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Women Acting to Dismantle Violent Extremism

Women Acting to Dismantle Violent Extremism

Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB via Wikipedia 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Al-Kadi, A., & Vale, G. (2020). Local voices against violence: Women challenging extremism in Iraq and Syria. Conflict, Security & Development, 20(2), 247-271

Talking Points

  • “Violent extremism” must be reconsidered from the standpoint of local women, rather than from a “narrow, Western-centric, and male-dominated” perspective—a move that reveals, in the context of Iraq and Syria, the inclusion under that label of violence attributed not only to Salafi-Jihadist groups but also to government forces, “government-affiliated militias,” and patriarchy.
  • Women in Iraq and Syria have engaged in preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) work in different capacities—as individual activists or government officials, or through women-led CSOs or activist-run media—and are thereby challenging taboos against women’s activism, opening space for other women to become engaged, and demonstrating the value of their peace and security advocacy.
  • Many “externally led P/CVE efforts” variously “disregard gender considerations,” fail to understand “hyper-local security concerns,” or insist on “impractical measures of progress and success”—shortcomings which highlight the need for “[c]lose cooperation between local implementers and government or international donors” to ensure that such efforts are responsive to local context in these ways.
  • The range of women’s roles and activities in P/CVE “underscores the value and impact of women’s participation beyond the domestic sphere” and the need to seek out their local expertise and “empower[ ] [them] as decision-makers at all levels.”  


The impetus behind the field of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) is to examine and address the underlying factors that may lead individuals to engage in violent extremism, rather than simply respond militarily to such threats. Despite an emphasis in previous P/CVE research on engagement with local communities and the important role of women in P/CVE efforts, neither area has been sufficiently explored or developed in practice. Furthermore, when women are considered—in either P/CVE research or practice—it is usually in their family capacities as wives or mothers, to the exclusion of other forms of agency. Through their research on local women activists in Iraq and Syria, Alia Al-Kadi and Gina Vale seek to better understand what local women’s P/CVE work actually “looks like in practice.” Between May and September 2018, the authors interviewed 26 Syrian and Iraqi women active in “challenging what they perceived as ‘violent extremism’” within their countries. They find that the range of women’s roles and activities in P/CVE “underscores the value and impact of women’s participation beyond the domestic sphere.” Women’s ability to create change at multiple levels points to the need to seek out their local expertise and “empower[ ] [them] as decision-makers at all levels.”

Although “violent extremism” is often interpreted to mean terrorism, especially that carried out by Salafi-Jihadist groups, the women interviewed had a much broader understanding, applying the term to violence attributed not only to Salafi-Jihadist groups but also to government forces, “government-affiliated militias,” and patriarchy, more generally. With this broader understanding of violent extremism comes a broader range of women’s roles for preventing and countering it—not just the narrowly (and reductively) understood role played by women in alerting authorities if their sons or husbands show signs of “extremism.”

Violent extremism: “advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic and political objectives.” While the term is often used to refer to Salafi-Jihadist (and, in other contexts, white supremacist) violence, the Iraqi and Syrian women interviewed in this research also included under this label violence attributed to government forces, “government-affiliated militias,” and patriarchy.

USAID. (2011). The development response to violent extremism and insurgency: Putting principles into practice. Retrieved on February 3, 2021, from

Local women, as “agents, mobilisers and networkers,” are better positioned than external funders to identify those most susceptible to supporting extremism, as well as key “influencers” to work through in their context-specific P/CVE efforts. These key influencers fall into two categories: “broadly credible and trusted” actors, such as “[p]arents, teachers, academics and civil society activists,” and more “contested” actors who have “wide-reaching [leverage] within communities,” such as international organizations, clerics, governmental bodies, political parties and parliamentarians, militias, and tribes—many of whom can either encourage extremism or wield enormous influence against it.

Overcoming multiple obstacles—notably, insecurity, inadequate government support, and patriarchal norms and practices—women in Iraq and Syria have engaged in various forms of P/CVE work in different capacities: as individual activists or through women-led CSOs, activist-run media, or positions in government. Through this work, they are challenging taboos against women’s activism, opening space for other women to become engaged, and demonstrating the value of their peace and security advocacy. Independent activists have leveraged their position as women within their communities to engage in a range of violence-prevention and protection activities, from “broker[ing] ceasefires with armed groups; remov[ing] warrants for women and children wanted by the Syrian regime; and negotiat[ing] the release of hostages” to speaking out on behalf of “women kidnapped and abused by Daesh” and protesting and successfully securing the release of local men kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra. Women-led CSOs have developed various programs, examples of which include inclusive, inter-ethnic/inter-sectarian education that encourages creativity and counters extremist narratives; community centers that provide psycho-social support, awareness-raising for all genders on sexual violence and women’s rights, literacy education, and vocational training; an activist-oriented program on combatting extremist ideology that engages diverse youth in “awareness and therapy sessions” focused on the impact of Daesh; and informal community advisory councils and dialogues that promote inter-group reconciliation.

Women spearheading activist media platforms have played a critical role in bringing alternate news sources (beyond state-run media) and critical analysis to Syrians, as well as broadcasting Syrian women’s voices beyond Syria. Women serving as government officials, especially in “gender units,” ensure that their countries adhere to commitments under UN Security Council Resolution 1325, often by “partner[ing] with UN agencies and local CSOs to design programmes”—one of which “brought together 40 women of different ethnicities and sects… to build bridges between fragmented communities in Daesh-liberated areas.”

In addition to highlighting the importance of local context and gender in P/CVE work, the interviews were largely critical of external funders’ unrealistic funding terms, as well as imported, rigid evaluation frameworks, which may foist unreasonable expectations on programming in “complex and hostile environments.” Instead, the women interviewed saw impact as better understood within the specific context of P/CVE efforts, where the fact of, for instance, engaging in dialogue or raising awareness may be enough to indicate progress. With these points and those above in mind, the authors conclude that “[c]lose cooperation between local implementers and government or international donors is critical” to ensuring that P/CVE efforts are effective, sustainable, and responsive to local needs.

Informing Practice

As the U.S. grapples with its own problem with white supremacist violent extremism—finally acknowledged as the most serious threat to its national security—two key insights from this research seem particularly valuable to thinking about non-militarized approaches to confronting this threat: 1) attention to the operation of gender within the local context is crucial to understanding violent extremism and developing effective responses to it, and 2) women can have a real impact in the struggle against violent extremism through their activities in diverse roles and settings, well beyond their influence in the domestic sphere.  

First, it is difficult to understand violent white supremacist groups without considering the operation of gender norms and ideologies within them. While men are the overwhelming majority at white supremacist demonstrations, this does not mean that there are no women in the movement. It simply illustrates how such groups largely adhere to “traditional” gender roles, with men seen as “protectors” and “risk-takers” and women as “nurturers” who are expected to tend to familial responsibilities. There is also quite a bit of cross-over between overtly anti-women groups (another clear manifestation of violent extremism in and of itself) and white supremacist groups—evident in shared beliefs, for instance that white women’s educational or professional empowerment should be opposed, as it will result in the choice to have fewer children later, ultimately limiting the reproduction of the white “race.” As indicated in a recent report by the Anti-Defamation League, the shared vitriol against women and people of color runs even deeper and is even more revolting and menacing than this already sinister example would suggest—with traditional gender norms and misogyny being used to reinforce white supremacy, and white supremacy being used to keep women in their place. The common thread running through both forms of hate and violence, of course, is a victimization narrative, whereby some white men see their power as being encroached upon by women and people of color—provoking a desire to (re-)exert control over members of these groups, whom they do not see as full human beings worthy of respect and equal consideration.

So how do women counter violent extremism when their subordination is central to its operation? Facing an apparent double bind, women must further empower themselves to neuter violent misogyny and influence men away from other forms of violent extremism, but this very empowerment is what makes some white men feel further victimized, causing them to double down on their misogynistic and racist violence. Where are the openings for effective influence under such circumstances?

At first glance, it might seem that (white) women have the most influence in extremist groups within their traditional roles as dutiful wives and mothers, roles that afford them at least some measure of value and legitimacy, which can then be put to strategic use. Leveraging these roles does not only mean exercising influence within the family, however; it can also mean mobilizing these more traditional identities—especially as mothers—in the public sphere, as many other female activists have done the world over, to advocate on behalf of their children and against violence. But, as suggested by the present research study, women’s power reveals itself to be more varied when we take a step back and broaden our view. For instance, revealing disagreement within the movement about the kinds of roles women can take on, white supremacist groups often find female spokespersons useful for recruitment, as they help make such groups seem “more normal”—a source of leverage, should women formerly tied to these groups decide to use it. Additionally, looking at the full “lifecycle of hate”—from childhood experiences and education to recruitment to disengagement efforts—highlights the range of interventions that exist to prevent or counter violent extremism and therefore the myriad roles women are well positioned to take on, whether as:

  • teachers, counselors, or school administrators who create inclusive (and trauma-informed) school communities where students build healthy relationships with diverse classmates and are themselves treated with respect and care;
  • policy-makers and/or community leaders who advocate for meaningful, well-paying jobs, raise awareness about racism, sexual violence, and militarism, and engage in bridge-building to create inclusive, resilient communities; or
  • “credible messengers” formerly involved in extremist groups who support those (including other women) who may be questioning their own participation.

Most of these interventions take a needs-based approach, recognizing that those who join violent extremist groups do so because basic human needs (for security, recognition, identity, belonging, and so on) are not being met. In other words, there is a balance to be struck here between resisting violent extremism through further empowerment of women and communities of color and also recognizing the humanity of those who have succumbed to violent extremist ideologies due to their own experiences of trauma or alienation or other unmet needs. Ultimately, preventing and countering violent extremism requires an approach that sees us all as flawed, damaged human beings craving support to meet our needs in less harmful, more constructive and life-affirming ways. [MW]

Continued Reading

Anti-Defamation League. (2018). When women are the enemy: The intersection of misogyny and white supremacy. Retrieved on January 29, 2021, from

Bjarnegard, E., & Piscopo, J. M. (2021, January 21). Gender and white supremacist violence. Political Violence @ a Glance. Retrieved on January 28, 2021, from

Cole, L. (2019). Life after hate. Pegasus: The Magazine of the University of Central Florida. Retrieved on January 28, 2021, from

NPR. (2019, January 27). Masculinity and U.S. extremism: What makes young men vulnerable to toxic ideologies. Retrieved on January 28, 2021, from

Enzinna, W. (2018, July/August). Inside the radical, uncomfortable movement to reform white supremacists. Mother Jones.

Belew, K. (2021, January). The white power movement at war on democracy. HFG Research and Policy in Brief. Retrieved on January 25, 2021, from

Blee, K. M., & and Yates, E. A. (2017). Women in the white supremacist movement. In H. J. McCammon, V. Taylor, J. Reger, & R. L. Einwohner (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of U.S. women’s social movement activism (pp. 751-767). Oxford University Press.  

Kitchener, C. (2017, August 18). The women behind the ‘alt-right’. The Atlantic. Retrieved on January 28, 2021, from


Life After Hate:

Key Words: violent extremism, gender, women, Syria, Iraq, P/CVE

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