Women and Violent Extremism

Extremism, terrorism and radicalization are inextricably interlinked yet have nuances. Nonetheless, all these concepts have become crucial since society is a victim of them.

Extremism, terrorism and radicalization are inextricably interlinked yet have nuances. Nonetheless, all these concepts have become crucial since society is a victim of them. Violent extremism at present has become a growing threat to society with multiple consequences. As cited by (Striegher,2015), “Australian Attorney-General Department’s Resilient Communities website on their webpage, [on 2017 has defined violent extremism as] ‘beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals. This includes terrorism, other forms of politically motivated violence and some forms of communal violence. All forms of violent extremism, no matter what their motivation, seek change through fear and intimidation rather than constructive democratic processes”.

However, violent extremism lacks a uniform definition and it is often defined, interpreted, discussed and variously debated by scholars and practitioners. Regardless when perusing VE, it is evident that it involves a lack of moderation, ill intent including rivalry, aggression or hostility, and actions depending from person to person or context to context. VE takes diverse forms, including political, ideological, racial, religious or social. In the world, the concept of Violent extremism has become indispensable and there is a dire need to be discussed since it has caused various repercussions. According to (Bak et al, 2019), “the concept of violent extremism has also become increasingly mainstream in the international community, with both the UN Security Council (UNSC 2014)2 and the UN General Assembly (UNGA 2015) calling for member states to address violent extremism”. In this context, violent extremism has become a challenge that should be mitigated, combatted and prevented fruitfully and therefore, utilizing “women” to do so have many success stories.

As offenders

According to (Oxfam Policy and Practice, 2017), “currently, women are on the frontlines of violent extremism, as recruiters, propagators, suicide bombers, and targets”. Such example as explained by, David Cook is, the “acceptability and prevalence of women waging jihad in Islamist terrorist groups and establishes that women are more visible as suicide bombers in more secular contexts (Chechnya and Palestine”. These overt acts of engaging as suicide bombers or terror leaders however is a gradual and emerging development because in history the instances were where women engaged in supplementary roles and functions rather than directly involved in extremism and terrorism. As cited by Mahmood, (Elshtain, Jean Bethke. 1987), “In the context of Islamist terrorism, the role of men encapsulates participation in violent jihad to defend the ideology or goals of their organisations, while the women’s part is to take up a supportive position by assisting the men in defending and facilitating violence through supplementary functions”. The reasons pointed out by Mahmood are that there are strategic benefits of women’s involvement since Women deployed as attackers allow these groups to gain publicity or ‘renown’ as referred to by Louise Richardson. Further, the inclusion of women leads to the longevity of the group since giving birth increases the multi-generational impact of the group.


Nonetheless, there are multiple strengths in including women in preventing extremism and terrorism. Women and children are given special attention as well as protection in times of war and other crises since they are vulnerable to risks including rape, torture, slavery and human shields. However, women play a commendable role as peacemakers and peacekeepers. According to (Ndung’u and Shadung,2017), “As mothers, wives, caregivers, partners and sisters, women are thought to be in a position to be the first to detect and influence extremist thinking and behaviour in their families and communities. They are considered to have a unique position in ‘early warning’ and ‘early response’ as they are perceived as ‘non-polarizing’ in families and communities and as potentially helpful in developing young people’s self-esteem and social cohesion. In addition to these perceived roles, security policymakers are interested in their potential as ‘assets for fighting extremism.” This analysis by the learned authors showcases an undeniable reality which is the natural inclination of women to respond to attacks by understanding them in primary stages rather than acting after escalation.

With that being said, it is crucial to look into case studies where women played a pivotal role in mitigating, preventing and combating violent extremism through leadership, mediating, and negotiating leading to peacekeeping. For example, in the case of Israel and Palestine, women in both countries have played a crucial role in peace talks. As stated by (the Council on Foreign Relations), “notable women have held prominent positions, such as Tzipi Livni, who served as Israel’s chief negotiator in multiple rounds between 2007 and 2014, and Hanan Ashrawi, a negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1990s. In Yemen, the role of women in civil society efforts is praiseworthy. Women play an indispensable role irrespective of the challenges present to them. “Women in civil society have worked across political and sectarian lines to influence the peace process, including through the Yemeni Women Pact for Peace and Security. Women have supported local security efforts, including by facilitating humanitarian access, assisting in the release of detainees, combating child marriage, and leading the reintegration of child soldiers.”

Historically, women have also been rewarded for their work leading to peace. Such example according to (UN Women,2013) is, “the decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the 2011 Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and women’s rights to full participation in peacebuilding processes reaffirmed the centrality of women’s contribution to peace, and the essential connection between democracy, justice, and gender equality. Due to the strengths possessed by women in preventing conflict and engaging in peace processes, governments and organizations all over the world encourage including and actively involving women in peace processes. According to the (Council on Foreign Relations), “Concerted efforts to increase the number of women in conflict prevention, mediation, and resolution efforts, include the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 in October 2000, which “urges Member States to ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict.”  

Way forward

Women and young girls just like men and boys can be utilized in preventing extremism. Since, extremism and terrorism have now shifted the digital space to a virtual format, fighting extremism in the online space can be gender-neutral. In addition, women and young girls play a unique role which makes the gender an asset in fighting extremism. For example, women are proven to be good listeners and maternal instincts drive women to care and protect from danger. Utilizing the understanding and protective nature of women can be equipped as tools against violent extremism. Another point is when you educate a woman, you educate many. For example, if women and young girls are educated and exposed to novel knowledge including information and digital literacy it will aid in making children, siblings and other families better since women in nature are proven to nurture the young and look after the elderly which makes them better at recognising early warning signs. It is also crucial that governments have a mechanism to punish perpetrators by holding them accountable. The reason is, that the victims of violence including women who underwent torture, forced pregnancy, intimidated and used as slaves should be given the justice they deserve. With such action, it will allow them to get closure for their suffering and disintegrate from the vicious cycle.

However, there are challenges in this as well. According to (Sandi, 2022), “Despite increased awareness of the gender dimensions of violent extremism and the importance of involving women in P/CVE efforts, these remain mostly patriarchal…since outdated notions of masculinity and femininity, where women are assumed to be ‘moderate’ by nature. This results in overlooking women and granting them only limited roles, which in turn undercuts the opportunity to fully understand the gender dimensions of violent extremism”. Therefore, women and young girls must be given leadership roles and decision-making power which will allow them to make a substantive difference.

Charani Patabendige
Charani Patabendige
Charani LCM Patabendige is a Research Assistant and an Acting Research Analyst at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed is her own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.