Driven into their Arms: Exploring Gendered Motivations of Violent Extremism
By Callum Watson
In 2013, the United Nations Security Council pledged to ‘increase its attention to women, peace and security issues in all relevant thematic areas of work on its agenda, including … threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts’.
But despite this UN-level aspiration, many international policy narratives still reductively cast women either as easy prey to extremist propaganda, or as potential agents in preventing and countering violent extremism (CVE/PVE). And despite a wealth of studies into the multiple gendered dimensions of this topic, female recruits to violent groups are still routinely depicted as ‘the naïve, bored, non-political, out-of-touch-with-reality woman who turns to terrorism’.
Violent groups have long exploited these assumptions, such as in 1956 when the Front de libération nationale’s Zohra Drif left a handbag bomb in the Milk Bar café, in Algiers, and Boko Haram’s deployment of women in at least 254 suicide bombings between 2011 and 2020.
However, the dangers of basing policies on such stereotypes are becoming clearer. The women, peace and security agenda has gradually shifted its portrayal of women as vulnerable protectees to one of women as leaders. And some women who have experienced gender injustice seek to precipitate this shift by supporting violent groups.
Similarly, what pushes men and boys towards violent groups can also be analysed through a gender lens. Many are motivated by a sense of emasculation amid gendered social pressure to find a wife, income, and status despite unfavourable politico-economic conditions.
This blog will explore the merits of considering gender as a system of power to better understand drivers of violent extremism. It will apply this perspective to the recent Small Arms Survey and UNDP violent extremism threat assessment in the southern Libyan borderlands and north-western Nigeria.
Gender as a System of Power
A system-based approach to gender analysis allows a clearer view of what attracts some women and men to violent groups, how membership enables them to play socially enforced gender roles, and how such groups influence relations between men, between women, and between women and men.
Gender identities, roles, and relations describe expectations, choices, tasks, and activities assigned to women and men. These vary between societies and can be influenced by intersecting factors such as age, class, religion, and ethnicity. Men may be expected to be breadwinners and household protectors, whereas women raise children and keep house. It may be customary for male elders to make decisions on behalf of their communities, or for women to obey their husbands, brothers, or fathers. Objects may symbolize masculinity and femininity; a gun may convey manliness and a hijab feminine virtue.
Structures and institutions facilitate the distribution and perpetuation of gendered power dynamics, but can also effect change. While religion may pronounce who can marry whom and under what circumstances, labour laws and workplace norms might influence which professions are open to women and men.
People may join violent groups to overcome political, social, or economic hurdles to meeting gendered expectations, or to acquire status symbols, such as a house or car. Alternatively, such groups may offer alternatives to formal structures and institutions that have systematically failed their constituents.
This model can help us identify whether CVE/PVE efforts strive for ‘negative peace’ — the absence of physical violence — or to address the drivers of violent extremism by fostering attitudes, institutions, and structures that engender ‘positive peace’ — the absence of both physical violence and social injustice.
Marriage at any cost
In this context, marriage carries a high symbolic value and brings greater freedom and authority, albeit in some places, such as Libya, grooms must pay a significant dowry. Most survey respondents said finding a spouse had become difficult, which was possibly driving men to leave.
Against this backdrop, 8% of the sample said they had been approached by recruiters from local or foreign armed groups. In Nigeria, more men were approached, likely with promises of wealth and a wife.² Community-level conversations on reforming the dowry system or allowing the unmarried greater freedom and authority could dampen the appeal of violent groups.
Security as a deterrent
The male protector norm is ancient and widespread, but the survey identified marked differences between how women and men viewed insecurity. In Chad, Libya, and Sudan, more men reported that armed groups had threatened their communities with force. At the same time, more men said violent groups had tried to pressgang them with threats to them or their families. Men also had less confidence in the security sector, which they felt served a minority.
Everywhere but in Chad, women were more likely to know of sexual assault in their neighbourhood. In Niger and Chad, women tended to emphasize the roles of religious and traditional leaders in providing security.
On the role of extended families in providing neighbourhood security, women and men had divergent views. In Nigeria and Sudan, men were more likely to emphasize the prominent role played by families, while in Chad and Niger the reverse was true.
Although perceptions of insecurity are a factor in why women and men join violent groups, they perceive threats differently. They also disagree on whether the security forces serve the interests of the whole community or a select few. Building public confidence in and capacity of the security sector to address the different gendered security threats may reduce incentives to join violent groups.
Carpe diem or carpe deum?
Women in all countries but Sudan were more likely than men to believe that the afterlife is as important as mortal life or more so. Women were also more prepared to die for their families, children, and country, and to defend property and community.
In Sudan and Chad, men were more emphatically opposed to the military targeting civilians, whereas more women replied ‘I don’t know’. And despite the essentialist convention that femininity is inherently peaceful, women placed more value on martyrdom.
This may suggest that preserving familial, cultural, and national legacies across generations is held as a woman’s burden. If violent groups play on these notions to recruit women and girls, greater gender equality, female political empowerment, and financial independence might lower the radicalization risk among women.
Conclusion: listen, learn, act
Women and men’s different gender roles fuel distinct motivations for supporting — or eschewing — violence. They also mean the enticements of violent groups, be they wealth, marriageability, or immortality, hold differing appeal for women and men. The survey’s inclusion of significant numbers of female respondents and questions that elucidate the gendered power dynamics in the southern Libyan borderlands and north-western Nigeria enriches our analysis of how women and men are influenced by or compelled to join violent groups.
Past efforts to integrate a gender perspective have been limited to identifying ways women can contribute to CVE efforts that are neither designed to serve them nor likely to achieve more than short-term, negative peace.
However, understanding violent extremism within the context of a gendered system of power favours inclusive PVE efforts that simultaneously address the needs and concerns of the communities involved and increase the prospects of long-term, positive peace.
 ^ Areas surveyed were northern Chad, southern Libya, north-eastern Niger, north-western Nigeria, and western Sudan. The Small Arms Survey supervised the data collection for the United Nations Development Programme.
 ^ Many studies flag this practice in Nigeria. See, for example, ‘Money Talks: A Key Reason Youths Join Boko Haram’ (p. 4) and ‘Women as Symbols and Swords in Boko Haram’s Terror’ (p. 109).
Callum Watson is Gender Coordinator at the Small Arms Survey.
This blog post was produced within the framework of the Small Arms Survey’s Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA) project, which is financed by the Netherlands.
Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.