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From ISIL to Gilead: Women in Extremism search for Liberation

Since September 2001, the scholarly field of terrorism and violent extremism has grown exoponentially. We may understand more today about the causes and effects of extremism, but it is only recently that we have begun to realise our ignorance of gender in this field. For too long we have been stuck with a gendered binary: radicalisation is framed as masculine while suffering in war is feminine. That is beginning to change, with more studies of women’s exact role in peacebuilding and countering violent extremism.

While women’s presence in traditional militaries has become more normalised, their participation in paramilitary and terrorist groups should make us think harder about why women fight. So what is the academic consensus on why women become combatants, and not just support staff, for extremist groups? The answer is that women are just as complex as men, and so it follows, are their reasons for joining.

It is important for us to note that the ways in which we define violent extremism can vary. Often this term is associated with terrorism, but that word comes with its own baggage. The United Nations does not have a definition for either term, instead leaving it to Member States to adopt their own provided it adheres to norms of international law.

In the United Kingdom, extremism is described as “the vocal or active opposition to British fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”1. A 2017 report from UN Women has less vague language, prescribing extremism as “political violence carried out by non-state actors and aimed at civilians for the purposes of influencing or achieving political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals”2. Notably different from this working definition is that the UK also considers violence against their armed forces to be a form of extremism. For the UN report, violence against armed agents of the state would not fall under the category of “extremism”.

There are many factors that can contribute to a woman’s choice to participate in violent extremism, but one trend that we can clearly identify is the desire for personal and political agency. This has been reflected in various recruitment methods, as with ISIL or Maoist groups in India, that advertise a special place for women in a new political order. While women often become wives or childbearers to their male combatant counterparts, their main attraction is an occupational purpose in service to their beliefs. Although women are promised these things, they often find themselves under a new form of patriarchy when their bodies are not needed for fighting.

We may look to scholarship on the lives of women guerillas in Mozambique during the 1970’s for an instructive lesson. The Marxist group FRELIMO (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique) began a campaign against European colonials and became the single ruling party in Mozambique until the the 1990’s.

Anthropologist Harry West’s interviews3 with former soldiers of the FRELIMO women’s brigade, Destacamento Feminino, is one such source. Meeting them some twenty to thirty years after the fighting, he found that many women were nostalgic about their time in combat. “ We rose to meet the needs of our whole society,” they told him. “Not just of husbands and our own children. In this way, we were just like men and we had to be treated just like men.” These women would find themselves betrayed by the group to which they had pledged their lives. Cast aside during the making of the new state and socially ostracised for their independent nature, they discovered that the ideal FRELIMO woman was not the same as the ideal Mozambican woman.

While FRELIMO may not be classified as an extremist group, many extremists groups today share the same political ambitions of creating a new society and rely on flexible tactics to achieve their goals. Women are just as likely as men to see a ladder out of their current unhappy situations in these ambitions. Even a strict segregation of the sexes can seem like a path to equality as women are praised as “unique” and “instrumental” to the struggle.

The idea of a “warrior woman” is nothing new. She is represented in many cultures across the world from the Hindu goddess of destruction Kali to the Celtic Queen Boudica who led a campaign against the Romans. Although, violence is still widely seen as atypical feminine behavior and women who engage in combat often gain special notoriety. Depending which side we’re on, she may became “monstrous” or “glamorous”, but almost never ordinary. Thus we may see that there can be a romantic side to women’s attraction to violent extremism.

Today’s popular fiction also gives us a chance to analyse women’s participation with extremism. In the novel and now award winning television show, A Handmaid’s Tale, we are introduced to the character of Serena Joy, an ardent supporter of the violently repressive and religious patriarchal state of Gilead. Before the extremists in the story establish their new government, Serena Joy’s writings on the responsibilities of women to society were essential to the movement. She had even been an integral part of helping her husband plan terrorist attacks. Yet when the time came for the party to build their new utopia, Serena Joy was abandoned. The ideal Gilead woman would hardly resemble the fierce and opinionated Serena Joy, but would become illiterate and bound to the home.

The reasons women become violent extremists can be just as complex as men, but they are also uniquely tied to their status as women in society. As approaches towards conflict resolution and development are embracing the inclusion of gender, so should our approach to understanding violence. Through this awareness of gender, we may better appreciate how to mobilise women’s exceptional place in society to counter extremism.

1 Counter Extremism Strategy, October 2015, UK Government
2 Women in Violent Extremism in Europe and Central Asia, 2017, UN Women
3 West, H. G. (2000) Girls with Guns: Narrating the Experience of Frelimo’s “Female Detachment”. Anthropological Quarterly, 73(4), pp. 180-194.

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