Why is it that mothers are often overlooked in efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism? They could be crucial to tackling the roots of radicalisation.
For both genders, the majority of radicalisation drivers result from stunted development, economic stagnation, social disunity, and relative depravation. Yet all of these are worsened by gender inequality. The extent to which women in West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region are particularly disadvantaged, is exemplified in the global gender gap index. In 2016, the region registered the world’s widest gap at 40 per cent, which will take 356 years to close based on current trends.
There is an increasing awareness of gender within the radicalisation processes, however, and more and more scholarship highlights the link between gender inequality and certain radicalisation drivers. Unfortunately, little more than lip service has been offered towards putting such findings into practice.
Addressing entrenched socio-economic radicalisation drivers requires large-scale systemic changes and significant shifts in policy and attitude – which governments and those in power are unwilling to enact. Instead, leaders turn to increased hard security approaches such as arrests and increased surveillance.
In doing so, they overlook the desperate need for soft security measures which involve educational reforms, an opening of public spaces and civic engagement, economic stimulation, and a mitigation of widespread corruption and nepotism. Throughout all of these measures, gender equality and support for women need to be taken into account.
Recognising the signs of early radicalisation
Naturally, every extremist fighter or suicide bomber has a mother. It seems an extraordinary oversight and missed opportunity not to explore the relationship further.
Work in WANA has shown that women have in-depth insights into community dynamics, ideological patterns, and behavioural trends that differ from those available to men. Furthermore, within families, mothers are often able to recognise early signs of radicalisation including anger, anxiety, withdrawal and socialising with a new group of friends.
Recent research published by the West Asia–North Africa (WANA) Institute also found that mothers were often the main force behind the return of Jordanian fighters from Syria. Perhaps if those mothers had been better supported and informed, they may have been able to stop their child’s decision to go in the first place.
This is why Women Without Borders, a research-based advocacy and PR organisation based in Austria, founded the Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) programme. It is one of the first programmes to actively engage with and support mothers in the struggle against extremist rhetoric and violence.
The NGO carried out initial stages of research in Nigeria, Pakistan, Northern Ireland, Israel, and Palestine. Results suggest that mothers are not only well aware of the dangers of extremism, they also have a unique insight into how recruiters target vulnerable individuals. They recognise the need to engaget the topic inside and outside of the home.
In addition, “the mothers expressed a sense of urgency and eagerness to collaborate with similarly concerned mothers in combating the growing problem of extremist recruitment.” Just providing a forum or informal space in which mothers can share their experiences is a crucial step forward in creating a network, and future resilience against efforts by violent extremist recruiters.
Countering radicalisation at its roots
SAVE’s findings should be used as guidance for future CVE policies in countries like Tunisia and Jordan, which have exported comparatively high numbers of fighters to Syria on a per capita basis. States continue to respond to security threats with arrests, restrictions, and surveillance, but these are reactionary responses that occur only once the radicalisation process is already underway. Such responses make individuals fearful about turning to security services for support, particularly when there is existing widespread distrust in the law enforcement and judicial services.
Understandably, individuals do not want to report family members who exhibit extremist sentiments if they are fearful that they may be subject to arrest or mistreatment. Consequently, the hard security measures used by governments can become self-defeating. They only work in response to individuals who have taken the final decision to enact violence or join a violent group. Instead, governments and communities should work together to provide families with support in pursuing alternative options at an earlier stage in the process.
Radicalisation needs to be countered at its roots and to do so, there needs to be support for those witnessing its initial symptoms. Such support can only be effective if education and understanding is provided to family members and local communities about what the symptoms are and how to sensitively respond to them.
In other words, mothers and others in the home who are closest to vulnerable and often marginalised individuals, should be the first line of defence in P/CVE policies. Large-scale support efforts should be offered to mothers in order for them to not only recognise signs of radicalisation, but also to give them the tools to be able to speak clearly about the topic, and to know where to turn for support and advice.
Finally, mothers need to be able to engage openly with others in a similar position so that they might learn from one another and to combat isolation. CVE stakeholders, researchers, and practitioners should provide them with that space so that we can learn from the invaluable and unique insight they offer.
Alethea Osborne is a researcher at the WANA Institute, specialising in Human Security and Countering Violent Extremism.