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

Earlier this week, we outlined the opportunities in integrating gender in counter-terrorism and preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) across a number of areas —women as victims of terrorists and violent extremists; gender equality as a counter-terrorism tactic; women as perpetrators; women as peacemakers; and women as victims of governments’ national security policy and practice. In this article, we set out some of the challenges in addressing gender dimensions in each of these areas of policy-making, as well as offer an account of the reasons these challenges are occurring, along with some thoughts on how a human rights and gender-sensitive way forward might look.

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

While many of these strands are important and present important openings, in practice, the challenges in addressing the gender dimensions of terrorism and its response are acute, and often may risk adverse downstream consequences for the rights of women and girls. Some examples across each of these categories suffice to illustrate these problems.

Women as victims of terrorists and violent extremists: Despite policy recognition of the need to support victims, this does not happen in ways that are gender-sensitive and human rights-compliant. For example, rules on foreign assistance might block safe abortions for Yazidi women; rescued female victims of Boko Haram can be de facto treated as criminals, including by being put through compulsory de-radicalization programs before being allowed to return to their communities; and material support bars to asylum in practice unduly penalize women and girls for coerced service to proscribed groups (e.g., as cooks or messengers). Concentrating on gender-based violence against women can sideline other forms of abuse against women (e.g., forced dress codes), as well as gender-based violence against men. Moreover, a focus on heightened, terrorism-related violence has had a tendency to detract attention from the systematic (and sometimes not unrelated) gender-based violence that women experience in society every day.

We also fear that sometimes these mapping the relationships between terrorism and its impacts on women risk securitized responses to what are first and foremost human rights issues. For example, while much has recently been made of the nexus between human trafficking and terrorism, this connection is unclear and the conjoining of these issues risks privileging a law enforcement or criminal response over a human rights-based approach to anti-trafficking. This can unduly bolster the role of security institutions in addressing a complex phenomenon that is increasingly recognized as being linked to multiple root causes, including restrictive immigration rules, lack of labor rights, and gender discrimination.

By way of another example that one of us has described at length, counter-terrorism financing rules have made it difficult to support victims as rights-holders. With States—and banks and donors—unsure of how to certify who is a “true” victim (indeed, sometimes someone might be both a victim and a perpetrator) or how to provide women in “at-risk areas” with humanitarian assistance without running afoul of rules prohibiting material support, they err on the side of security caution over women’s rights’ protection. We saw this final example play out in real life in al-Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia during the 2011 famine there.

Gender equality as a counter-terrorism tactic: As we have noted elsewhere (see here and here), addressing women’s rights and female participation, or the WPS agenda as tools for national security rather than ends in and of themselves is an instrumentalist approach. It opens up the possibility of women’s rights being bartered away or rolled back if doing so is seen to further national security and appease terrorist groups — something that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has also warned against. And it risks crowding out other frameworks (e.g., the WPS agenda) for developing programs on women’s security, with women’s groups increasingly feeling pressure to reorient their activities to fit a national security objective in order to attract much-needed funding even if this is a mismatch for their programs and beneficiaries. Moreover, efforts to protect women’s rights in the name of counter-terrorism can actually have the opposite effect, undermining women’s equality and security; burkini bans in France are an example of this.

Women as perpetrators: While initially caught unawares by the trend toward women’s engagement in groups such as ISIS (see here), more attention is being paid to identifying the drivers for women who join or support terrorist or violent extremist groups. Yet a big question mark remains over how gender-sensitive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs for women exiting from groups—particularly, in the current moment, from ISIS—might look. Lacking the requisite gender expertise in enforcement, investigation, and prosecution capacities to make the case-by-case determinations that reflect the complexity of women’s engagement, governments tend to talk of “women in ISIS” as a whole and leave foreign women who have travelled to Iraq and Syria stranded in camps or to be tried by local courts. Given that we have decades of experience of DDR in multiple global settings such as Uganda, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland, there is plenty of good practice (and lessons learnt from bad practice) to be gleaned about reintegrating women, as well as men, back into highly-contested societal contexts. Yet, in short, there has been a great tendency to overplay stereotypes in the mobilization context to such groups as ISIS, and a lack of integrated thinking (and historic learning) on how to move forward once leaving the group is contemplated.

Women as peacemakers: Alongside women’s protection from terrorism, the focus of much of the gender mainstreaming in CT and P/CVE presently is on promoting women’s participation in such programs. Yet even these policy commitments to enhance women’s participation in national security tactics and bodies fall short in practice. For example, a 2017 review of nine national action plans to prevent violent extremism found that gender and gender equality concepts “are sparsely mentioned.” Additionally, many grassroots women’s organizations in “at risk” communities are wary of their inclusion in this agenda, steering well clear because too close an association with national security agendas invites backlash, as well as requiring proximity to unreformed security services. Even when grassroots, often small, women’s groups do want to participate (e.g., to run programs for victims), counter-terrorism financing rules are a huge impediment as noted above. Running counter to the inclusion agenda—as well as the very premise of P/CVE which favors localized, context-specific approaches—the U.N. and governments often end up overlooking those women’s groups already on the frontlines in combatting violence, instead falling back on gatekeeper “safe” women’s groups that may have more credibility with security services and the international community than local populations.

Moreover, the analogy for women as peacemakers in the national security context is problematic on many levels. It commodifies the motif of inclusion is to ensure that more women are part of the policy production in national spaces without fundamentally changing the content of that conversation to reflect a wider variety of issues, including gender discrimination as causal to the production of violence. Peacemaking is also a limited rhetorical device locally when global security policy remains a male dominated and highly-exclusionary space for women. We see little sustained evidence of gender parity and inclusion in these global spaces and view the reform of the global counter-terrorism architecture itself to meaningfully encompass human rights as essential to delivering on gender equality in the counter-terrorism sphere.

Women as victims of governments’ national security policy and practice: This is the forgotten prong of gender mainstreaming in CT and P/CVE. Despite being required by international human rights law and other international obligations to, attention to the differentiated impacts of counter-terrorism and P/CVE—including through an intersectionality approach—is so woefully un- or under-addressed in this space that there is little more to add at this time except to explore the reasons for this and other lacunae in the current gendering of CT and P/CVE below.

So, what’s going wrong?

Five big-picture things stand out. First, what is happening in the CT and P/CVE space is amateur gender mainstreaming. While the U.N. counter-terrorism architecture and, to some degree, States, know they have to gender their counter-terrorism and P/CVE approaches, there is very little idea of what this actually means in practice. As a result, gender is treated as synonymous with women and the focus is often on the local or informal level rather than on more system-wide changes to national security architecture, including through gender-sensitive security sector reform. Instead of drawing on a wealth of existing expertise on gender mainstreaming in non-security contexts and applying a rights-based approach (e.g., that addresses gender-specific barriers to women’s participation in security), often there is an over-simplified and instrumental strategy to just “add women and stir.” This hasn’t worked in other spheres and all indications are that it will fail here, too where the challenges of facilitating women’s engagement from the grassroots level to formal security institutions are particularly stark.

Second, mainstreaming a gender perspective is—incorrectly—seen as something that is distinct from States’ human rights and other international law obligations. An example of this is when those in favor of inclusion rely on the business case that women should be empowered to counter terrorism and violent extremism because they make these policies better or “smarter,” rather than because human rights guarantees of non-discrimination and equality require that women participate in all decision-making. Or point to U.N. Security Council resolutions rather than binding human rights obligations as the reason why governments have to address the human rights impacts of States’ counter-terrorism policies.

Why does this matter? Just one example of the costs of gender without human rights is when strategies focus on women’s engagement in violence but do so without addressing the role of human rights violations and grievances as conditions conducive or motivations. For example, in overlooking the accounts of European women in ISIS about how alienation and restrictions on their religious practices, like the burqa ban, helped push them into the group, a key opportunity is missed for those concerned with security, as well as rights.

Third, is what we are increasingly seeing in the international community as the gender (or women) versus human rights trade-off. We both observe the somewhat odd specter of gender being included more systematically and centrally than human rights in strategies that address terrorism and counter-terrorism, and make the assumption that gender in this modality is somehow seen as less threatening or implicating less cost for States. In other words, countries looking to show bona fides on counter-terror treat adding women as the low-hanging fruit compared with ensuring human rights and present the two approaches as alternate choices, such that agreeing to gender mainstream lets them off the hook when it comes to rights.

Moreover, gender is being engaged in multiple settings as if it were an entirely different and unrelated enterprise to the protection of women’s human rights. Here also, the gender inclusion emphasis is primarily on those counter-terrorism initiatives that concentrate on the protection of women from terrorist threat (we both—to state the obvious—agree this is important) and women’s participation in counter-terror (we both—to state the obvious—agree this is important), but do so in ways that are entirely disconnected from the social and economic contexts that give many women second-class and unequal status. Moreover, when States emphasize gender without any reference to human rights what is being advanced is a hollow version of women’s protection and participation in the counter-terrorism context, and in the process both the centrality of women’s rights and human rights are being simultaneously undermined. Risks of governments infusing security institutions and tactics with women and references to them as a cure-all—or even cover—for harsh counter-terrorism measures are also rife.

Fourth, is the outsized influence of security actors in this space. Indeed, the cost of entities such as UN Women staying out of these discussions for so many years is that decisions on these issues have been largely relinquished to security actors without the necessary expertise in how women experience—and combat—terrorism and violent extremism in their daily lives. Unsurprising, such security actors also have little to no incentive to look at the gendered human rights violations that result from security policies. In a context where instrumentalization, securitization, and co-option of women are not buzzwords but instead profound human rights and efficacy challenges, relying on security actors and the occasional—sometimes token—gender advisor within security architecture is not enough, and this tension will be exacerbated when advisors may have more of a security than a gender and/or human rights perspective. Instead, a cross-section of stakeholders is needed in order for policies to be nuanced and effective, as well as to comply with human rights. Here the insistence should be that it is not only security actors that do the work of gendering counter-terrorism but that this undertaking also belongs to those with longer histories in gender mainstreaming and the promotion of human rights of women and girls.

Fifth, is the tendency to approach each of the gender dimensions of counter-terrorism and P/CVE (e.g., women as victims and perpetrators, as well as agents of change) in isolation. Instead an integrated approach recognizes for example that women and women’s groups may simultaneously experience gendered protection needs arising from both State and non-State actions that squeezes them and their human rights between terrorism and its response. For example, a recent survey of grassroots women’s groups found that 86.67 percent classified their organization’s work—including in areas such as peacebuilding and conflict resolution—as contributing to combatting terrorism and violent extremism. Yet, 90 percent said that counter-terrorism measures had an adverse impact on work for peace, women’s rights, and gender equality generally. This squeezing of women and their human rights between terror and counter-terror will continue unless there is a shift from focusing merely the questions of protecting women from terrorism and what women can do in counter-terrorism and P/CVE to developing a deeper analysis that benchmarks both gender and human rights. As noted above, the connections between grievances that result from counter-terrorism policies and the conditions conducive to women and girls joining terrorist and violent extremist groups must also be addressed.

What is next, then?

In conclusion, the present state of affairs in this area is dire, and in some cases, dangerous because lip service is being increasingly paid to gendering CT and P/CVE when what is actually happening bears little resemblance to gender mainstreaming that is authentic, as well as consistent with international human rights and other legal obligations. Gendering counter-terrorism and P/CVE cannot be done adequately or effectively without centralizing human rights, and more specifically women’s human rights in the law and practice of counter-terrorism. We have offered some preliminary observations on what this means in practice for each of the five existing work streams—women as victims of terrorists and violent extremists; gender equality as a counter-terrorism tactic; women as perpetrators; women as peacemakers; and women as victims of governments’ national security policy and practice—that will be elaborated further in additional posts. But for the moment we emphasize that women’s rights advocates and gender experts working in the CT and P/CVE spaces have a particularly important obligation to remain locked into and unrepentant on the necessity of protecting women’s social, economic, cultural, political, civil and reproductive rights in the context of countering terrorism and P/CVE.

In the immediate term, this means for example, insisting on genuine assistance programs for female victims that are adequately funded and do not treat victims as criminals; querying the trafficking-terror nexus being advanced in the international community and its implications; creating spaces for those traditionally outside of security architecture to provide substantive input based on their expertise in gender mainstreaming and human rights questions; proposing human-rights compliant and gender-sensitive approaches to women returning from ISIS; and developing frameworks for evaluating and remedying national security policies (e.g., countering terrorism financing rules) that adversely impact women and women’s groups. Ultimately, gender remains an essential aspect of the way in which the lure of terrorism operates, the targeting that defines it, and the costs that are incurred as a result. And addressing gender as an essential element of a human rights approach to countering terrorism and P/CVE is in the long-term the means to nullify the conditions that produce and sustain all forms of violence.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images. 

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 director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Duke University School of Law and is an advisor to, and a witness for, the NCCIT. Follow her on Twitter: @jaynehuckerby.