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.