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More Than Just Mothers: The Changing Roles of Women in Extremism

Fauziya Abdi represents a network of women’s organizations in Kenya working to prevent violent extremism. Speaking to us for our “Women and Jihad” series, she says women’s increasingly diverse roles within radical groups call for a more sophisticated approach to the problem.

Written by Flora Bagenal Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A police officer tries to break up a protest by Muslim women demanding the government investigate allegations that Muslim clerics were recruiting children and sending them to Somalia to join al-Shabab, in Mombasa, Kenya, April 2011. AP

Fauziya Abdi developed and implemented one of the first projects on countering violent extremism (CVE) in East Africa a decade ago, when she was working for the Kenya Transition Initiative. Since then, she has become a regional expert on violent extremism, advising governments and nongovernmental organizations. She is the founder and president of WIIS Kenya (Women In International Security – Horn of Africa) and chairs Sisters Without Borders, a network of Kenyan organizations devoted to the prevention of violent extremism.

The network helps connect individuals working on CVE with other organizations so they can collectively address extremism, a growing issue in the region. Abdi says perceptions have shifted since she started working in CVE – women are no longer assumed to be innocent victims or bystanders within extremist groups. There is increasing evidence, she says, that al-Shabab, the militant Islamic group in Somalia, is recruiting women in Kenya and other neighboring countries.

Abdi spoke to Women & Girls about the need for a much more sophisticated approach to the problem and some of the ways the network is helping communities deal with extremism.

Women & Girls: How have perceptions of women and violent extremism changed since you started looking at this issue?

Fauziya Abdi: Initially, the perception was women are just victims. But because we have seen increasing attempts to recruit women [by violent extremist groups], the whole landscape has changed. If CVE projects only target women as mothers, we leave out a lot of other women, including those who have been radicalized in their own right and women who are sisters or wives or friends of extremists. I call it the “perpetual mother syndrome,” where everyone talks about engaging women as mothers because they have their natural instincts to pick up on signs of behavior change. People are slowly waking up to the fact this is a simplified viewpoint, but there is still a long way to go.

Women & Girls: Is it true more women are becoming radicalized in East Africa? What kind of background do these women come from?

Abdi: I would say, yes, we are seeing more women radicalized, based on our experience. We’ve seen radical groups target well-to-do communities for a while, so it doesn’t surprise me that many of these women come from what you can call middle-class or educated backgrounds.

I used to think quiet or introverted people were most at risk of radicalization, but I realize now they target all kinds, including women who are seen as active leaders in their communities. I always tell people, when you look for signs of radicalization in young people, you have to look for behavior change, not necessarily for one type of person or another. Some people say a person became more withdrawn and distanced themselves from their families [when they became involved in an extremist movement], but in other cases, people who have become radicalized actually become more engaged and more active because they want to recruit others to the cause.

Women & Girls: What reasons have you discovered for women joining these groups?

Abdi: One of the key things that stands out is [that they’re joining] because they have not been engaged adequately. Extremist groups tap into this by giving them the impression of better engagement and of giving them a voice. This is contradictory because, within these groups, the rights of women are not actually respected. But somehow extremists are good at giving women the impression they will have a more important role to play if they sign up to the cause.

These women want to be part of something that will deliver good to the people of Somalia and other Muslims in the region. What is sad is the experience these women have when they do join these groups is very different from what they have been told.

Women & Girls: Is there much communication from former extremists about these negative consequences to other potential recruits?

Abdi: Not much comes back, to be honest. The majority of stories that appear in the media are about people leaving and why they leave, but we still don’t get much about what happens to women once they are there. This is something we are trying to change by encouraging women who have had experiences of radicalization to talk to other women and share their stories.

Women & Girls: How do you empower women to counter the threat of extremism?

Abdi: One of the key messages we put out is that we can’t fix everything. We focus on certain issues, like building trust between communities and the security actors, and we push for solutions to come from women themselves. That might mean helping them connect youth to employment projects or leadership opportunities that offer an alternative to violent extremism.

We also engage communities through dialogue, sports and arts and crafts. We strengthen communication and dialogue between communities and between different sectors of society to empower them to bring about change among themselves.

Women & Girls: Is there a divide between the community approach and the police and government approach to the radicalization issue?

Abdi: There is a divide between the community and the security actors, which we try to bridge. Trust-building is one of the activities we do as Sisters Without Borders. We bring together women and security actors to discuss ways to improve our relationships for the betterment of the community.

What we find is on both sides, trust is a major challenge. People don’t see the police as human; they just see them as a problem. We also try and get the police to understand they are supposed to be serving and protecting the people, and they need to demonstrate this when they are carrying out their duties. We organize social activities between security actors and the community, like a football match, which helps everyone feel more at ease. Then we can start building confidence and trust, slowly. It is still a work in progress.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


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


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