Violent extremism (VE) involves the exercise of power through violent acts with the intention of changing the status quo and the ruling structures. VE has been identified as one the greatest threats to the security of our times making the design of effective strategies to contain its spread a pressing priority. The past decade saw the emergence, within the fields of national and international security, of new strategies to deal with VE, now treated under the umbrella term of countering violent extremism (CVE). CVE largely developed from the realisation that strategies to address terrorism from a law-enforcement perspective had failed.

Out of the ashes of the CT (countering terrorism) policies of the late 90s and early 2000s, CVE has emerged as a new, ‘softer’ approach sustained by some shared principles: the most noticeable of all; that more attention should be given to preventive measures based on a better understanding of the pathways leading to radicalisation.

Gender and violent extremism

More recently, as part of this shift, a new perspective has gained recognition within CVE debates, best practice recommendations and policy guidelines: that effective policies to counter violent extremism must include considerations of the women's role in the prevention of, and participation in, VE.

As researchers for the RJ4All Institute's project "Violent Radicalisation, Restorative Justice and Human Rights", I have come to conclude that gender inequalities must first be accepted and prevented before engaging in any debates around gender and violent extremism.

The involvement of women and girls in violent radicalisation narratives and actions can only be addressed by empowering women to build counter-narratives to the conservative and misogynistic views often linked to VE activities. And yes, women play various roles in violent extremism.

Women as agents of violent extremism

It is now increasingly evident that women are playing a variety of roles in promoting VE, including roles as propagandists; recruiters; fundraisers; educators and suicide bombers.

Recent cases of female suicide bombers, in particular, as well as evidence for a growing number of females leaving Europe to join violent extremist groups, did much to dispel the notion that violence is a male business, with women only entering the picture as victims in need of protection.

Raising awareness about women’s involvement in VE and improving understanding of the motivators behind women’s decisions to join it is certainly important and effective from a prevention perspective.

Some of these motivators have been shown to be gender-specific, such as strategies based on traditional gender roles used by VE groups to recruit women. Understanding those motivators is an important step in the design of targeted preventive initiatives. Promoting women's roles in prevention can also play an important part. At the very least, women make up 50 percent of the population. Notwithstanding, none of these two approaches per se necessarily contribute to the goal of achieving greater gender equality. Quite the opposite. Such approaches can, surreptitiously, be a hindrance to it.

Women as fighters against violent extremism

The idea that women, if empowered, can be effective partners in the fight against violence is not new.

Since the 2000 United Nations Women, Peace and Security agenda, it has been shown that promoting women’s participation in conflict resolution can have a positive impact on the establishment of long-term sustainable peace in conflict zones. Furthermore, several EU security guidelines and regulations, and some national security agendas, now recognise women have an important role to play in security issues, particularly in preventing radicalisation that may lead to violence. Many of these guidelines recommend that measures should be taken to encourage empowerment of women and girls to become more vocal within their communities.

When the notion that female empowerment adds value to CVE efforts is invoked, it normally rests on two assumptions.

Firstly, it is often said that women, as mothers, are strategically positioned at the centre of their communities and families, thus playing a vital role in the formation, transmission and reproduction of social values. As central pillars of family units, they are also strategically situated to detect the early signs of radicalisation.

A second argument often used to support the value of engaging women in preventive efforts is that VE is a highly gendered phenomenon that tends to thrive on and to perpetuate conservative views of gender roles. Empowering women to build counter-narratives to traditional gender roles and power dynamics that characterise adherence to VE is seen as essential to the promotion of women’s rights to equality, and as a means to effectively address some of the root causes of VE.

Although these two views are not necessarily seen as mutually exclusive, it has been pointed out that efforts to engage women that concentrate solely on their role in the private sphere, as mothers, can perpetuate gender power imbalances and reduce women’s contribution to CVE and to society.

Current policies fit for purpose?

It has not escaped notice by critics that many CVE initiatives so far implemented by governments—although couched in the language of female empowerment—have been designed primarily to equip women with the motherly skills and abilities to detect early signs of radicalization at home and within their communities, and with the civic duties to act upon them.

It is not by chance that in the UK, where such initiatives to promote women’s role in prevention were introduced, they led to feelings of women being used as useful spies by the Government; a feeling felt strongly amongst Muslim women, the social group for which these policies had been designed.

The resulting feeling from such sudden uprise of concerns to include women in security policies and strategies can be that gender—and in fact, women’s rights—only matter to the extent that these are relevant to national and international security. Thus, if governments are to design CVE policies and agendas to truly address issues of gender inequalities and to effectively defeat the conservative attitudes about gender roles that have been linked to violent extremism, they also need to look inwards to identify the gendered assumptions around which some of their own policies are organised.

A real commitment to the promotion of women’s right to equality begins with the identification of gender as a male issue as much as a female’s.

It involves the active promotion of changes in perceptions about masculinity as well as about femininity. It involves promoting the role of fathers as well as the role of mothers in prevention.

Finally, it also involves supporting and encouraging women to take on roles as security officers, policymakers, educators, activists, policewomen. CVE and women’s rights agendas are not necessarily incompatible with each other, so long as security issues do not take priority over the promotion and protection of women’s and, indeed, human rights.