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The increased participation of women in countering religious extremism: forms and mechanisms

Abstract. In the light of current international and Kazakhstani experience, the article examines the issue of involving women in the processes of preventing radicalization and counteracting religious extremism in Kazakhstan. The authors draw attention to the fact that, on the one hand, women are becoming more active in promoting radical religious ideas, being members of various extremist religious groups; and, on the other hand, they serve as the target of violence of these groups. At the same time, the role of women as an important subject in relation to the prevention of violent extremism has not been sufficiently explored by the academic community and is poorly employed in real work at the local level. The article substantiates the thesis that the most effective approach in the study of this problem is feminist theory, which focuses on the nature and psychology of violence in terms of direct (physical), structural and cultural violence. In addition, feminist theory draws attention to the difference in the perception of the world between men and women and, in this connection, articulates the need to develop management strategies which take into account the “female perspective” on the problem.

Despite existing international and domestic experience regarding the enhanced participation of women in countering religious extremism, the main goal is to promote within society the narrative of: “Woman - the first line of protection”; and the implementation of special mechanisms for the development of a culture of nonviolence in society, in which women play a crucial role. In this regard, it is necessary to carry out comprehensive work within Kazakhstan to minimize structural and cultural violence, the targets of which are mainly women; to promote the status of women in society and family as a self-sufficient unit; and to develop the conditions which will allow the full participation of women in the political life of the country.


The growth of radicalization leading to violence and extremist actions, including religiously motivated ones, is a modern global trend. An increase at global level has been recorded in the number of “resonance” terrorist acts and other manifestations of violence with a significant number of victims. Attention is being increasingly paid to the phenomenon of foreign fighters - people fighting in the zone of Syrian conflict supporting the so-called Islamic state. In this context, a new trend is the increased number of women recruited and sent to Syria and Iraq to fulfill missions assigned to them by a terrorist organization. According to expert estimates, since 2014 the Islamic state has managed to recruit more than 30,000 foreign fighters to fight on its side. Women make up about 10 percent of the total number of foreign fighters. Moreover, women become active sympathizers with the ideology of the Islamic state, participating in its propaganda not only in real space but also through social networks. An analysis of 40,000 accounts on social networks supporting the actions of the Islamic state revealed that 16,000 of them belong to women. [1] Women in terrorist and extremist organizations are therefore now taking a more prominent position than previously thought.

Increasing the participation of women in the prevention of radicalization and countering religious extremism requires a detailed study, in which the determining factor becomes the consideration of issues of global security as seen through the prism of gender roles and behavioral models.

The issues of countering extremism, including religiously motivated extremism, and the role of women in this process, have at least two bases:

  • theoretical and methodological: researching the nature of radicalization and violent extremism; and effective practices to counteract those processes, including research into the role of women in this process.
  • practical: focusing on the forms, methods and mechanisms of women’s participation in the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism, increasing their involvement and the effectiveness of their work.

Both bases are premised on the concept that preventive measures in the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism are more effective as part of a long-term strategy than a struggle against this phenomenon.

Theoretical and methodological basis. Given the specifics of the issue under study, it can be argued that an adequate theoretical approach in this case is feminist theory, including the feminist critique of other theories that focus on the difference in perception of the world on the part of men and women; and the development of strategies, taking into account the “female perspective” on the problem. This problem is developed and promoted mainly by Western theorists such as J. Ann Tickner [2], Christine Sylvester [3], Mia Bloom [4] and Cynthia Enloe [5]. In Kazakh research, feminist concepts, and accordingly studies carried out within them, have not developed significantly.

The initial goal of feminist theory calls for a critical account to be taken not only of the male view of the world but also the perception of processes by women, considering the role, status, worldview of women and the effective use of these in political development. A special role in the feminist theory is devoted to the analysis of security issues as seen through the “gender lens”. This concept is a key social and cultural construction of feminist theory; and reflects social, cultural, psychological and other characteristics of the relationship between the sexes, their status, special interests, needs, strategies. Gender includes role, behavioral, mental and emotional differences between men and women. It is understood as an organized model of social relations between the sexes within the basic institutions of society, one of the basic measures of social structures, as well as an indicator of their development. The analysis of international processes should be based not only and to a small degree on the “masculinized perception of the world and experience”, but more on their feminized reflection or “female experience”. It is necessary to ensure equality between men and women in the formation of conceptual documents, for example, the doctrine of national security, programs to combat violent extremism and terrorism, etc.; to increase the importance of non-governmental women’s organizations (both national and international); to ensure implementation of special educational programs at schools and universities aimed at challenging gender stereotypes; and the formation of new ideas about the role of women in politics.

Feminist studies also focus their attention on the nature and psychology of violence, highlighting and analyzing such types as direct (physical), structural (being embodied in the institutions of repression), cultural (concerning the spiritual sphere, information, religious preferences, stereotypes and norms prevailing in society, encouraging the subordination of women to the tastes and needs of men). In all three types of violence, gender implication is clearly visible. Feminists democratize the research field of security and make it multidimensional. They argue that instead of “state security” it is necessary to talk about “human security”. The concept of “human security” puts the community of people at the forefront, considering them as the main objects of security.

In the context of feminist theory and gender study, the problem of preventing violent extremism, including where religiously motivated, has several dimensions:

The first dimension is related to the understanding of women as objects of violence, including religiously motivated violence. It is women and girls who are the first victims of violent extremism and are subjected to direct open violence, especially during a period of military operations or in the zone of military conflicts (a notable example is the infamous fate of Yazidi women captured by terrorists of the Islamic state and turned into sexual slaves). Also, women are more exposed to “hidden” cultural and structural violence in traditional societies, where patriarchal traditions, customs and practices prevail and there is no culture and practice of gender equality (for example, forced marriages, coercion to wear certain clothes, restrict access to education and participation in public life, etc.), which definitely can influence the level of their radicalization.

The second dimension is associated with the study of the phenomenon of women as a subject of violent extremism. Women are not only victims of extremism, they are also members of extremist groups and terrorist organizations, where they can perform various functions, including suicide attacks (shahid women), fight in women’s divisions, collect explored, provide extremists and terrorists medical and other types of assistance, carry out “sexual jihad”, etc. Recently, women have begun to play a prominent role in the promotion of the Islamic state and the effective recruit of new members, primarily women. Young girls become the most vulnerable to this form of recruitment, which occurs for them in the period of self-identification. For them, the ideas of serving something important and being able to be yourself, freely professing one’s religion in the form that one prefers, is a very attractive one.

The third dimension is one connected with the positioning of women as active subjects for the prevention of violent extremism and terrorism. Unfortunately, it is this dimension that is at present insufficiently explored and studied, even within the framework of feminist concepts and theories, respectively; and the experience of implementing this dimension is extremely limited. At the same time, it is obvious that the global challenge is the need to promote the narrative that woman is the “first line of protection”. The idea of a “first line of defense” was developed within the framework of the OSCE with regard to police forces. [6] However the experience of confronting terrorism and extremism shows that the “first line” should be mainly civil structures in which women play one of the defining roles.

All the above-mentioned dimensions, realized in the framework of feminist theory, are directly related both to studies of the phenomenon of radicalization and violent extremism and to the formation of qualitative measures and mechanisms to counteract radicalization.

Practical basis. The international experience of women’s participation in the prevention of violent extremism and terrorism, including that which is religiously motivated, is not so rich and diverse: the relevant practices are relatively new. The most illustrative examples are the activities of the international non-governmental organization “Women without Borders” (“Women without Borders”, website – http://www.women-without-borders. org) and the “Shanaz” network (“Shanaz”, website – http://shanaznetwork.weebly.com).

“Women without Borders” is an international non-governmental organization, engaged in outreach activities with women and for women, founded in 2002 and based in Vienna (Austria). The mission of the organization is to support women’s rights and their equality with men. The organization focuses on working with women in transition countries and carries out projects in countries such as India, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, South Africa, Israel, Palestine, Senegal, Rwanda and others.

“Women without Borders” develop formats for interaction with a particular social group (students, victims of terrorist attacks, mothers, etc.) and develops them in different countries, taking into account their social and economic and cultural features. Examples of such formats are the following projects:

  • “Sisters Against Violent Extremism” project. The project was launched in 2008 and was the first women’s anti-terrorist platform. The first conference was attended by victims of terrorist attacks, relatives of victims and terrorists, activists and politicians who developed a strategy to combat violent extremism and created a declaration of “SAVE” (SAVE);
  • “Students Against Violence Everywhere” project. Within the framework of the project, educational interactive workshops were held among students. The workshops involved victims of terrorist attacks, which spoke about the need to counteract extremism and terrorism. Such workshops were held in a number of cities in India, Yemen and Indonesia;
  • “Women Against Terrorism”. Within the framework of the project, women were provided with a platform for open expression of their views on issues of violence and terror against women. The project involved women affected by violence who could share their feelings and express their personal views on the problem;
  • “Mothers for Changes” project. Within the framework of the project, mothers are involved in the work on combating extremism and terrorism, who have been trained in the early detection of the first signs of radicalization in children and in the practice of responding to them. Pilot projects are carried out in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

“Women without Borders” also work with wives, mothers, sisters of policemen who died in terrorist attacks, defending the lives of others, or remained disabled. They provide various types of support, including psychological.

Another project, the “Shanaz” network (“Shanaz”), represents a unique experience of involving women (leaders of local communities) in the prevention of radicalization through active cooperation with police structures. The project was developed in 2011 in the UK by the Association of Chiefs of Police in order to assess women’s perceptions of the measures proposed by the national strategy to combat terrorist radicalization and to study the experience of those local police authorities that work effectively on this issue with female population. The project was supervised by a female inspector of the judicial police. As a result of the project, the “Shanaz” network was created, which includes 50 women leaders of local communities who participate equally in decision-making on the development of a policy and strategy for the police on the prevention of violent extremism and terrorism. The network works to counteract the ideologies that terrorists use to attract people to implement their plans, as well as to provide support to those who can be subjected to radicalization. The “Shanaz” network also works with the population to strengthen its interaction with the police in its day-to-day work.

The study of international experience in prevention of violent extremism, its critical comprehension, stimulates the development of new formats and mechanisms for involving women in this process, taking into account Kazakhstan’s realities.

* * *

Kazakhstan, being a part of the world community, also faces various manifestations of religious radicalization. Work on elaborating measures and mechanisms for the prevention of religiously motivated violence is one of the key tasks facing both the state structures of Kazakhstan and its civilian sector. It is widely acknowledged that there is no universal mechanism for involving women and their work on the prevention of violent extremism and terrorism, since each nation possesses social, political and economic characteristics of the development of the state, a unique culture and the specifics of behavioral patterns. At the same time, certain approaches, mechanisms and methods used in other countries, with their critical thinking, can be effective in Kazakhstan.

Certain work is already being done in this sphere in Kazakhstan, which is carried out in several directions and takes on various forms:

  • work with women who are more or less susceptible to radicalization (women whose spouses or other relatives are convicted and serving sentences in prisons for extremist acts, including religiously motivated ones). In this direction, there are rehabilitation centers or centers of socialization functioning for such vulnerable population category. So, in the country since 2013, there is a network of women’s clubs named “Kyz Zhibek”, which help radicalized women to return to “normal” life and join public work. In Astana, the rehabilitation center “Akniet” (“Clear Intention”), conducts awareness-raising campaigns among the radicalized women. Within the center there is a group of women, theologians-psychologists, who work with such vulnerable social group. [7] Also in many mosques, Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kazakhstan opened religious literacy courses for women, in which women train other women;
  • work with young people, including girls. Universities create youth clubs, clubs for students; promote moderate religious views, conduct lectures explaining the foundations of Islam, etc. [8] Work in this area is carried out by Kazakhstan NGOs working in the field of the prevention of radicalization and the formation in society of “zero tolerance” for its manifestations. One of the successful examples in the field of prevention of extremism and spiritual and moral education of youth is the activity of the Association of Religious Research Centers in Astana, which in 2016 launched a project to prevent youth radicalization, within which a youth movement “Kazakhstan for Peace” was created; [9]
  • on-line work on internet resources and resources of new social media in order to identify illegal content, including calling for religious radicalization. In this direction, the NGO “Internet Association of Kazakhstan” operates effectively in the country. [10] However this direction is relatively new for Kazakhstan, which in part explains the lack of systematic work to curb the recruitment of Kazakhstanis into radical, terrorist organizations through social networks. At the moment, the country is developing a concept of cyber security for combating extremist recruitment and propaganda on the Internet and creating a system called “Cyber Shield of Kazakhstan”. [11] In this case, there is a huge potential for involving women in the processes of counter-extremist propaganda on-line, including using the experience of women who were members of extremist organizations, but who managed to return to normal life;
  • carrying out studies of nature, causes, and factors of religiously motivated radicalization. Thus, in Kazakhstan there are research centers and institutes that carry out fundamental research in this field. Centers for the study of religions and interfaith relations have also been established, which work in all areas of the republic, conduct situational field studies, form an empirical base on the facts of radicalization, etc.

Conclusions and recommendations:

The development of the Kazakhstani model of preventing radicalization with the active role of women in this process can be based on universal principles and recommendations that are quite applicable to our conditions. At the same time, increasing the role and status of women in our society, it is necessary to develop and implement in practice such forms and mechanisms to counteract religiously motivated radicalization, where the potential of women (teachers, psychologists, mothers, civic activists, etc.) would be used in full.

It is necessary to make the work on the prevention of violent extremism complex, systematic, and directed not at events just in oreder to achieve a “tick” but for the eradication of conditions contributing to radicalization and the formation of a culture and practice of nonviolence in the country.

Taking into account Kazakhstani and international experience, the following recommendations can be made for the further development of the prevention of violent extremism in Kazakhstan and active participation of women in this process:

  • to promote public consciousness among people of Kazakhstan, a narrative that a woman is the “first line of defense” in the process of countering violent extremism, since she, being a mother, has the opportunity to identify early signs of radicalization of children and, accordingly, early intervention in this process;
  • to promote the development of conditions for the full participation of women in the public and political life of the country and to abandon the mechanical use of women in the prevention of violent extremism in order to avoid the alienation of women from public and state institutions;
  • to promote the achievement of gender equality in Kazakhstan, to raise the status of women not only in the family, but also as a selfsufficient economic unit. A number of studies confirm [12] that countries in which gender equality is achieved and women’s rights are respected are less inclined to manifestations of violent extremism;
  • to create and effectively use various platforms for interaction of women with various state and non-state institutions working in the field of preventing violent extremism, to identify women-informal leaders at the local level (the level of local communities) and to involve them in preventive work;
  • facilitate the involvement of women in on-line counter-radicalization and prevention of on-line recruitment of young people and women in terrorist organizations;
  • to invest in training programs for women in order to learn their best practices in the prevention of violent extremism, skills to identify early signs of radicalization, methods of intervention in this process, etc. Develop a format for “train the trainers”, in which women who have completed training can train other women in the required skills. The training component becomes particularly relevant in the context of the professional development of teachers and psychologists working in the secondary school, developing their skills in identifying early signs of the radicalization of adolescents;
  • to increase the participation of women in the “conventional” areas of combating violent extremism, including the work of women in special forces, police, prisons, cyber operations, etc. It is obvious that women are poorly represented in this sphere, despite the fact that they have a different vision of the situation and options for its solution;
  • to intensify research activities around the problem of violent extremism and radicalization through state grants and orders, with the inclusion in the study of funding for applied research.



  1. кострова к. как бывшие экстремистки помогают другим не попасться на крючок иГила// Update. – 2016. – 23 ноября// http://update.com.ua/istorii_ tag924/kak-byvshie-ekstremistki-pomogaiut-drugim-ne-popastsia-na-kriuchok- igila_n3226
  2. Tickner J. A. Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the PostCold War Era. – New York: Columbia University Press, 2001
  3. Sylvester Ch. Feminist International Relations: An Unfinished Journey. - Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  4. Bloom M. Female Suicide Bombers: A Global Trend// Daedalus. – 2007. – N136/1. – P.94-102.
  5. Enloe C. Maneuvers. – Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000
  6. предупреждение терроризма и борьба с насильственным экстремизмом и радикализацией, ведущими к терроризму: подход, основанный на взаимодействии полиции с населением. – вена: оБсе, 2014.
  7. Женские организации и профилактика экстремизма // http://www. edinstvo.kz/content/женские-организации-и-профилактика-экстремизма
  8. Богатик а. казахстанские ведомства, занимающиеся вопросами религии, сообща борются с экстремизмом// каравансарай. – 2016. – 2 ноября// http://central.asia-news.com/ru/articles/cnmi_ca/features/2016/11/02/feature-01
  9. Богатик а. акция направлена на защиту молодежи казахстана от идей экстремизма// каравансарай. – 2016. – 5 декабря // http://central.asia-news. com/ru/articles/cnmi_ca/features/2016/12/05/feature-02
  10. Гумыкина и. Глава «интернет ассоциации казахстана» Шавкат сабиров: наказывать интернет-пользователей за скачивание аудио- и видеофайлов не будут// казтаГ. – 2012. – 3 февраля // https://kaztag.kz/interview/ detail.php?ID=261546
  11. Богатик а. казахстан создает «киберщит» для борьбы с вербовкой и пропагандой// каравансарай. – 2017. – 22 февраля // http://central.asia-news. com/ru/articles/cnmi_ca/features/2017/02/22/feature-01
  12. Mlambo-Ngcuka Ph., Coomaraswamy R. Women Are the Best Weapon in the War Against Terrorism// Foreign Policy. – 2015. – 10 February// http://foreign- policy.com/2015/02/10/women-are-the-best-weapon-in-the-war-against-terrorism/

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