Having a gender-sensitive approach is what European Union needs to make a step forward in countering radicalization. The expert in gender Cristina Goñi explains the reasons that a gender approach in radicalization policies is necessary, why it benefis EU policies and how to incorporate such an approach.

In October 2015, I was one of the enthusiastic feminist advocates at the United Nations Security Council session that passed the Resolution 2242 on women’s roles in counter-terrorism. I naively celebrated that milestone as an opportunity to transfer the lessons learned from the Women Peace & Security agenda to the domestic terrorism arena. Nevertheless, as noted by the Special Rapporteur, this development could also involve “real risks of commodification, agenda hijacking and deepened gendered insecurity”, which needed to be carefully tackled.  As Jayne Huckerby has noted, “The role of gender in countering violent extremism has long been overlooked, despite being symptomatic of many of the human rights dilemmas this agenda faces and poses.”

But in 2017, feminism, terrorism, and security received huge amounts of media and political attention. Which begs the question: What exactly does “taking gender seriously” look like? Too often, attempts to incorporate a gendered perspective into our security agenda stop at the level of policy, and ultimately fall short.

I argue that we need not only to develop security policies that take gender in terrorist organisations into account, but also to analyse gender in our security institutions in order to reinvent them as plural and inclusive ones. Only by tackling these parallel and interrelated facets we can truly take gender seriously in the fight against terrorism.

2017 saw a number of milestones in gender and security. For example, Canada, under the severely criticised Feminist International-Assistance Policy, launched what it calls a new Women’s Voice and Leadership Program that will support local groups to advance women’s rights. In September 2017, Prof. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, one of the most prominent feminist scholars on conflict, made her first annual report to the UN General Assembly as Special Rapporteur on the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. In it, she described “the advancement of greater normative attention to the gendered dimensions of terrorism and counter-terrorism” as a key priority of her mandate. And in October 2017, despite his anti-feminism, Donald Trump signed the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which emphasises the meaningful inclusion of women in foreign policy.

However, these recent efforts to take gender seriously don’t go far enough. Governments find it relatively easy to put gender on the foreign policy agenda when the topic is overseas operations or foreign governments. They tend to be much more resistant to using a gender lens to self-reflect or to reform domestic security. Decision makers can learn from the expertise of Women Peace & Security advocates, whose experiences show us that overseas agendas and homeland security agendas are linked and that engaging with women’s rights grassroots groups has a positive impact on security.  Policy changes can only succeed if they also transform the way counter-terrorism policies are conceptualised and designed.

Three main reasons explain why a sustained and systematic gender perspective is important and overdue when dealing with radicalization. First, because there is evidence that demonstrates that gender-sensitive security policies and institutions improve their operational effectiveness; gender-sensitive policies are legitimated policies and built local ownership. In addition to that, they also strengthen civilian oversight and accountability. Second, this is in accordance with the international human rights law and standards, as the Resolution 2242 on women’s roles in counter-terrorism by the United Nationa Security Council session shows. Third, because terrorist organizations are sophisticated enough to use gender-specific policies and recruitment narratives by manipulating gender norms and gender dynamics, using the language of women’s rights — dignity and autonomy —to recruit women Western fighters, as well as customizing messages to promise women that they will play a foundational role in building the self-proclaimed Caliphate.

All considered,  incorporate a gender approach in European counter-radicalization strategies is necessary. To do so, it is firstly paramount to assure political will to invest means and resources in integrating gender in counter-terrorism and anti-radicalization policies. It means providing the means and expertise for policy and institutional reform, in terms of external operations but internal policies such as recruitment, leadership, organizational culture, gender and power dynamics, etc.

It is also necessary to develop counter-narratives that are aimed at females and cater to gender nuances and the reality of life and severe conditions under ISIS. And, anti-radicalization policies must be guided by a bottom- up approach informed by local input and assessment engaging and listening to affected communities.

Further engagement and dialogue between women-led affected communities, civil society organizations and policymakers is overdue. Civilian oversight and meaningful participation of civil society are crucial to avoid excessive or arbitrary restrictions on human rights as a result of counter-terrorism laws and policies. Last, It´s key to ensure that institutional oversight bodies (ombudsman, NCHRs, parliamentary and civilian oversight) assess gender dimension at the time of monitoring and overseeing counter-terrorism and radicalization policies.

All in all, having a gender approach in investing the topic of radicalisation as well as in implementing counter radicalisation strategies will benefit European Union in terms of efficiency, non-discrimination and human security. Having a more inclusive and human rights compliance approach is what European Union needs to make a step forward in countering radicalisation.

So, the MINDb4ACT project might be the perfect platform for knowledge – brokering space to build up operational plans and tools about how to keep learning and building inclusive radicalization policies.


Photo: Megara Tegal