Gendering Counterterrorism: How to, and How Not to – Part I

After decades of marginalization, there has been a swift—meteoric, even—rise in governments recognizing the need to mainstream gender perspectives across efforts to fight terrorism. Here we ask: how this happened, what it all means, and what animates the gender dimensions of counterterrorism (CT) and preventing or countering violent extremism (PVE, CVE) policies as they manifest at the United Nations and in the organizational priorities of regional and specialized entities (e.g., NATO, European Union), as well as at the national level. In a second article, we will identify what is problematic in this uptake of gender mainstreaming and diagnose why these problems are emerging, before proposing some fixes.

The road to integrating gender perspectives in counter-terrorism and P/CVE

Gender dimensions of both terrorism and its response have long been off the radar of policymakers in the national security sphere. Here we provide a brief overview of the reasons for, and effects of, States’ gender-blindness—and in some cases outright hostility—to gender mainstreaming in this policy sphere, before turning to trace the uptick in the international community’s attention to gender, particularly from 2013 onward.

To talk of States’ traditional approaches to gender in national security is to tell a story that is largely one of omission, with States’ gender-blindness on national security regularly shortchanging efficacy of policies, as well as human rights. The results of this blindness manifested in a number of ways that still reverberate in the contemporary moment, including: continued impunity for terrorists who directly and differently target women and girls, the failure to address female perpetrators, gender-based abuses in the name of national security, and the exclusion of grassroots women’s groups on the frontlines against violence.

What’s more, some States were historically openly hostile to a gender and human rights approach to counter-terrorism, deeming that the emphasis on gender encroached on the sovereignty of States inimical to women’s rights concerns, as well as taking liberties with the outer limits of human rights protection. Particularly on the latter, as a wider category of analysis than “sex” or biology, a gender perspective on national security could be confronting because it meant going beyond just talking about women to address deeply complex societal questions around masculinities and femininities and how they do—or don’t—change because of governments’ action and inaction on terrorism. The adverse reaction to the 2009 groundbreaking report on gender by the then-UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism—primarily due to the report’s refusal to treat gender as synonymous with women and to instead subject counter-terrorism policy to a wider inquiry—is a case in point.

However, particularly from 2013 onward the international community—particularly through the UN—shifted in its overall approach, moving to deliberately address the gender dimensions of terrorism and counter-terrorism (some governments such as the United Kingdom and the United States started earlier, as did the OSCE). This shift coincided with a move toward “soft” tactics in the counter-terrorism sphere that mobilized areas such as rule of law, human rights, and development—and sometimes women’s rights and women, peace, and security (WPS) issues—as part of more holistic and upstream efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism (see more here).

In 2013, in its resolution 2122, the Security Council first expressed its intention to increase attention to WPS issues in threats caused by terrorist acts, reaffirming this objective later that year. Throughout 2014, the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council (in resolution 2178, S.C. Pres. Statement 2014/21, and resolution 2195) encouraged member States to encourage women’s empowerment and participation in counter-terrorism and P/CVE, including to counter violent extremist narratives.

In 2015 things really took off. That September, the U.N. Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee held its first-ever open briefing on the role of women in countering terrorism and violent extremism (see here and here). That October, the Security Council adopted its landmark resolution 2242, calling for the “greater integration” of the WPS and counter-terrorism and CVE agendas, as well as for more “gender-sensitive research and data collection on the drivers of radicalization for women, and the impacts of counter-terrorism strategies on women’s human rights and women’s organizations.” The resolution also called for member States and the UN “to ensure the participation and leadership of women and women’s organizations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism.” In early December 2015, the Security Council encouraged member States to address the conditions conducive to the spread of violent extremism, including by empowering women. This work was supplemented by the focus of entities such as the GCTF (Global Counterterrorism Forum) on the gender dimensions of countering violent extremism.

In early 2016, the U.N. Secretary General presented his Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism with numerous references to women and gender and also a dedicated and cross-cutting overview of the topic under the heading “[g]ender equality and empowering women.” Among other things, it recommends that member States mainstream gender; “invest in gender-sensitive research and data collection on women’s roles in violent extremism . . . . and on the impacts of counter-terrorism strategies on their lives;” include women in security institutions; and enhance “capacity of women and their civil society groups to engage in prevention and response efforts related to violent extremism.”

In its fifth review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy the same year, the UN General Assembly for the first time referenced the “important contribution of women” to the strategy. And after years on the global sidelines of these developments, UN Women subsequently co-chaired the then-Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force’s recently-established Gender and Counter Terrorism Working Group. By year’s end, the Security Council, struck particularly by the treatment of Yazidi women and girls by ISIS unanimously linked trafficking in persons to terrorism and other transnational organized criminal activities.

In line with these developments, States and the U.N. architecture have moved ahead with initiatives from funding research on gender and the drivers of terrorism and violent extremism to updating technical guidance to appointing gender focal points in security entities to working with female victims to provide support (e.g., in Cameroon) and to get access to justice in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Libya to promoting women’s participation in P/CVE in contexts from Indonesia to Mali, including to bolster mothers’ capacity to detect “radicalization.”

Opportunities in integrating gender in counter-terrorism and P/CVE

There are five ways, in practice, in which gender has been linked to terrorism and violent extremism, as well as its response. A common feature across each area, is that existing initiatives tend to narrow gender mainstreaming to a focus on women, leading to the inclusion of some activities and the exclusion of others as follows.

Women as victims of terrorists and violent extremists: It states the obvious to underscore that women remain vulnerable to terrorism and that the experience of terrorism is devastating on multiple levels to women’s lives across the globe. Significant unmet protection needs for victims of terrorism and violent extremism implicate a wide range of women’s human rights, including non-discrimination and equality, liberty and security of person, right to health, right to education, and right to freedom of religion, requiring a dedicated and gender-sensitive and human rights-compliant response.

Often, however, because of lower status and entitlements under the formal law of the land, women struggle to be recognized as victims or to receive the multiple kinds of legal and social protections they need in the aftermath of extreme violence. And to date, this response to victims of terrorism has focused narrowly on sexual violence against women as “integrally linked with the strategic objectives, ideology and funding of extremist groups,” meaning that the multiple other harms women may experience have frequently faded into the background or been ignored entirely, and that the gender-based experiences of male victims can also be marginalized.

Gender equality as a counter-terrorism tactic: This entails promoting gender equality and women’s human rights as part of the security toolkit, particularly to address conditions conducive to terrorism and violent extremism. The oft-repeated rationale supporting this is that:

While women do sometimes play an active role in violent extremist organizations, it is also no coincidence that societies for which gender equality indicators are higher are less vulnerable to violent extremism.”

For example, two years ago at the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, then-U.S. Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights declared that “in reality, CVE is a feminist agenda,” imploring women to “seize this opportunity” to “reframe their rights and roles as part of the most salient international security effort of the 21st century.”

While rhetorically appealing, as we will explore further below, the equality dimensions of counter-terrorism agendas remain highly muted in practice. Moreover, the complexities of the role of gender equality in shaping recruitment to non-state organizations (e.g., some women see these groups as representing opportunities for gender parity) are little explored and in tension with this gender equality language in CT policy that suggests all non-State groups are inherently antithetical to gender equality questions.

Women as perpetrators: This stems from the vital recognition that women play an active role in the maintenance, perpetuation, and execution of terrorism ideologies and actions. This line of activities focuses on understanding the drivers of violence for women and also—in theory—enables attention to gender-sensitive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs for female perpetrators (e.g., for foreign female returnees from ISIS). Indeed, it was the specter of young Western women traveling to Iraq and Syria—many of whom now seek to return—that caused a recent upswing in attention to this component, despite long histories of women’s engagement as combatants in ethno-national conflicts. Work in this area has, however, largely avoided a focus on broader gender dimensions (e.g., ideas about masculinity) for mobilization of men and has at times traded in gender stereotypes around women’s engagement also, assuming for example, that young women must be tricked or only join ISIS to become “jihadi brides.”

Women as peacemakers: Long-standing research into, and practice of, women as peacemakers at community, national and regional levels underpins this stream of engagement. Here gender mainstreaming largely amounts to promoting the participation and leadership of women and girls in counter-terrorism and P/CVE strategies in both online and offline spaces. This includes mothers trained through “mother’s schools” to detect early signs of “radicalization,” and women providing counter-narratives to terrorism and violent extremism, humanizing the impact of terrorism and violent extremism, and assisting with reintegration of those exiting proscribed groups. As women are often already on the frontlines of combating violence in their communities—from assisting victims of terrorism to negotiating ceasefires to contributing to equal and stable societies—this inclusion is an important corrective to earlier CT and P/CVE interventions that had explicitly focused on engaging or bolstering “credible” voices or actors, which in practice meant male tribal leaders, religious leaders, and former members of terrorist or violent extremist groups.

Women as victims of governments’ national security policy and practice: Scholarly and policy initiatives (including from both authors here and here) have demonstrated how counter-terrorism law and practice differently affects women and men in highly prejudicial and gendered ways. There is now an emerging realization that States can—either directly or indirectly—commit gendered human rights violations in the name of national security and that these violations are also intersectional in their effects, having particular impacts on women in populations marginalized by race, religion, ethnicity, and other categories.

These violations include: women’s rights groups and defenders being labeled terrorists by their own repressive governments, counter-terrorism financing rules that cut off money to victims and women’s rights groups, unwarranted detentions of female family members as a form of collective punishment, attacks on Muslim women and girls who often bear the brunt of Islamophobia that result from some governments’ counter-terrorism tactics, and the use of gendered interrogation techniques on male detainees (e.g., having female interrogators smear menstrual blood on them).

Additionally, P/CVE—often characterized as the “soft” side of national security—can also undermine women’s rights when it both overlooks women, but also even when it seeks to place them at the fore. Development programming that overlooks women and girls to allocate resources to “at-risk” young boys is one example of the former (see here). The U.K.’s dangerous and marginalizing emphasis on Muslim women in its pre-2011 Prevent program is one example of the latter (see here). 

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).

Jayne Huckerby

Clinical professor of law and the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University School of Law. She was an adviser to, and witness for, the NCCIT. Follow her on Twitter (@jaynehuckerby).