The road to violent extremism is neither simple nor predictable, with diverse motivations and discrete, individual paths. No singular profile accurately describes all those who decide to join. Millions of people may experience similar situations and live in similar contexts but never join an extremist group, while some people will join who would we would not deem at risk. This makes preventing and countering violent extremism exceptionally difficult. It’s an even more intractable task when gender is an afterthought, or worse, gender is used to justify over-simplified, one-size-fits-all approaches.

Women who fled the Islamic State’s last areas of control in Syria at the Al Hol camp in northern Syria on March 28, 2019. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Women who fled the Islamic State’s last areas of control in Syria at the Al Hol camp in northern Syria on March 28, 2019. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

I recently saw a video interview of a 26-year-old Belgian woman living in a Syrian displacement camp, who detailed why she left for Syria, the horrors of marriage to ISIS fighters and wartime struggles. When she joined, she said they promised her a better life; a better place to raise her children; a society where her existence would contribute to fighting injustices.

Her path is significantly different from that of a former white supremacist who spoke at USIP in August and now works to help others disengage from violent extremism using empathy and compassion. In her story, rage from past trauma and the prospect of being part of an in-group—a substitute for a family—was the motivation for joining.

While their pathways were distinct, the stories of both highlight how violent extremists promise to fill gaps in women’s lives. Neo-Nazi groups, ISIS, the FARC, and Boko Haram offer women roles that are traditionally male-dominated, including as combatants, recruiters, managers, and financiers; as well as respect as wives, mothers, and a crucial part of the community and cause. They make them believe they matter. However, women who join these groups are often subjected to gendered violence—enduring rape, other forms of abuse, and human trafficking.

But like many social phenomena, progress is possible when we embrace complexity and parse out trends. In this case, we need to look at the gendered dynamics of radicalization. Fortunately, in recent years, there has been an incredible growth in academic literature on female radicalization, illuminating new developments and practical, empirical findings.

Research has examined the gender-sensitive ways terrorist groups like ISIS recruit by catering propaganda specifically to men and women, defining gendered needs and rites of passage into adulthood, and using gendered humor to justify their vicious ways. Though most terrorists would hardly consider this an accolade, many of today’s violent extremist groups are, perhaps unintentionally, gender experts.

Violent extremist groups are adept at recruiting women using idealism, hope, and belonging, despite their practice of brutal violence, subjugation, exclusion, and aggression. They appeal to women’s sense of agency and cater to a very personal level, spending hundreds of hours with the susceptible, making them believe they are seen, heard, and loved.

Adaptive Strategies are Needed

Violent extremist groups can be incredibly opportunistic. Whatever you need—from physical safety to love and belonging—they promise to provide it. Their playbook is inherently adaptive, demonstrating success over time and among people from all walks of life. To address their recruitment of women, the international community needs to be more adaptive.

Go Local. International efforts should delegate more flexibility to local actors to design and shape their activities to prevent gendered recruitment. Gendered narratives are implicitly and explicitly used to recruit men and women differently. These differences—dictated by social and cultural context as well as gender and age—will necessarily result in disparate prevention efforts. The need for flexibility in designing local initiatives is precisely why USIP is proud to support Kenya’s Sisters Without Borders, which empowers local, women-led organizations to define what they know about violent extremism in their own communities and use that knowledge to foster collaboration between local activists and national-level policymakers.

Highlight Hypocrisy. Like many criminal enterprises, terrorists do not deliver on their promises. Disillusionment is constantly cited as a reason for leaving. For instance, terrorists promise agency to female recruits, along with a strong sense of group identity, perception of power, and social status. But what they’re really offering is power over others—often other women, youth or marginalized groups—and women only operate within the parameters of what others (men) have defined. Real agency and self-determination are consistently denied within groups that mainly use violence and fear to rule over members and nonmembers. Identity and social status are warped into cult-like norms, proving hard to leave, and for most women, taking away all notions of individual choice.

Understand the Human Side. We can, instead, do more to deliver on the very real hopes and aspirations that terrorist groups promise women, but fail to deliver. USIP is researching what psycho-social facets of nonviolent resistance movements may provide individuals compared to those provided by violent extremist organizations. When crafting initiatives to stem women’s recruitment into violent extremist organizations, we can learn from nonviolent resistance and other avenues that actually provide women opportunities, belonging, and recourse, rather than false promises.

Too often when it comes to gender and violent extremism, simplistic tropes dominate the conversation—women are defined as preventers, as victims, and at times, as hardened, irredeemable threats. It is much harder to see women as complex, with many intersecting roles and identities, beliefs, and wants. It is even more difficult to develop policies that are not just gender-sensitive, but gender-savvy.

To address this complex phenomenon, we must use what we know about the intersecting identities of women and how they are targeted by violent extremist groups. We must also provide those at the local level the flexibility they need to define their own initiatives and activities. And we must deliver on the very real human wants and needs that terrorist groups promise and ultimately fail to provide.

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