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Women Countering Violent Extremism: Under the Radar?

By: Crystal Corman

February 22, 2016

Religious literacy has taken on new importance for security and peace efforts focused on countering violent extremism. Groups such as Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and ISIS use Islamic rhetoric to recruit fighters or justify violent attacks (as do extremists in other religious traditions). Exploring the roles religion plays in a group’s organization and operations, as well as public perceptions, can point to actors or strategies to counter narratives and curtail recruitment.

In Kenya, Muslim leaders and organizations have responded sporadically and carefully in the wake of violent attacks from Al-Shabaab. More recently, SUPKEM (Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims) has worked with the Kenyan government and security officials to allow amnesty” for Kenyan youth who have joined Al-Shabab but now wish to denounce this alliance and return to Kenya. Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance (KMYA), with support from Finn Church Aid and the Kenyan Office of the President, has helped to organize dialogue sessions with youth in coastal Kenya to listen to their concerns. Muslims have also proactively organized to counter radical narratives of Islam used by Al-Shabaab as part of the BRAVE (Building Resistance Against Radical Extremism) initiative.

Kenyan Muslims are strategically engaging to delegitimize Al-Shabaab’s use of Islam for their own tactics. Muslims in Kenya are also reaching out to Christians to prevent violence. While Al-Shabaab seeks to exploit suspicion and cause division between Muslims and Christians in Kenya, the unwillingness to separate Christians from Muslims during a bus ambush on December 21, 2015 showed courage and resilience. This included Muslim women giving headscarves to Christian women to disguise themselves.

Women are often portrayed as the victims of violent extremism and more recently as supporters. Girls attending school were targeted by Boko Haram with global reaction calling to #BringBackOurGirls. Women are valued by extremist groups as wives and cooks, and at times as scouts or unassuming accomplices. In Kenya, the press reported three female university students intercepted in March 2015 on their way to Somalia to become jihadi brides for Al-Shabaab. Women can also suffer sexual violence, either through forced slavery or as targets during conflict.

But women can be front and center in countering violent extremism as well. This was the topic of a July 2015 event at the U.S. Institute for Peace and co-sponsored by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. It also drew from “Women Preventing Extremist Violence: Charting a New Course” which drew lessons from pilots in Nigeria and Kenya.

Muslim women are certainly not merely victims of violent extremism. Their active and creative roles emerged clearly during an event in Kenya in August 2015 (see event summary), Muslim women are involved in KMYA and the BRAVE initiative to counter extremism. Muslim mothers spoke about their concern that their sons (and daughters) were being radicalized. Women leaders were responding by organizing informal sessions for Muslim mothers to gather to learn from each other and about resources.

Approaches for countering violent extremism are often too narrowly focused: male youth are seen as potential recruits, women and girls as potential victims of sexual violence, and Islam is conflated with terrorism. There is need to complicate these simplistic generalizations, looking closer at intersectionality, with the hope of empowering local actors–including women–to reclaim their security.