Where are the women in the UN’s P/CVE agenda?
by Taimi Vilkko
As in all other aspects of international politics, gender matters in the practice of preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE). While P/CVE programs are supposed to be built on a ‘softer’ notion of security than some traditional ‘hard’ military-based approaches to counterterrorism, mainstream CVE efforts have been widely criticized for overlooking gender dynamics, and there has been a general call to fill this representational gap. Accordingly, the UN has demanded a greater integration of gender into all aspects of P/CVE and emphasized the importance of coupling counterterrorism efforts with the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda . However, much like the phenomenon of ‘gender-mainstreaming’ in UN discourses in general, this merging of P/CVE and the UN’s gender agendas has come under feminist criticism . The rhetoric adopted by the UN on the inclusion of gender into P/CVE efforts rests on the same gendered discourses as other UN security and development agendas, such as the WPS, mostly portraying women as either victims or inherent allies of P/CVE. It thus ends up reproducing the same power dynamics that play out in other narratives on gender, peace, and security by the UN, which rest on a narrow perception of women as inherently peaceful, ignoring the impact of global systemic factors and colonial relations on women’s position vis-à-vis violent extremism.
The UN Security Council first called for greater attention to the intersection between gender and countering violent extremism in resolution 2242 on Women, Peace and Security in 2015, underlining the impact violent extremism has on women’s human rights and the value of including more women in P/CVE efforts . The positive effect of ‘women’s empowerment’ on tackling violent extremism is a central theme that runs through recent UN discourse on P/CVE, as also seen for example in UNSC resolution 2296 . The idea of women’s participation as an essential element of counterterrorism work is frequently connected to women’s positions as mothers and wives, emphasizing the need for women at the frontlines of P/CVE and urging member states to take this into account in their domestic counterterrorism agendas . This discourse situates women’s roles in P/CVE on a strict dichotomy between victim and ally, which has problematic implications with regard to questions around agency. It brushes over the increasing amount of women recruited by extremist organizations and the diverse roles women play within said groups.
Moreover, the language referring to the fundamental importance of ‘women’s empowerment’ echoes the instrumentalizing and developmentalist language of the WPS agenda and resolution 1325, resting on an assumption of women as innately peaceful subjects. Women are instrumentalized as forces of de-radicalization through the perpetuation of essentialist narratives, with no regard to systemic burdens and inequalities in power and agency . Thus, at the current level, despite being vocal about the inclusion of gender into P/CVE, the UN’s general position fails to properly engage a gender perspective. It frames women as victims, or passive subjects needing to be ‘empowered’, placing women in the confines of stringent gender stereotypes, and fails to engage with wider gendered and colonial power relations behind issues related to gender and violent extremism.
Further, this reproduction of stereotypes renders the UN’s approach ineffective in addressing the problematic nature of current CVE approaches, particularly in the West, and their adverse effects on minority ethnic and racialized women. Women cannot be expected to be automatic allies of P/CVE, if current counterterrorism efforts feed into the marginalization of their communities and reproduce negative stereotypes. For example the UK’s CVE strategy and the ‘Prevent duty’ places increased scrutiny on Muslim families, securitizing the Muslim household, and consequently perpetuating anti-Muslim biases . To effectively counter violent extremism, local gender relations and inequalities within societies should be a prime concern to be addressed. Western countries must first make real efforts to become allies to Muslim women, before they can expect all women’s allyship in P/CVE.
While sensitivity for issues related to gender is indeed welcomed in the way P/CVE agendas are designed and implemented, current UN rhetoric offers women little space outside of the narrow gender roles assigned to women in traditional narratives on security and counterterrorism. Paying lip-service to women’s empowerment is not enough if current discourses undermine women’s active agency in both countering and enabling violent extremism, failing to capture the multiple roles women might play in violent extremism and in the fight against it. We know that extremist organizations such as ISIS are deliberately making joining extremist organizations appealing to women despite their deeply misogynistic ideologies. Because women are seen as the ‘wombs of the next generation of fighters’, ISIS has made efforts to mobilize women from the West to join by appealing to their personal grievances with regards to e.g. western culture and their social positions .
Thus, a discourse which dictates women’s positions in accordance with patriarchal and colonial narratives that rest on the assumption of women as inherent allies of P/CVE cannot speak for the experiences of the many women whose marginalization is actively justified on the basis of counterterrorism objectives. The failure to engage with the complexity of women’s roles and lived experiences in relation to countering violent extremism comes with a cost to any efforts in P/CVE.
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 S/RES/2242 (2015)
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