Written by Anja Radjenovic,
Radicalisation and violent extremism that lead to terrorist attacks are a serious threat both to countries’ security and to their citizens. Although both phenomena often concern male perpetrators, the recent rise in European female fighters recruited by terrorist organisations, notably ISIL/Da’esh, shows the need to consider the role of women when addressing violent extremism. Acknowledging the potential threat resulting from radicalised women and paying greater attention to the gender dimension of counter-radicalisation strategies and the specific contribution that women can make in this area is urgent.
To understand female radicalisation and violent extremism, experts increasingly focus on the potential threat posed by radicalised women by asking questions: who they are, why they are being radicalised, and what role they play in radicalisation and within violent extremist organisations. The OSCE has found that there is no single pathway to radicalisation, nor a single terrorist profile, and others conclude that there is significant diversity in the profiles of radicalised females who travel to ISIL/Da’esh territory. Experts suggest that women join terrorist movements for many of the same psychological, personal, social, economic and political reasons as men. However, in general and in relation to the current focus on ISIL/Da’esh, there is also a significant gender dimension to radicalisation, including specific driving factors in women’s radicalisation. Research analysing women’s role in politically violent organisations shows that historically women have been active: not only in auxiliary and support capacities, but also as leaders in organisation, recruitment and fund-raising; and in direct operational roles, particularly suicide bombings. In the case of ISIL/Da’esh, women play crucial roles in spreading the organisation’s militant Islamic ideology and recruiting other women through online platforms. Rather than taking part in combat, their responsibility is portrayed, first and foremost, as being a good wife (jihadi bride) to the jihadist husband and becoming a mother to the next generation of jihadism.
Turning to the prevention of terrorism and countering radicalisation, the issues of how to stop men and women joining terrorist organisations and prevent their radicalisation, and how to address the issue of de-radicalisation, also need to be considered from a gender perspective. Recent research argues that women’s input is essential in preventing radicalisation and extremism. Evidence suggests that families, particularly mothers, have a strong influence in terms of dissuading prospective recruits from further radicalisation. However, some stakeholders stress that woman’s role in prevention and providing counter-narratives should not be limited to family, but extends to other capacities, such as community members and activists. They argue that ‘governments need to invest in women, recognise the key and central role they play and educate and empower them’. In this connection, other experts suggest that empowering women within families and communities, legally, financially or culturally, is fundamental to tackling the root causes of radicalisation. Women can also play an important role in de-radicalisation efforts and exit support. One example is the WomEx project from Germany, which observes that the gender dimension has not been systematically and conceptually considered in the exit support procedure. At the EU level, Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) practitioners working in the community also emphasise the role of families, including women in preventing radicalisation and offer not just support, but also valuable guidance for developing de-radicalisation strategies.