The secret weapon against violent extremism: Women

Women suffer disproportionately from violent extremism, with cultural norms often trapping them in conflict areas and making them vulnerable to sexual violence. Women are sometimes perpetrators of violence or recruiters. However, women also are playing an effective part in the fight against violent extremism.

In 2013, Saliha Ben Ali’s 19-year-old son Sabri disappeared from the family home in Belgium. He had been radicalized by Islamist violent extremists and recruited to fight in Syria. Aside from a brief exchange of texts, the next she heard of him was when the family was told he died in battle three months later.

Ben Ali went on to found the Society Against Violent Extremism Belgium, or S.A.V.E. Belgium, in an effort to fight back against those who are luring both sons and daughters into violent extremist ideologies.

“We’re not angry, we’re disgusted,” she told The Washington Times. “We don’t get how people can use religion to do evil.”

S.A.V.E. Belgium hosts workshops for first- and second-generation mothers in Muslim immigrant families. At the workshops, women are taught how to recognize signs of radicalization to violence and learn ways to counter the narratives used by violent extremist groups to recruit their children.

A woman in a headscarf (© Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
Neriman Yaman’s 16-year-old son carried out a 2016 bombing attack against a Sikh wedding party in Germany. Yaman has written and spoken about trying to prevent her son’s radicalization to violence. (© Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Women use their role as mothers to be effective in countering violent extremism. In addition, their central place in their communities gives them an advantage over national governments and outside organizations in that effort.

One such example is in Afghanistan. Mariam Safi of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies researches the role of women in countering violent extremism there.

In 2001, the Afghan government established community development councils, allocating half of the positions on the councils to women. Safi believes the councils can play a significant role in countering violent extremism.

If the women of the community development councils are given the tools to help detect and stop extremism, “they will be able to transmit those tools to those women at the household level,” Safi told media company News Deeply’s Women & Girls publication. Safi believes this is preferable to having outsiders coming in to villages to “educate” people.

In Kenya, Fauziya Abdi chairs Sisters Without Borders, a network of organizations working to prevent violent extremism. She says there is evidence that al-Shabab, the militant Islamic group in Somalia, is recruiting both men and women from countries like hers.

Among its initiatives, Sisters Without Borders works to build trust between communities and the security forces of whom they are often suspicious. In addition, “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,” Abdi said.