Women in Security

During this edition of the Warsaw Security Forum (November 8-9, 2017), on the second day, there was a special panel Women in Security: Gender, Violent Extremism, and Terrorism with partnership of the Women in International Security (WIIS). Chair: Frances G. Burwell – Senior Fellow, Women In International Security; Distinguished Fellow, Atlantic Council, USA. Keynote speakers: Aleksandra Gasztold – Assistant Professor, University of Warsaw, Poland; Melissa Conley Tyler – National Executive Director, Australian Institute of International Affairs, Australia; Anna-Karin Eneström – Director General for Political Affairs, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sweden; Hamoon Khelghat-Doost – PhD Fellow, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

The discussion involved the following points:
• The extent of women’s involvement in violent extremism. The push and pull factors of radicalization and recruitment.
• The success of violent extremist organizations in leveraging gender norms to aid recruitment efforts.
• The multiple and varied roles women play in terrorism, including the claim that some jihadi organizations have been much more strategic about engaging women than other organisations.
• An overview of current government P/CVE programs and recommendations on how to strengthen gender-sensitive initiatives.
• Over the longer term, engagement and empowerment of women is crucial to combating violent extremism. Any successful counterterrorist strategy must address the role of women and should engage women

Anna-Karin Eneström spoke about how extensive women’s engagement is and what kind of knowledge the authorities possess about this phenomenon. Women play a role in almost all aspects of violent extremism and terrorism. Despite this, they are often stigmatized and idealized by governments and extremists. Then, Melissa Conley Tyler was asked to present a global view of female roles in terrorist organisations. We often think of women as victims of violent extremism, however, she underlined that it is not the only role they play, nor even the predominant one. According to Tyler, we have to take seriously the fact that those women exercised agency and that they were sympathizers, recruiters, propagandists, perpetrators, and preventers. Many different motives, just like in the case of male terrorists, can be found behind women’s decisions to join extremist groups. In some cases it may be perceived as a rational choice, even sometimes a way of life. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost presented his research on jihadi organizations and explained how they tend to engage women. He questioned the common opinion that such terrorist groups only oppress women.

Aleksandra Gasztold addressed the effective anti-terrorist strategies and female deradicalisation potential. She presented several deprogramming initiatives from all over the world (Sister Against Violent Extremism/SAVE, Women/Girls in Violent Extremism/WomEx, Pakistani Women Moderating Extremism/PWME). Aleksandra Gasztold claimed that nowadays we can’t build a viable security without women’s participation because they play crucial roles in local communities, upholding tradition, taking care of religious values, transmitting national legends and myths, as well as raising children. Mothers are the best peacemakers and role models for their children. Gasztold voiced a few recommendations for effective and improved counter-terrorist policy: scenarios development analysis (map of transformation of female illegal activities) and the need to establish the Database on Female Terrorism and Extremism (international one, as an extract of the common base).

During the session, the public were invited to join in the discussion. There was some scepticism among the speakers about resolving the problem of women’s participation in terrorism in Africa. The example of Nigeria was raised (Boko Haram), where membership in a terrorist group is often for women a chance for survival and education. Aleksandra Gasztold shared the opinion that promising solutions involve an elaboration at the UN-level and, further, an implementation of the comprehensive DDR program (disarment, demoblisation and reintegration), like it was with FARC members in Columbia, ETA in Spain, or LTTE on Sri Lanka.

In conclusion, it is worth calling Frances G. Burwell’s opening speech of the session, where she remarked that women are more than 50% of the world population. This fact is something that should be taken into consideration by decision-makers, and certainly not something to be ignored.