Feminism Assessing Terrorism (or How to Slay a New Dragon)

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

Last week, we celebrated International (Working) Women’s Day. This week, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) holds its annual meeting in New York. With increasing attention to countering violent extremism and a new found emphasis in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2242 on women’s roles in counterterrorism, it seems timely to pause and reflect on how feminist scholars, practitioners, and advocates might respond to ever-shifting security imperatives and how long-standing priorities for the global women’s movement are being shaped and directed by new security frameworks. This seems imperative as sustained global attention to the gendered dimensions of poverty, the necessity of gendered development, pervasive state and non-state violence against women, and the diminution of equality gains for women are pervasive realities in danger of being obscured by ever-expanding counterterrorism dialogues.

UNSCR 2242 explicitly highlights the role of women in countering violent extremism, and addresses the impact of the rise of extremism on the lives of women through displacement, as well as direct and indirect violence. UNSRC 2242 calls for:

the participation of women and women’s organizations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism which can be conducive to terrorism, including through countering incitement to commit terrorist acts, creating counter narratives and other appropriate interventions.

I want to start by stating the obvious: A sustained and systematic feminist engagement with terrorism and CVE is important and overdue. From a feminist perspective, it is notable that terrorism and counterterrorism have long been of only marginal interest to mainstream feminist legal theorizing with some very important caveats. These include scholarly and policy writing on female combatants, and more recently on female terrorists – particularly those associated with the violent politics of extremist jihadist groupings.

Women in terrorism and CVE discourses are typically present as the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of terrorist actors, or as the archetypal victims of senseless terrorist acts whose effects on the most vulnerable (women themselves) underscore the unacceptability of terrorist targeting. Feminist scholars (and policymakers) have generally not articulated a feminist perspective on the ways in which states respond to violent challengers. In general, what little feminist writing exists makes a strong case for gender as an “analytical category.” This gives space to address women victims of terrorism, women combatants/terrorists and what motivates them, and thinking about making counterterrorism laws more effective by taking gender mores in account.

Unexpectedly, there is little literature or analysis of terrorism as a phenomenon, as an “essentially contested category,” from a feminist perspective. If feminist theorizing is, on Joan Scott’s account, “a primary way of signifying relationships of power,” how might feminists apply a power analysis to the ever-expanding field we call “terrorism?” Might we, in Cynthia Enloe’s terms, display a feminist curiosity about the definition of terrorism? Might we want to move out of an analysis that merely marks women as objects of protective attention in terrorism discourses, or subjects of prurient interest when they are violent and presumed aberrational? Might we want to avoid the “taken for granted” status and nature of terrorism, and pause to think about who gets to define who is a terrorist, who gets the label and what it means, and what the use of the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” excludes in our conversations about politically, socially, religiously, and structurally motivated violence?

As a feminist security scholar, raising these questions is not unproblematic. It is unfailingly difficult in any jurisdiction to activate a conversation about how, why, and with what baggage we use the term “terrorism.” Doing so puts one in the category of a seeming apologist for unacceptable acts, while not doing so invites intellectual dishonesty and superficial engagement with a highly complex and diffuse range of actors, geographies, and motivations. Critical reflection remains an outside and marginal perspective in contemporary terrorism and security discourses.

The preoccupation with the challenges posed by violent actors has long existed for many states, whether such actors are characterized as terrorists or insurgents, non-state or paramilitary actors. But, the events of September 11, 2001 brought new urgency and vibrancy to state action in the realm of counterterrorism, illustrated by both the response of national legal systems as well as more concerted efforts to achieve multilateral and multilevel counterterrorism reactions on the international stage.

Undoubtedly the use of the terms “terrorism” and “counterterrorism” pose some conceptual and methodological challenges. The term “terrorism” has become ubiquitous in contemporary state conversations to describe the actions and views of those who disavow the state or use violent methods to advance their political beliefs and ideologies. Moreover, the term has widened in many jurisdictions to include criminalization of those who provide “material support” to terrorist groups, and the space between legitimate freedoms of speech and association on the one side in relationship to terrorism practice on the other has narrowed.

The term is provocative and generally intentionally pejorative, as it places those included within its ambit outside the realm of acceptable behavior, and signals their exclusion from the agreed upon social and communal boundaries of the state and the community. As a feminist scholar, it might be a good start to point out that the term precludes deeper conversations about the causalities of violence, as well as reflection on the conditions within the state conducive to engendering violent acts. Much of the legal and political literature is rife with sweeping generalizations about the nature and form of all types of violence directed against states, discouraging any attempts to disaggregate the phenomenon of terrorism from other forms of violence. It is not the goal (or capacity) of this post to revisit the lack of definitional and legal clarity surrounding “terrorism,” but rather to acknowledge that the absence of such precision influences how we understand women who operate as terrorist actors and how we assess the kinds of harms to women resulting from counterterrorism responses.

For feminists, reflection on how a focus on particular acts of violence — generally to the body and to property — avoids state engagement with structural and pervasive violence ought to give momentary pause on the unthinking adoption of the terrorism category itself as the default description for collective, politically motivated, and group violence. We may be better served by hesitancy on the use of the term and a more cautious approach to our definitions and framings of violence. At the very least, it might prompt critical reflection on the need to judiciously tease out the category — moving to an emphasis on precision and nuance in application, and a focus on acts of terrorism —specifically in the sense of civilian targeting as the core to which the legal concept should be applied.

Thus, in a preliminary way this post points to the value of a distinctly feminist response to the widening and deepening of the category of terrorism, particularly in societies where that move occurs in parallel with a closing of civil society space. A feminist approach to CVE and counterterrorism does far more than narrowly vaunt the merits of gender as a site of analytical value to these discourses. A feminist agenda, mirroring the 2016 priority for the CSW, focuses on women’s empowerment and understands the relationship between sustainable development and the erasure of violence. A feminist tactic understands and integrates the totality of violences that women experience in society from state, non-state, and intimately related actors rather than cherry picking selectively bad actors. A feminist approach appreciates the totality of women’s intersectional lives in violent spaces, and precludes the commodification and securitization of women’s lives. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism; This article is written in the author's personal and academic capacity; Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School; Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland; Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).