Over the past decade, we had seen some awareness of the importance of gender in UK security policies. As early as 2005, the Home Secretary said women were, “the missing link in counter-terrorism,” and in 2008, Government funded a number of Pathfinder projects that explicitly saw and targeted the development of women’s empowerment as a way of countering radicalisation. By 2016, there was an increased awareness of so-called Islamic State’s attempts to recruit women through explicitly gendered propaganda, and efforts were made to address this. Concerns for, and the risks posed by, women and their children returning from Iraq and Syria also rose on practitioners’ agendas. Policies addressing women were not always nuanced or sophisticated in their understanding of gender, though. Focusing on the role of women as ‘mothers’, to spy on sons, put women in dangerous positions in the home and sees them as ‘pawns’; extolling Muslim women’s empowerment pathologised Muslim communities; seeing young girls as ‘groomed’ online infantilised them, and removed both agency and politics from their decision-making. This is amateur gender mainstreaming, but I argue, returning to a gender-blind approach is definitely not the answer.

In the new policy released yesterday, what do we see about women and gender?

Gender is mentioned only once. It is listed only as part of a range of ‘backgrounds and characteristics’ as a way of ensuring that diverse communities and civil society are ‘listened to’ (a good thing) but are not considered as variables influencing the radicalisation process. This shows a limited understanding of how radicalisation is gendered. Women are mentioned 6 times in the document: three times in relation to their roles in families, and three times linked to ‘women’s rights’. This means there is little awareness of women’s roles as perpetrators or as recruiters. I welcome the inclusion of women’s rights and promoting women’s equality but not mainstreaming this commitment within CONTEST programmes is problematic. It suggests that this is a matter for ‘other’ departments, and is not thinking about how the programmes and policies of PREVENT can support (or risk undermining) these efforts. This furthers a general exclusion of women’s groups in policy making despite being on the frontlines against violence. It also continues to ignore the gender-based abuses carried out in the name of ‘countering terrorism’. Moreover, linking women’s rights to ‘integration’ (in two of the three occasions) is also disappointing because it ignores much of the evidence challenging this cause of radicalisation.  Instead what we have is at best an instrumental use of women’s rights and gender equality, that may not lead to better security or rights, and at worst a gender-blind approach that ignores commitments to gender-mainstreaming.

This new strategy appears to go against international developments in the field that insist on gender mainstreaming. In 2016, the UN Secretary General presented his Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism which explicitly urged member states to, among other things, invest in gender-sensitive research, enhance the capacity of women and their civil society groups to engage in prevention, and include women in security institutions. The Plan relies heavily on the Secretary General’s report to the UN Security Council issued three months earlier in which it stated “[T]his is not just a principled endeavour; there is an underlying uncompromising rationale in pursuing gender mainstreaming across our prevention work, and it is quite simply that this leads to stronger analysis of the root causes of conflict in societies, and thus to better informed and better designed prevention and mediation efforts.”

So, how can the UK improve and uphold its commitments and obligations to gender equality, women’s rights, and national security through CONTEST?

First, it is important to look to other sectors’ expertise on gender mainstreaming, and avoid oversimplification or falling into the trap of simply, ‘add women and stir.’  Including gender experts in all elements of CVE from design, delivery and evaluation is an easy way to achieve this.  This means for example looking at how certain forms of masculinity feed into radicalisation as well how women are included in extremist ideologies so that gender sensitive responses can be developed.

Second, we need to recognise that gender mainstreaming and a commitment to women’s rights are integral to all areas of PREVENT work, not to be hived off to other departments, this means including and giving meaningful opportunities for diverse women’s groups in this field.  This means not just ‘listening’ to women’s groups, but actively including them in the design, implementation and evaluation of programmes. For this to happen, to demonstrate a commitment to ‘women’s equality’ in the CONTEST strategy must be accompanied by resources and funding for this work within PREVENT and counter-terrorism strategies.

Third, we should be mindful of and made accountable for the violations of human rights and women’s rights that result from security policies. This is essential if we’re to overturn the extremist narrative that government simply does not care about Muslims and Muslim women.  This will reduce the risk of instrumentalisation – where women’s rights are used as a marker of integration but not as a commitment to women’s security.

To conclude…

These would be small but practical steps that would start the journey to an inclusive, transformative and positive counter-terrorism strategy.

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