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From East London to Kenya: The Women Waging War on Extremism

The role of women in countering violent extremism has gained momentum over the past few years. Next in “Women and Jihad,” we look at the people and programs challenging the male-dominated security scene and offering new ways to combat the threat of radicalization.

Written by Flora Bagenal Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
People observe a minute of silence to remember the victims of the London bombings on July 7, 2005. After the attacks, the U.K. joined a growing number of countries that are recognizing the important role women have in countering extremism. AFP/Jack Guez

Fatima Zaman was in her early teens when, on July 7, 2005, four suicide bombers launched synchronized attacks on London, killing 52 people. Her school was 100 yards (90m) from one of the explosions, which blasted through a packed carriage on an Underground train between Liverpool Street and Aldgate Station in East London.

“We heard this massive noise, then there was a bit of a panic and then silence,” Zaman says. “Then the sirens started. Within 45 minutes, our school had been evacuated so it could be used as temporary refuge for victims.”

On her way home, as ambulances flew past, and people in the streets stood around in shock, Zaman started crying, not because she knew any of the victims but because she felt an overwhelming sadness for her hometown.

“The attack changed something within me,” says Zaman, a Muslim of Bengali heritage who describes herself as a born-and-bred Londoner. “Within days there was a huge reaction, a backlash against our community.”

One day, she saw someone pull off a woman’s hijab and spit at her in the street. “That was my first direct experience of racism,” she says.

Witnessing the targeting of Muslims who had nothing to do with the attack, Zaman says she found herself facing a choice. “I could have easily become angry. I saw other young people from my community becoming detached and disenchanted,” she says. “I chose not to do that.”

Instead, she chose to confront the anger and divisions she saw within London and her own community, and earned a degree in politics, specializing in the Middle East and extremism. After she graduated, she pursued a career in counterterrorism, helping to prevent radicalization and experiencing firsthand the importance of community engagement.

“We need to help communities build resilience to extremism,” she says. “We need to help young women in particular develop critical-thinking skills.”

Now 23, Zaman is one of 10 young people from around the world who have been selected to work with Kofi Annan on his Extremely Together project, aimed at eradicating extremism through collaboration and technical innovation. They’re currently designing a mobile phone app to create an anti-radicalization toolkit for communities facing the risk of extremism.

And a large proportion of their work is directed toward women.

“There is a huge gap in the way we understand women’s relationship to terrorism,” Zaman says. “We have missed so much in reducing their roles to simply victims or jihadi brides.”

One example, she says, is women who join ISIS, the Islamic insurgency in Iraq and Syria: “While male fighters live and die in ISIS territory, it is women who form the bedrock of the caliphate and they will be the ones who perpetuate the jihadist message for generations to come. If we don’t recognize how key women are to the survival of the group, we don’t stand a chance.”

Tackling Extremism Before It Starts

The rising frequency and ferociousness of terror attacks around the world coupled with the increasing sophistication with which radical groups are recruiting people means countering violent extremism (CVE) has become one of the fastest-growing facets of the security industry. Alongside more traditional, security-led anti-terror operations, many governments have started funding programs designed to counter extremist narratives at source, training local leaders in how to spot signs of extremism and helping people who are vulnerable to radicalization find other ways to support themselves and their families.

But until recently, those initiatives have almost exclusively focused on men and boys, who are considered most likely to become the perpetrators of violence. In CVE planning and decision-making, too, women are barely more than an afterthought.

Pakistani religious students chant anti-American slogans during a protest rally in Lahore, Pakistan, in June 2005. Programs aimed at combating extremist ideology have traditionally focused on boys and men. But a shift in thinking is bringing more women into efforts to diffuse radicalization before it takes hold. (AP/K.M. Chaudary)

“It’s very rare to see governments including women when they’re designing security and defense strategies for countering violent extremism and terrorism,” says Omezzine Khélifa, a Tunisian politician and social activist who advises the country’s government on ways to stimulate social transformation. “It’s a constant fight if you want to be around the table.”

According to Khélifa, countries such as Tunisia that are grappling with extremism have trouble finding effective ways to engage with communities early on, before radical ideas start to take hold. “We need to be better connected at the national, regional and local level, and governments need to take special efforts to identify and emphasize women and young people,” she says. “Women are often leaders in finding creative solutions.”

Increasingly, many of the more innovative approaches to CVE, like Extremely Together, are small, youth-led projects that are much more female-focused and often have young women at the helm.

Fauziya Abdi is president of Women in International Security in the Horn of Africa (WIIS-HOA) and chair of Sisters Without Borders, a network of Kenyan women’s organizations devoted to the prevention of violent extremism. She says she and her partners created the network after realizing many of the women’s charities within their group were grappling with rising extremism in areas along the Kenyan coast and Somalia, and coming up with solutions on their own.

“We started pooling our experience to try and learn from each other and present a more cohesive response to the problem,” she says.

The group shares ideas and resources aimed at offering communities an alternative to extremism. That could mean helping women find funding opportunities to use for job training, or connecting them with experts in negotiation and peace-building to help them become a positive influence within their families and communities.

The group helps organize female-led discussion groups, particularly on university campuses where young Kenyan women are deemed most at risk of radicalization. And it has started publicizing stories from women who have had negative experiences with extremism.

“The experience these women have when they join these groups is often very different from what they have been promised,” says Abdi. “This is something we are trying to change by encouraging women who have had experience of radicalization to talk to other women and share their stories.”

All in the Family

While Abdi and Zaman focus their work on open dialogue, other groups have had success engaging women covertly in CVE.

In many parts of the world, the communities grappling with extremism are often in remote places where women’s voices are marginalized – but women are also the first to be affected by radicalization. This is particularly true in Pakistan, where the Taliban imposed strict regulations on women, forcing them to cover up, banning them from education and forbidding them from leaving the house unless accompanied by a male relative. And still, one organization managed to work covertly for years with mothers of potential Taliban fighters.

“I realized these women needed to be educated on what was happening in their community. I wanted to empower them to be able to challenge extremist beliefs,” says Mossarat Qadeem, whose charity the Paiman Trust pioneered the Mother Tolana project, which is designed to help women in conservative communities in the Swat region detect and eventually stand up to extremism within their families.

“It was very difficult work. We’re talking about an area that is highly conservative, where no one imagines women will leave the house unless it is for health reasons or a special occasion like a wedding ceremony.”

The charity persuaded men to allow their wives, mothers and daughters to attend sessions at the charity’s headquarters, saying they would be teaching the women livelihood skills. And the women were taught skills such beekeeping and basic accounting, but they were also encouraged to discuss extremism and its impact on their families. Later, they were taught negotiating skills and ways to approach the issue with the men in their families, so they could offer up alternatives to radical ideology.

Qadeem estimates the Mother Tolana project reached over 700 families, empowering women in the region in a way that had never been tried before.

“Taking a community approach to radicalization is the only way forward,” says Edit Schlaffer, executive director of Women Without Borders. In 2008, the NGO founded one of the first global female-led counterterrorism platforms designed to mobilize mothers and other women in conflict hotspots including Tajikistan, Kashmir, India, Nigeria and Indonesia.

“We have seen how a securitized response to [extremism] has inflamed conflict,” says Schlaffer. “In the long run, it only creates hostility and divides communities. This has to stop.”

Instead, she says, giving women a voice and a role to play in countering radicalization creates an opportunity to bring families and communities together.

“We need to look at parenting as a commonality between us all. We all want to keep our children safe,” Schlaffer says. “We need to find positive solutions that unite people and safeguard all of our futures.”


This story is part of our special series “Women and Jihad.”

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