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Violent Extremism through a Gender Lens

By Kirthi Jayakumar





Even as the term “violent extremism” may be widely understood enough to label particular events thus, there is no official, agreed upon definition for it. The absence of a definition has consequences for law, policy, and socio-political responses to the issue – for these acts continue world over, regardless of the social, political, cultural, religious, and economic differences among states. Violent extremism has affected lives and livelihoods world over, claiming several lives and displacing several more, among other consequences.

Gender and Violent Extremism

The gendered impacts of violent extremism are both overt and covert, manifesting as overt forms of violence as well as covert and manipulative tactics that can help expand its support base. As a form of violence that is planned and executed, violent extremism is both influenced by and makes use of structural violence to pursue its goals. A gendered understanding of violent extremism makes it apparent that there are several nuances to the use of gender as a means to further their goals. Violent extremists use gender as a means and an ends: a means to further their goals, an ends to cause harm.

As a form of overt violence, violent extremism employs sexual violence as a tactic. Instances of sexual slavery, rape, trafficking, and forced marriage have been documented in several contexts of violent extremism. For example, since August 2014, the ISIS has forced approximately 6,700 Yazidi women and girls as sex slaves. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram had abducted several young women from Chibok, and made them sex slaves. In these instances, sexual violence is used as a calculated tactic to affect the targets of such violence: to break societies, to engage in ethnic cleansing, to carry out genocide, and even to exact revenge.

As structural violence, violent extremism has made good use of structural inequalities in the communities they target, to pursue their cause. There is evidence of how violent extremist groups have manipulated gender norms and rigid constructs of masculinity and femininity to expand on their support base by attracting new recruits. For instance, in several contexts, they’ve claimed to ground their actions in revenge for their women, or as a means to protect their women. For example, fighters who joined the war in Syria claimed to do so to protect women and children. Women themselves have been recruited into violent extremist groups by the creation of economic and leadership opportunities for women, both in the cases of the Boko Haram and the ISIS. In such situations, women are convoked into arrangements that give them respect and access to opportunities that they don’t otherwise have access to. In effect, this state of affairs is merely patriarchy exploiting patriarchy and engaging in feminism “lite.”

Responding to violent extremism through a gender lens

UN Security Council Resolution 2331 (2016) formally recognized the prevalence of sexual violence as a tactic of violent extremism. This resolution was the first to examine and address the nexus between trafficking, sexual violence, terrorism and transnational organized crime. It also affirmed that victims of trafficking and sexual violence committed by terrorist groups should be eligible for official redress as victims of terrorism.

It is vital to acknowledge the gendered impact of violent extremism, especially in order to address, counter, and prevent it. The current approach to violent extremism appears to be rooted to male-dominated counter-terrorism measures that do not acknowledge the different experiences and needs of men and women affected and targeted by violent extremism. Community-led approaches are given little to no importance, while state-sponsored responses are heavily male-dominated, securitized, and exclusionary in nature.

Even as this acknowledgment brought the issue to the forefront in policy circles, there is much left to be done. In praxis, there is very little attention to the gendered impact of violent extremism and the gender-guided operations and strategic tactics employed by such extremist groups. Acknowledging these aspects and working to address them calls for dismantling enabling environments that allow structural violence in peacetime. For instance, acknowledging how patriarchy affects women and disadvantages their access to opportunities is the first step in correcting social inequalities. By making economic and leadership opportunities available for women in peacetime, violent extremist groups would have no imbalance to exploit to expand on their participatory base. Similarly, a robust judicial system and a social education system that prioritizes justice for survivors of sexual violence and builds futures that prevent sexual violence altogether would prevent access to communities that can be brainwashed into buying into the revenge rhetoric.

However, care must be taken to avoid any form of agenda hijacking – as the idea of resolving violent extremism alone cannot be the only basis to promote or prioritize the protection of women’s rights. It is easy to reduce the agency and rights of women within stereotypical and instrumentalized frames while also putting their rights and freedoms at risk. Care must also be taken to avoid essentializing their roles in the process and limiting it to gender-specific roles that perpetuate stereotypical views.


A robust root-cause analysis is vital to understanding the origins and factors enabling the subsistence of violent extremism. With that in place, it is important to understand the modus operandi and the structural, cultural, and overt forms of violence that enable its execution. Finally, deradicalization and reintegration are vital in order to ensure that former extremists do not slide back into a life of violence. Within this, every link between patriarchy and violent extremism needs to be addressed: be that in the form of prevailing socio-cultural attitudes or in the manipulation of patriarchy to serve a larger goal of violence. The inclusion of women in framing and implementing strategic approaches by centering their agency, their lived experiences, and most of all, their needs, should drive the process.

References: 

Mercy Corps (2020) Policy Brief: From Jordan to Jihad: The Lure of Syria's Violent Extremist Groups (Read

Dr. Anneli Botha and Mahdi Abdile, Getting behind the profiles of Boko Haram members and factors contributing to radicalisation versus working towards peace (Read

Institute of Strategic Dialogue (2015) Till Martyrdom Do Us Part (Read

UN Security Council Resolution 2331 (Read)

Agnieszka Fal Dutra Santos and Mallika Iyer (2020) Transforming Counter-Terrorism: From Securitization to Women-Led Peace (Read

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