Women are increasingly present and active in terrorism and violent extremism. While the complexity of their roles has gradually been acknowledged in Islamist terrorist groups, it is time for counterterrorism and preventive measures directed at far-right violent extremism to become more gender-sensitive.
The assumption that women cannot be associated with acts of terrorism, unless they have been coerced to, can partly be explained by social constructions of gender roles. Women’s involvement has long been seen as a negligible phenomenon worthy of only marginal attention, although the percentage of women in a number of terrorist groups attains up to fifty percent. It is thus necessary to question the contributions of women and to adopt a gender lens in order to examine violent extremist ideologies and create gender-sensitive countermeasures.
Women’s roles in terrorism
Gender-dimensions have been blurred by notions of hegemonic masculinity, i.e. practices legitimizing men’s dominant position within society. Women are treated as a homogenous entity and are often depicted as either victims, radicalization-alleviators, or violence perpetrators. Such views rely partly on constructed, “innate” attributes of women, who are seen as peace-seeking, vulnerable or influenceable. Extremist environments resemble hyper-masculine ecosystems and often deny women’s intrinsic motivations to join terrorist groups.
Women in far-right groups often espouse ‘familialist’ narratives and portray themselves as “trad wives” in the role of mothers and caregivers.
Misconceptions of women’s roles in terrorism are commonly reinforced by gender stereotypes. However, women act out of a combination of personal, political, and ideological motivations, just like men. Women not only constitute a broad support basis, terrorist attacks perpetrated by women also tend to attract greater media attention and often result in further recruitments. Over the last years, terrorist groups have progressively admitted women into their ranks, initially for providing support materials such as medicine, food, and clothing. Nevertheless, biases persist and women are still seen as violence-averse and subordinated.
Traditional gender conceptions
According to Interpol, extremist right-wing violence increased by 230 percent in Western countries between 2018 and 2020. An increase in the number of women who have formed female-exclusive niches, such as “mom-groups”, has accompanied this trend. Women in far-right groups often espouse ‘familialist’ narratives and portray themselves as “trad wives” in the role of mothers and caregivers. Endorsing traditional gender roles can be empowering for women. By doing so, these women stress their indispensability for the well-functioning of society. Altogether, this combination of misogynistic sentiments and “masculinism” – according to which women would dominate men – is structurally linked to far-right extremist ideas.
Terrorist groups also present involvement for men as an effective instrument against their “emasculation”. These groups instrumentalize fears in a divisive way while constructing different threats against which they are the solution. For example, far-right terrorist groups are portraying themselves as saviours against the “threat” immigrants presumably pose. Through this process of radicalization, relational processes and collective interpretations operate as socialization mechanisms while relying on emotions.
Gender-sensitive policies as solutions
Considering the above, it is therefore crucial to first understand how such constructed ideas of masculinism and anti-gender ethos – according to which established structures (subordinating women) must be preserved – fuel violent far-right extremism. Second, it is important to understand how the state interacts with the construction of these narratives. Approaches to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE), concerned with issues of hard security, i.e. related to military threats, have mostly addressed Islamist extremism while neglecting far-right extremism. Moreover, P/CVE-approaches have also long been considered to be a male domain.
International efforts to address gender aspects in extremism were first incorporated in the United Nations’ Resolution 1325, acknowledging women’s roles in armed conflicts and in countering radicalization. However, UN-frameworks, such as the Resolution 1373, Security Council Resolution 2354, or the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, inadequately address gender. Merely Sweden and Finland have clearly ascribed far-right extremism to anti-gender attitudes in their national strategies. Both countries however only rely on awareness raising at schools as means of prevention. Structural solutions are needed. In countries in which legal resolutions addressing the far-right have been passed, such as in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, or Canada, gender-aspects lack specificity and are often only linked to role conceptions.
Despite context-specificities, ensuring the recognition and participation of women as key stakeholders in P/CVE-approaches and societal strategies is essential.
Because women’s personal biographies intersect with gendered notions of violent extremism, which often perpetuates beliefs and fuels radicalization, policy measures should be more gender-sensitive. What can be done? First, women should be involved in anti-terrorist strategic communication and in preventive interventions in order to reduce the number of driving factors. Second, improving the social environment of women will decrease potential abuses and gender inequalities in accordance with prevailing societal norms. By promoting structural equality and developing narratives that acknowledge women and their value, women will be empowered and less likely driven toward far-right ideas. Third, gender is not only multifaceted and subject to tensions between norms and organizational roles, but security issues also affect men and women differently. Targeting messages to individuals-at-risk of radicalisation should therefore address gender-specific drivers.
Far-right VS feminist futures
Withstanding stereotypical norms which are embedded in the far-right must be central to counterterrorism and preventive agendas in order to avoid essentialism. Understanding the performative and constitutive aspects of masculinity and femininity as explanatory factors in the creation of collective narratives, which in turn contribute to radicalization, will allow for more effectively tailored long-term strategies. Indeed, ignoring women’s active involvement has unintended consequences for the effectiveness of policies targeting violent extremism.
Additionally, despite context-specificities, ensuring the recognition and participation of women as key stakeholders in P/CVE-approaches and societal strategies is essential. Women’s roles and responsibilities within the family and community can help them notice radicalization signs. Because they often lack the legitimacy to speak up, it is central to create and ensure room for women to build confidence and use their voice. This can foster social cohesion, contribute to prevention, mitigation, and reintegration efforts which enhance social resilience altogether. Far-right violent extremism is not retreating, and the Internet as well as social media remain key drivers of radicalization. Including women in the development and formulation of societal P/CVE and counterterrorism-strategies remains a central aspect for preventing its spread.