Countering Violent Extremism: Where are the Women?

Countering Violent Extremism: Where are the Women? Featured Image


Photo Credit: Futures Without Violence
Publication Date: 
23 Nov 2016

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On November 3, 2016, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the Office of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) hosted “Countering Violent Extremism: Where are the Women?” the ninth installment of the “Women, Peace and Security” Capitol Hill breakfast briefing series.

Bill Sweeney, IFES President and CEO, opened the event by providing an overview of the “Women, Peace and Security” series and how the day’s conversation would be framed in the context of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and the U.S. Government’s National Action Plan on 1325. He reflected on his experience observing elections in more than 40 countries and the intersection between electoral security and gender. He highlighted how, according to statistics from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and United Nations, only 30 percent of women in the world vote and urged for “every voice [to be] heard and every vote counted.”

He explained that IFES is interested in the intersection between political violence and countering violent extremism, specifically because of our commitment to free, fair and inclusive participation of all people in the electoral process. We are increasingly concerned that ordinary voters are unable to cast their vote, election officials’ management of elections is compromised and aspirants, especially including politically active women, are under constant threat in both public and private spaces.

Jessica Huber, IFES Senior Gender Specialist, then introduced the panel, which was comprised of Kathleen Kuehnast, Senior Gender Advisor for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP); Leila Milani, Senior International Policy Advocate for Futures Without Violence; Candace Rondeaux, USIP Senior Program Officer and Director of the Researching Solutions to Violent Extremism (RESOLVE) Network; and Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN).

Kuehnast explained that gender is not just another name for women, but rather a concept that defines the institutional and ideological roles of and power dynamics between men and women. She highlighted how violent extremist groups like the Islamic State have used gender’s malleability to strategically redefine men and women’s roles. She then asked the audience to consider whether we are asking the right questions and using the right frameworks for understanding gender and violent extremism. She highlighted the book Hitler’s Furies as a counter-example to the cultural and historical narrative of women as peace-builders and men as perpetrators, as well as the U.S. Government’s National Action Plan on 1325 as an example of policy making that more fully recognizes women’s roles as actors and partners. She then asked the audience to consider, “Where is the power and how do we shift it and solve problems in non-violent ways?”

Milani expanded on Kuehnast’s remarks about our narrow understanding of the roles women play in countering violent extremism and how this leads to blind spots and gaps in policy making, particularly when it comes to women’s agency. In illustration, she reflected on the 1979 Iranian revolution, when women took to the streets and were led to believe they would have a voice, only to subsequently be pushed back into private spaces. The scenario repeated itself in 2009, when women advocated for change both online and offline and were the first to be shut out again. Milani’s first takeaway focused on the failure to make the link between the security of women and security of states, despite women often being the first targets of extremist movements. Secondly, she has noticed blind spots in understanding gender’s role in radicalization and how women can themselves be perpetrators. Finally, she highlighted women’s role as disruptors to radicalization and advocated for ensuring they are adequately supported.

Rondeaux then brought a research and evidence-based perspective to the conversation. The RESOLVE Network is seeking to understand the drivers and conditions that lead to violent extremism, particularly at the micro level. Their data related to the political and economic inequities between men and women has included everything from bride prices, property transfer and divorce laws, to HIV rates. They have also found a strong correlation between online “hate speech that targets women specifically and uses terms of sexual violence” and “how it plays out […] on the ground,” indicating the importance of social networks in violent extremism. Moving forward, Rondeaux recommended shying away from using anecdotal evidence in favor of more research-driven policies and programs.

Naraghi-Anderlini then proposed that we live in age of extremism that does not solely exist “out there” and encompasses pluralism at one end and identity-based extremism, neoliberal capitalism, and militarism at the other end. She pointed out that in cases of violent extremism, “women are often the first to feel, see, and identify” it and must be part of proposed solutions. Furthermore, she recommended that practitioners and policy makers take a note from extremist groups and ensure that their solutions are framed in a positive light. She also reiterated Rondeaux’s comments surrounding the importance of men and women on the ground, particularly how they react to and are impacted by international policies, how they are funded, and their implementation.

The panelists fielded several questions from audience members about the use of metrics in federal policy making and the role of the United States and technology in countering violent extremism before closing out the event.

IFES’ next “Women, Peace and Security” briefing on “Women, Girls and Human Trafficking” will be held on Thursday, January 19, 2016. To RSVP, please contact Liz Sidell at