Masculinity, Jihad and Mobilization

In spite of considerable state and international efforts being spent to regulate terrorist groups and individuals labeled as terrorists, much less substantive scrutiny has been directed to defining and separating out the causes of terrorism. Astonishingly, any basic literature review reveals that scholars, policymakers, and regulators spend far more time thinking about “defeating,” “ending,” and “managing” terrorism than they do reflecting on the individual, communal, institutional, and structural cases that enable and produce terrorism. At a minimum, the limits of our collective knowledge should force some uncomfortable conversations about the efficacy of legal and policy solutions to terrorism. This reflection does not address the broader conditions conducive to the production of politically motivated violence, but reflects on one specific element, namely the relationship of masculinity practices and tropes to the production of terrorism. In doing so, I try to take a broader view of what the gendered dimensions of terrorism involve. Instead of looking at the experiences of women as combatants or as victims of terrorism, I encourage us to turn our gaze to men. In this move, I am asking that we view men as gendered subjects, and think about the ways in which gender identity, gender status, and gender rewards intertwine with the choices of men to become engaged in politically motivated violence, including jihad.

A concentration on male actors has dominated national security conversations and as a result the “causes” of terrorism are often coded male with little reflection on the gendered contexts, practices and intersectionalities that give profound insight into the conditions that produce and sustain terrorism. For example, the United Nations Secretary General’s Plan of Action and the Working Group on Radicalization and Extremism appear to do gender work when, in reality, their primary mandate is to collect data on women’s roles in violent extremism, include women in counter-terrorism prevention, build women’s civil society capacity so that they can act as barriers to violent extremism, and set aside funds to empower women as a place holder for broader economic, social, and political reforms in marginal communities that are at risk of producing terrorists. Exposing gender dynamics sustains a deeper policy encounter with how gender distinctions underpin many of the identified causalities of politically motivated violence including poverty, political exclusion, and social inequality.

I am particularly interested in practices of  “hyper” masculinity and their relationship with extreme politically motivated violence. Here, I draw on Angela Harris’s definition of “a masculinity in which the strictures against femininity and homosexuality are especially intense and in which physical strength and aggressiveness are paramount.” I frame my analysis by affirming that other kinds of masculinities coexist with hypermasculinity. Notably, however, in situations of conflict, social deprivation, and endemic violence, hypermasculinity plays an enlarged and elevated role. Its social traction is intensified when violence is pervasive, and other social strictures are slackened. The unloosening of these patterns and hierarchies is particularly fraught in societies (or sub-communities) where peacefully gained social status may be subverted by violent stature gained by the use of the gun, ideology, and exploiting civilian vulnerability.

It seems particularly important to me that we better understand why factors associated with hegemonic masculinity strongly correlate towards radicalization and the capacity for violent mobilization. Hegemonic masculinity ideals originate through a combination of cultural expectations and social realities. They include the expectation that men are family patriarchs, and that men are defined in comparison to other men whom they seek to surpass in status, wealth, piety, number of children and social standing. Hegemonic masculinity also includes strong incentives towards masculine performance, including the acceptance and use of violence. In the context of terrorism, radicalism and extremism it is critical to recognize the ways in which these sites enable men to authenticate their masculinity through the performance of and rewards for violence. For human rights practitioners, this exposes the focal point of understanding how gender intersects with the conditions conducive to the production of violence. Namely, that a strong emphasis on non-discrimination, including the absence of gender-based discrimination which serves as a fundamental tenet of human rights equality, unpicks the core masculinity compact in many societies which enables and supports male gender hierarchies, and reward men as men for their cultural, political, and economic performance of masculinity. The point is that addressing the conditions conducive to violence through an equality prism has both the long term capacity to undo the privileges of patriarchy but also may operate to further entrench masculinity and create backlash to women’s rights in the short term. One of the reasons there has been such a tepid response to addressing gender in a holistic way in counter-terrorism is that to do so comprehensively required undoing male privilege, and this task has in a multitude of realms proven to be highly fraught for human rights practitioners over many decades.

To engage gender analysis and application, we have to start by asking the “man” question, interrogating where and how men are situated in relation to the creation, perpetration, and institutionalization of politically motivated violence. In what ways does hegemonic masculinity work in these contexts, and how do masculinities operate to benefit even those men who are at the margins of masculinity norms and practice in the context of terrorist actions? Somewhat ironically, even within the hierarchies of masculinity, subordinated masculinities can benefit from the social construction of male privilege, and value and terrorism may provide a defined outlet for masculinities that would otherwise be subordinated and devalued by society. Thus, men who cannot meet traditional expectations of masculinity—such as bread winner, respect and honor, wealth, access to sexual partners of choice—may precisely find that radical or extremist political mobilization offers a compelling substitute for regular masculinity authentication. It is therefore not accidental that terrorist/violent extremist groups manipulate gender stereotypes to recruit men and women. ISIS notably employs hyper-masculine images to portray its fighters, as well as promised access to sexual gratification, marriage and guaranteed income as a reward for the glory of fighting. These motifs have proven indisputably alluring to marginalized men whose capacity to access any similar social capital or status in their own communities will be extremely limited.


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).