In a recent piece for Vox, Heather Hurlburt and Jacqueline O’Neill make a case for examining terrorism through a gender lens—and what we lose when we cut women out of peacemaking and gender politics out of counterterrorism.
In the piece, they lay out four ways in which terrorism and gender intersect—and efforts to counter extremism and terrorism need to more successfully bring women into the fold. In light of the recent attack in Manchester, it’s more important than ever that we begin to examine the connections between gender and terrorism.
Scholars and analysts have identified several ways in which examining terrorism through a gender-conscious lens can make an immediate difference, and some military and counter-terrorism professionals have begun to take advantage of these insights. One of the first warnings that ISIS was setting up infrastructure in Libya came when an analyst noticed a flow of Western female recruits going there. That wasn’t consistent with ISIS’s usual operational habits, but it could be explained by the group’s need for wives where senior fighters would be headquartered.
Had Libyan women’s own voices of alarm been listened to, analysts would have also learned of other early indicators of rising radicalism, such as women being increasingly harassed for driving alone.
Whether it’s increased harassment in public spaces, or difficulty sending their daughters to school as spaces become segregated, women are often the first line of resistance on radicalization. Regrettably, they are often ignored, by their own leaders as well as by outside counterterrorism “experts.” Afghanistan activist Wazhma Froghrecalls women reporting to a government minister that they’d observed young men being recruited at weddings. He laughed condescendingly and said, “The militants we’re fighting are much too sophisticated to recruit at a wedding!” A month later, those same young men killed 32 civilians on a bus.
Those same local women must play a critical role in countermessaging and de-radicalization — in armed forces, police, and peacekeeping, as well as in government and civil society. Not because feminism (though we also believe yes because feminism), but because violent extremists are acknowledging and targeting women’s perspectives. Combating requires also including women’s perspectives in messaging and society more broadly. Inclusive governance begets authentic peace.
In counterterrorism, as in other areas of life, women are not simply small men. In this regard, it was telling to see the photos of row upon row of workers at computers in the new counter-terrorism center President Donald Trump inaugurated in Saudi Arabia — with not a woman in sight. That approach is not a winning strategy.