Why We Need More Women Working In Counter-Terrorism

As the global counter-terrorism community assesses its successes and failures two decades after the 9/11 attacks, there's an opportunity to rethink how we include gender in our security planning.
Sgt Tanya Casey, a volunteer from Camp Nathan Smith, greets an Afghan woman during the celebration of Eid al-Adha – November 21, 2009. (Photo by Master Corporal Angela Abbey, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Sgt Tanya Casey, a volunteer from Camp Nathan Smith, greets an Afghan woman during the celebration of Eid al-Adha – November 21, 2009. (Photo by Master Corporal Angela Abbey, Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

Dr. Jessica White is a Research Fellow in the Terrorism and Conflict group at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Her expertise encompasses countering terrorism and violent extremism policy and programming, as well as gender mainstreaming strategies. Before completing her PhD, she spent six years as an intelligence analyst in the United States Navy.

Almost 20 years ago, large-scale terrorist attacks in the US plunged the world into a new security era focused on counter-terrorism. The development of prevention and countering strategies for violent extremism within the context of the Global War on Terror encouraged a myopic focus for this type of security policy on Islamist extremism, and the rhetoric surrounding subsequent conflicts was deeply entrenched in the idea that Western heroes needed to save Muslim women from oppression. Unfortunately, in many ways this context became inexorably linked to the parallel policy development of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, which focuses on the need to include women in effective peace and security policy.

The concurrent nature of these policy developments did damage on several levels. Firstly, it often securitized the work of local women’s networks and organizations, damaging efforts to fight for women’s basic rights. Secondly, it encouraged stereotypes around the roles of women, often encouraging programming to engage them simply as peace-making or intelligence-gathering wives and mothers, rather than examining their agency in perpetuating or contributing to violence. Thirdly, it firmly grounded the policy conversation in the idea that gender equals women, rather than considering the wider implications of a very complex concept. While governments continue making commitments to include women in peace and security, thus far these have largely been empty promises and had limited meaningful implementation.

The rapid return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan highlights the failure to strategize security in this context using a meaningful gender mainstreaming approach. It shows the gaps left in a response that lacked understanding of the impact of socio-cultural gender dynamics. Underlying expectations of masculinity and femininity play a significant factor in the radicalization process of individuals who support or join the Taliban. Leaving these unaddressed in approaches to counter-terrorism and security left open the door for them to continue maintaining and growing their support base. Additionally, lack of a gender lens, when considering the impacts of rapid military withdrawal, now leaves women who engaged in the fight for their rights to political and social equality in serious danger.

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What Is A Meaningful Gender Mainstreaming Strategy?

In light of the situation in Afghanistan and almost two decades after the 9/11 attacks, now is the moment for re-examination within the security community. There have been significant shifts in the threat landscape over the last couple of years, such as the wrapping up of military engagement against ISIS in the Middle East, the global pandemic, and increased political polarization encouraging the spread of conspiracy and far-right extremism in Western societies. This period of strategic security shifts presents an opportunity for valuable reflection on how gender mainstreaming strategies can be reimagined to work towards gender equality, which can effectively reduce the dynamic threats that we face going forward.

Changing these ingrained and often damaging assumptions must start at the very top. Security researchers and policymakers must be committed to including women and their perspective in the re-examination of policy and its impact, rather than just trying to add them into existing approaches. This means that there need to be women researchers and policymakers in the historically male-dominated security space, as well as on the design and implementation teams for programming. It also means that there needs to be a commitment to training everyone in these spaces on how to include a gender lens and analysis in their research, policy, and programming – to account for all the different perspectives.

A gender mainstreaming strategy is necessary across policy and programming, to ensure that gender is considered throughout formation, design, implementation, and evaluation. This means that contextual research on gender dynamics in each response is needed to shape understanding and design of policy and programming, to ensure that it can address needs in an applicable and effective manner, to reduce potential harms, and to challenge all individuals to consider how gender inequalities contribute to violence.

Effective strategies must account for how gender role expectations impact the radicalization process – from the locations and narratives employed to engage men and women, to the grievances used to justify violence. Gendered inequalities impact all individuals, not just women, and perpetuate cycles of violence. Misogyny is a significant driver of extremism and violence, often featuring in recruitment narratives and ideological justifications ranging the spectrum from Islamist organizations to far-right extremists and beyond.

Improving Effectiveness Across The Threat Spectrum

A more comprehensive and meaningful approach to analyzing and accounting for gender and its impact is the path forward to improving effectiveness of countering extremism and terrorism policy and programming. Especially as the world grapples with the challenge of an online transnational fast-lane for extremist rhetoric and action to spread, encouraged by global crises like the pandemic, conspiracy theory and political polarization – gender analysis becomes increasingly apparent as essential to the success of all counter-terrorism policy, from considering the impacts of military engagement and disengagement, to the assumptions impacting legal processes, to the implementation of community prevention programming.

Assessing and addressing inequality, not only gender but also racial, socio-economic, and other inequalities, must be part of the calculation on how to reduce propensity for extremism and the perpetuation of violence.

While far-right extremism and terrorism is currently seen as one of the most pressing concerns in many countries, there will continue to be a constant evolution of the threat spectrum. This requires flexibility of policy and programming to ensure that the response remains applicable to the threat. A comprehensive and meaningful commitment to the inclusion of gender analysis and perspective will help to avert failures such as in Afghanistan, ensure a transferrable policy framework, and better prepare the security community to address the challenges of our future.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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Opinion // Afghanistan / CARR / Counter-Extremism / Radical Rigth / Terrorism