awareness, in other words, they must be able to exercise decision making power and command authority. Otherwise, especially in societies where they are already marginalized, their powerlessness leaves them with no option but to either remain silent or, even worse, live in denial.
As the threat from Islamic terrorism remains high and far-Right movements in Europe and America show signs of gaining traction in reaction, there is an urgent need to systematically investigate the link between gender equality and reduced appeal of extremist ideologies. Scholars like Valerie Hudson and Mary Caprioli have carried out statistical analysis which support such observations. However, much more needs to be done in order to determine how the former reinforces the latter.
Equally urgent is the need to understand why women join radical groups less frequently. As it stands, the literature tends to take their unenthusiastic stance for granted, focusing instead on those instances when they join as exceptional and examining how to stop it.
Lastly, calls for female empowerment must not amount to a denial of their agency. Doing so could in fact undermine the cause of gender equality. When women choose to join these groups, it must be recognized that not all of them are victims.
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.