Tag: terrorism

Instrumentalizing Women’s Security in the Counterterrorism Agenda

The UN Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda has become the dominant international legal and discursive framework for addressing gendered violence in international relations. The United Nations made its first great strides towards recognizing violence against women as an issue of international security in its landmark Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. For many, the securitization of gendered violence through 1325 and the subsequent resolutions that now make up the WPS agenda has been a decisive win, elevating to the ‘high politics’ of security the long-expressed concerns that the effects of war, armed conflict, mass violence, and other forms of international insecurity have distinctly gendered effects on men and women. However, as the WPS agenda has developed, the increasingly instrumentalist and reductive view of ‘gender’ and of ‘violence’ employed therein has had unintended impacts on structural, cultural, and economic forms of violence against women.

Since the adoption of SCR 1325, the development of the WPS agenda has been divergent and highly contested. Many feminists have noted with concern the practical bifurcation of the agenda into two parallel, and rarely integrated, concerns: protection versus participation, with ‘protection’ afforded greater attention and institutional support within the UN and other agents of global governance. This prioritization of ‘protecting’ women in times of conflict and insecurity has problematically both relied upon and reinforced gendered logics of protection that reproduce stereotypical ideas of women as passive, weak, and victims, in need of saving by rational, heroic, and militarized men.

When, in 2015, the UN Security Council passed a new WPS resolution, 2242, on countering terrorism and violent extremism, some optimistic that it finally represented a shift in perspective from seeing women only as helpless victims of men’s violence in armed conflict to also being active agents whose inclusion in political peace processes is central to advancing our peace efforts. Yet, the move to incorporate countering violent extremism (CVE) into the WPS agenda has largely focused on women’s roles in preventing radicalization and extremism, further instrumentalizing women’s security towards conventionally statist priorities. Key stakeholders in the implementation of both CVE and WPS measures have tended to operate in a way that seeks to fit women and their concerns into existing militarized prerogatives for addressing international security, rather than considering the social conditions that make such insecurities possible. In this way, the incorporation of gender into the CVE agenda may further represent how gender and gender-based violence has become securitized through the WPS agenda.

What has not been systematically addressed in this ‘gender mainstreaming’ paradigm for CVE are the multiple ways that terrorist groups use highly gendered narratives in their recruitment campaigns to bolster their appeal both to men and women, and how such narratives resonate with their target audiences. For example, ISIS’ recruitment narrative relies on hyper-masculinized and violently militarized motifs, portraying their jihadists as ‘real men’ who are rewarded for their service with promises of a home, monthly allowance, and a wife. The reliance on conventional gender norms and exploitation of gendered anxieties regarding the capacity to fulfill said norms are critical to understanding the appeal of extremist groups.

Yet, within the CVE frameworks, gender remains narrowly understood as relevant only to ‘women,’ and the interest in gender instrumental to the security of states. Rather than rendering the global security regime developed to combat the threat of terrorism a “gender-friendly” space, global policy on terrorism and counterterrorism “show the continued dominance of a masculine paradigm in those arenas central to international security.”

 

How the WPS-CVE Nexus is Failing Women

In July 2018, thousands of women are being held in Iraq and Syria on terrorism related charges on accusations of their links to Islamic State. Known as “jihadi brides” or “sexual jihadis,” these women are being denied basic provisions of human rights and facing punishment on the mere suspicion of their links to IS militants. Facing death sentences for their links to terrorism, the implementation of CVE measures in this case has exacerbated gendered abuses.

Captured in 2017, many of the women are being held in detention camps in legal and political limbo, as their home countries refuse to repatriate them, fearing the spread of radical Islamism. While many of the women are from neighbouring Gulf States, a number also come from Western countries including Germany, France, Russia, and the United States. Others have already been charged with terrorism-related offences and are now facing 10-minute death sentence trials under the Iraqi judicial system. Accused of entering the country illegally and supporting ISIS by living in the caliphate, the thousands of women are facing punishments to the full extent of counter-terror laws in Iraq. Iraqi officials speaking to the New York Times explained:

“These Islamic State criminals committed crimes against humanity and against our people in Iraq, in Mosul and Salahuddin and Anbar, everywhere,” said Gen. Yahya Rasool, the spokesman for the Iraqi joint operations command. “To be loyal to the blood of the victims and to be loyal to the Iraqi people, criminals must receive the death penalty, a punishment that would deter them and those who sympathize with them.”

According to critics, one of the most egregious outcomes of these women’s being swept up in the counter-terror proceedings is that it has also impeded political will to investigate gender-based crimes perpetrated by ISIS, including the systematic use of forced marriage, sexual slavery, and strict curtailments of women’s rights. News reports suggest that the lives of ‘jihadi brides’ were strictly monitored and controlled, with women facing harsh punishments if they behaved in a way considered un-Islamic.

The example of jihadi brides underscores the tensions between the two available subject positions of women in armed conflict. The narratives of these women as dangerous terrorists is premised on the fact that their active participation in violence runs counter to the idealised feminine role we expect of women, ultimately characterizing them as gender deviant. On the other hand, to characterize them solely as unwitting or unwilling victims, subject to the will of their male protectors and guardians, reinforces gendered stereotypes and deny any agency or attachment to political ideals that the women may hold. The explicitly sexual connotation associated with ‘sexual jihadis’ implies a sexual deviancy and suggests that the women may be getting what they deserve for allowing themselves to be ‘seduced’ or ‘lured’ into ISIS in the first place by men more powerful or more clever than themselves.

Yet, even where attitudinal shift has taken place towards women who have been associated with ISIS from seeing them only as victims to also seeing them as active agents of terrorism, the focus has remained on how to instrumentalize women towards operational effectiveness in preventing and countering terrorism and violent extremism. For example, in March 2016 at an event on Gender and CVE, the US Under-Secretary of State Sarah Sewall stated that “empowered women provide powerful antidotes to violent extremism. They are able to refute extremist narratives and nihilistic visions with independence and authenticity. Societies that respect the rights of all and fully engage the participation of all have no room for violent extremism. So women’s empowerment is not only essential for defeating violent extremism; defeating violent extremism is essential for women’s empowerment. The two go hand-in-hand” (qtd in Chowdhury Fink and Davidian 2018, p. 163). These sentiments are echoed in SCR 2242 itself, which calls for ‘the participation and leadership of women and women’s organizations in developing strategies to counter terrorism and violent extremism.” Such sentiments have sparked concern amongst scholars and civil society activists regarding the co-optation of the WPS agenda in service of counter-terrorism policy and the retention of a problematically narrow scope of concern for what constitutes ‘violence’ of relevance to international peace and security. Women’s unfeminine, unruly behaviour is interpreted as a warning sign and thus efforts to address women’s participation in terrorism, or to empower them to join efforts in countering terrorism and violent extremism, still stem from assumptions that women are not independent, political agents.

 

Gender in the CVE Agenda

Both narratives, while exploiting stereotypical assumptions about ‘femininity’ and appropriate roles and behaviours of women in relation to violence and armed conflict, work to downplay the significance that politics may have in women’s participation in organized violence, including terrorism. Much like the label of ‘terrorist’ has succeeded in securitizing, and thus de-politicizing, the social and political grievances that lead to violence, or that make participation in a terrorist group attractive. A 2017 report issued by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) showed how reductive the ‘jihadi bride’ narrative has been, and how far it went towards constructing women in terrorist groups as passive, manipulated, and brainwashed. Contrary to this prevailing narrative, the study found that many women, particularly those coming from Western countries, were drawn by a sense of ‘empowerment’ offered by ISIS, and were thus “deliberately seeking to challenge both traditional and Western-imposed gender norms, by seeking a new identity for themselves”. The report also suggests that exclusion and marginalization from wider Western society were compelling ‘push’ factors for women to join ISIS. Yet, prevailing efforts to account for women’s role in terrorism and counter-terrorism strategies ignore the structural social, political and economic roots of their own involvement, as well as the unique ways that women’s social positions may present alternative reasons or pathways for radicalization than their male counterparts.

Thus, while SCR 2242 and the focus on women in combatting violent extremism does, for the first time, shift the prevailing discourse of the WPS agenda from one of protection to one of participation, the scope for participation is restricted. Women’s agency and capacity for empowerment is discussed in complete isolation from the underlying social dynamics that both shape their social, economic, and political positions and that underlie the political economic dimensions of violence, armed conflict, and terrorism in the first place. Much like other global initiatives aimed at ‘empowering’ women, the discourse is designed to ‘sell’ women’s empowerment as good for the economy (or, in this case, good for political stability) rather than as a good in and of itself.

Because international security regimes enabled through processes of securitization enable states to use extraordinary means of force to eliminate threats outside of the oversight of democratic processes and civil society, the marrying of the WPS agenda to national security prerogatives, including the securitization of terrorism and violent extremism, may have quite serious implications for gender and gendered forms of violence. As feminists, we ought to be critically interrogating the extent to which gender-based violence and gendered vulnerabilities are best resolved through their formulation as acute existential threats that require such exceptional responses.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.

When is Terrorism Not Terrorism?

When the political motivations are misogyny, of course.

This week, Canada was rocked by a devastating mass killing, when 25 year-old Alek Minnasian drove a rented van into dozens of people on a busy Toronto street. By the end of the ‘van rampage,’ 10 people were killed and at least 15 more injured. And although the means and mode of attack very closely resembled some recent ‘van rampages’ in Europe that have been connected to terrorism, in Canada it shall not be named so.

Minassian’s 10th grade yearbook photo, (c) the Toronto Sun.

The carnage was reminiscent of deadly attacks by Islamic State supporters using vehicles that have shaken up Nice, France, Berlin, Barcelona, London and New York. But late Monday, Canada’s public safety minister, Ralph Goodale, said this time appeared to be different.

“The events that happened on the street behind us are horrendous,” he said, “but they do not appear to be connected in any way to national security based on the information at this time.”

It did not take long, though, for media reports to begin digging into Minnasian and discovered the likely motive behind his ‘rampage’:

While the police did not disclose a motive for the rampage, interviews with former acquaintances of Mr. Minassian, witnesses and others, and his now-deleted Facebook account, portray a troubled young man who harbored resentments toward women, had a penchant for computer programming, served briefly in the military last year, and appeared determined to die.

In a Facebook post made minutes before embarking on this rampage, Minnasian apparently wrote:

“The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” the posting stated. “We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

While Toronto Police declined to comment on the sex of the victims, it has now been reported that the majority were women.

According to internet culture, ‘incels’ are ‘involuntary celibates’, a group of extremely misogynistic men’s right’s activists who rabidly hate women and blame feminism for, essentially, making women not want to have sex with them. According to researcher Arshy Mann, self-described incels are:

“almost entirely men who are laser-focused on their inability to have sex & blame women. Of the manosphere communities, incels are the most virulently misogynistic.”

Amongst this subculture, Elliot Rodger is worshipped as an almost deity. Rodger’s own manifesto, the insight into his motive for killing six people on a college campus in California in 2014, expressed frustration over not being able to find a girlfriend, his hatred of women, his contempt for racial minorities and interracial couples, and his plans for what he described as “retribution”.

And again, as we saw in the aftermath of Rodger’s ‘rampage,’ this violence is not being called ‘terrorism,’ but rather the unfortunate effects of one man’s ‘mental illness.’

Yet, by individualizing the problem of men’s violence – especially, in such overt and extreme forms – we lose focus of the way in which through its everydayness, the persistent threat of violence against women is in and of itself a means of terrorizing women. In their provocative book Loving to Survive, Dee L. R. Graham, Roberta Rigsby and Edna Rawlings argue that men’s violence fosters in women an omnipresent, and therefore often unrecognized, terror. This terror manifests in protective measures women take against the potential for rape, represented in any strange man she encounters, as well as strategies to reduce their risk of angering men. This omnipresent threat of violence can be theorized as a form of patriarchal terrorism. 

Unfortunately, within our existing legal and humanitarian frameworks, we haven’t the capacity to even conceive of men’s violence as terrorism, namely because this jurisprudence rests on the assumption of 1) an ideological agenda and 2) a community targeted as such. In both domestic and international law, women’s experiences have been largely trivialized, overlooked, or relegated to the private sphere of concern because the law has been grounded in the experiences of men.

As with the laws governing crimes against humanity and genocide, a core component of labelling an act of violence as ‘terrorism’ is the ability to show the offence to be directed against a community and not an individual. That is – is the violence discriminate or indiscriminate? Strangely, though, for all of international legal history, ‘women’ are not considered to be a community or recognizable group in and of themselves. Rather ‘community’ is defined strictly in ethnic, racial, religious, or political terms.

As MacKinnon once argued with regards to ‘genocidal rape’:

The acts of sexual violence perpetrated as an act of genocide are “routinely done to women everywhere every day on the basis of their sex. All the sexual atrocities that become genocidal in genocides are inflicted on women every day under conditions of sex inequality” and are inflicted upon them as women because they are women (MacKinnon 2006: 225).

The exclusion of sex as a ‘community’ against whom the rape may be used instrumentally may be a deliberate choice by the international community as it would open the door to understanding all rape as political and instrumental. As women are not considered a people, sex has not been included in the legal definition of a group that can be destroyed.

Recognizing this absence, Andrea Dworkin coined the term gynocide to “designate the relentless violence perpetrated by the gender class men against the gender class women” (1976: 16) to express the terrorizing of women through gender-based violence committed world wide at times of war and times of peace. However, it is only when the very same acts perpetrated against women daily are directed against a group of people on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality, it is recognized as destructive.

Thus, despite overwhelming evidence that not only was Minassian’s motive ideological, and that his violence was used in the pursuit of a political aim (read: textbook definition of ‘terrorism’), and that his target was women, as such, the rhetoric remains one of maladjustment, personal trauma, and mental health issues. Despite overwhelming evidence we now have in the West that these ‘lone-wolf’ mass murderers nearly all have a history of violence against women, we are loathe to consider how that violence may be, in and of itself, political.

David Futrelle has been researching this virulently misogynist online movement through his site We Hunted the Mammoth, and explains both the breadth and depth of the ‘Incel’ phenomenon. In his post on Minassian, Futrelle includes screenshots from one forum user, BlkPillPres, who advocates more effective mass violence in pursuit of the ‘Incel Rebellion.’ To him, mass shootings are ineffective. He says:

“What I can’t wait for, the one I know is really going to fuck with normies, really punish society, is when the first incel mass rape/serial rape takes place, when a guy leaves a manifesto after killing himself detailing all the rapes he’s done, that will be the best ER ever, because his victims don’t just get to die, and their families don’t just get to ‘move on’…”

Futrelle warns that these are not isolated sentiments, but warnings of a larger subcultural movement that could have very serious social repercussions. In a piece written for Elle, he warns:

“[The Incel movement] has transformed young men dealing with depression — or simply the ordinary unhappiness of life — into a veritable underground army of angry, bitter misogynists who feel they have nothing to live for and have no hope of improving their lives in what they see as our “gynocentric” society.

If these young men aren’t stopped, there will be more horrors like what we saw this week in Toronto, if not worse. In the forums on incel hangout Incels.me, some are already hailing Minassian as a hero, and looking forward to the next wave of incel terror attacks.”

In Australia, recent receptivity on the parts of the Victorian Police, for example, towards feminist arguments about the sociopolitical basis of men’s violence may be bucking this trend. Late last year, the Victorian Police announced that they would be treating domestic violence perpetrators like terrorists. In a statement, Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton, argued:

“The ramifications are the same in the long run. We have death, we have serious trauma, we have serious injury and we have people impacted for the rest of their lives.”

Intimate terrorism will now be investigated as major crimes by specialized police units. One of their priorities will be to target repeat offenders and work to predict violence in order to intervene before women and children are injured or killed.

Yet, we should temper our enthusiasm, since only a couple of short months after this initiative was announced, the Victorian government also announced a new A$31.6 million centre to prevent and combat terrorist and lone-actor attacks. The centre, problematically, includes no experts on domestic violence or violence against women. This suggests we have a long way to go towards politicizing men’s violence against women not only as acts of terror in and of themselves, but also as ‘warning signs’ of the potential for public forms of large-scale violence.

Sara Meger is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include feminist theory, international security, and global political economy. Her current research investigates drivers of political violence in contemporary conflicts, including Ukraine and Colombia. She is author of Rape Loot Pillage: The Political Economy of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, published by Oxford University Press.